The environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” as a method for natural gas drilling investigated recently by ProPublica and displayed in the documentary film Gasland, have led to a nationwide backlash against this dangerous fossil fuel touted as a “clean burning alternative to oil.”
Hydraulic Fracturing: Not the Answer for Clean Energy
Fracking involves drilling deep wells for natural gas and injecting millions of gallons of water, sand, and proprietary chemicals under high pressure, fracturing the shale and opening fissures that allow the gas to flow more freely. Horizontal hydrofracking can access gas deposits previously out of reach, using a mixture of 596 chemicals, many of them proprietary, and one to eight million of gallons of water per frack. A well can be fracked up to 18 times. In 2005, the Bush-Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from EPA guidelines such as the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974) and from having to disclose chemicals used in the process. Those would include 80 to 300 tons of chemicals. Scientists have detected nitrogen oxide (responsible for smog) and volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, and 65 compounds that damage human health.
GASLAND– (2010) Directed by Josh Fox. Winner of Special Jury Prize – Best US Documentary Feature – Sundance 2010. Screening at Cannes 2010.
The ProPublica piece was titled “Hydrofracked? One Man’s Mystery Leads to a Backlash Against Natural Gas Drilling,” by Abraham Lustgarten as part of their Buried Secrets series. Here are some excerpts:
There are few things a family needs to survive more than fresh drinking water. And Louis Meeks, a burly, jowled Vietnam War hero who had long ago planted his roots on these sparse eastern Wyoming grasslands, was drilling a new well in search of it.
The drill bit spun, whining against the alluvial mud and rock that folds beneath the Wind River Range foothills. It ploughed to 160 feet, but the water that spurted to the surface smelled foul, like a parking lot puddle drenched in motor oil. It was no better — yet — than the water Meeks needed to replace.
Louis Meeks’ well water contains methane gas, hydrocarbons, lead and copper, according to the EPA’s test results. When he drilled a new water well, it also showed contaminants. The drilling company EnCana is supplying Meeks with drinking water. (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)
Meeks used to have abundant water on his small alfalfa ranch, a 40-acre plot speckled with apple and plum trees northeast of the Wind River Mountains and about five miles outside the town of Pavillion. For 35 years he drew it clear and sweet from a well just steps from the front door of the plain, eight-room ranch house that he owns with his wife, Donna. Neighbors would stop off the rural dirt road on their way to or from work in the gas fields to fill plastic jugs; the water was better than at their own homes.
But in the spring of 2005, Meeks’ water had turned fetid. His tap ran cloudy, and the water shimmered with rainbow swirls across a filmy top. The scent was sharp, like gasoline. And after 20 minutes — scarcely longer than you’d need to fill a bathtub — the pipes shuttered and popped and ran dry.
Meeks suspected that environmental factors were to blame. He focused on the fact that Pavillion, home of a single four-way stop sign and 174 people, lies smack in the middle of Wyoming’s gas patch. Since the mid 1990’s, more than 1,000 gas wells had been drilled in the region — some 200 of them right around Pavillion — thousands of feet through layers of drinking water and into rock that yields tiny rivulets of trapped gas. The drilling has left abandoned toxic waste pits scattered across the landscape.It has also disturbed the earth itself. One step in the drilling cracks and explodes the earth in a physical assault that breaks up the crust and shakes the gas loose. In that process, called hydraulic fracturing, a brew of chemicals is injected deep into the earth to lubricate the fracturing and work its way into the rock. How far it goes and where it ends up, no one really knows. Meeks wondered if that wasn’t what ruined his well.
Meeks couldn’t have foreseen it when he began raising questions about his water, but hydraulic fracturing was about to revolutionize the global energy industry and herald one of the biggest expansions in U.S. energy exploration in a century. Although the basic technique was developed decades ago, technological advances had made it possible to frack deeply buried rock formations long thought to be inaccessible. That meant a vast stockpile of domestic energy was suddenly available to help loosen the grip of foreign oil on the U.S. economy. It also meant that gas — which burns cleaner than coal — would become a pillar of the government’s campaign to address climate change.
As a result, drilling was about to happen in states not typically known for oil and gas exploration, including Michigan, New York and even Maryland. It would go from rural, sparsely populated outposts like Pavillion to urban areas outside Dallas, Denver and Pittsburgh. Along the way, a string of calamitous accidents and suspicious environmental problems would eventually make hydraulic fracturing so controversial that it would monopolize congressional hearings, draw hundreds in protests and inspire an Academy-Award-nominated documentary produced for Hollywood.
Louis Meeks, unintentionally, would be a part of that fight from the very beginning. His personal fight began with something simple: the energy industry’s insistence that fracturing couldn’t contaminate water.
“You’ve got about a mile of rock between the areas you are fracturing and the drinking water,” says Doug Hock, a spokesperson for the U.S. Division of EnCana, which owns several hundred gas wells around Pavillion. With its Canadian division, EnCana is the fifth largest oil company in North America.
Still, the circumstances near Meeks’ property in Pavillion all pointed to drilling.
Three months before his water went bad, EnCana had laid pipe down into a gas well about 500 feet from Meeks’ front door. The well, called Tribal Pavillion 24-2, had “circulation” problems during its construction — meaning that the cement may not have filled all the space between the well and the earth, and that its walls had to be strengthened. EnCana says the problems were minor and had nothing to do with the deterioration of Meeks’ water. “There is no evidence to suggest the well bore integrity was in any way or at any time compromised,” Hock said. But over time Meeks’ water had become undrinkable. His neighbors stopped filling up their bottles with it. Soon they were afraid to touch it.
Meeks started calling state environmental officials, but he got little help. They said his water met national standards, so it was still safe to drink. The taste, they said, was probably from rare iron bacteria that can’t easily be removed.
EnCana vehemently denied responsibility. The company’s engineers explained to Meeks that the layer of natural gas EnCana was mining was some 3,200 feet — more than half a mile — below the bottom of Meeks’ water well. It would be like a drop of poison seeping its way through the granite massif of El Capitan for drilling fluids to wind up in his water. “Activity in the natural gas well did not contaminate the surrounding soil or groundwater,” Hock stated.
In the spring of 2005, however, EnCana began bringing Meeks a tanker full of fresh water each month as a “good neighbor” gesture. A 5,000-gallon cistern full of fresh water was connected via a long black plastic pipe to the plumbing in his home and refilled every month. But EnCana made it clear that the tank was temporary, and Meeks decided he had to drill a new hole from scratch. This one, he decided, would need to be deeper than his old well and a football field’s length further from the gas wells. He paid a contractor $13,000 to drill it, taking the money from his retirement savings. He felt he had no choice. He’d settled on the land intending to spend the rest of his life there.
So, there Meeks was on Dec. 19, 2005, watching his contractor drilling deeper, puncturing one layer after another of clay, shale and sandstone bedrock interspersed with overlapping aquifers that trapped fresh water beneath the ground like a giant natural filter. The drill bit hit 340 feet, but the water was still bad. At 440 feet, it wasn’t any better. Geologists say that 30 rock formations containing fresh water may lie beneath Pavillion — layers that supply drinking, irrigation and cattle water for almost all the rural residents in that part of the state. How many of those layers were no longer clean?
At 540 feet the new well still wasn’t drawing water suitable for the cattle trough, and Meeks’ contractor, Louis Dickinson, shut down the engines and brought the drill bit to a rest. But before Dickinson could finish the job, a distant rumbling began echoing from below. It grew steadily louder, like some paranormal force winding its way through the earth. “Then, holy mackerel,” says Meeks, “it just came on us.”
An explosion of white foam and water, chased by a powerful stream of natural gas, shot out of the ground where Meeks had drilled his well. It sprayed 200 feet through the air, nearly blowing the 70-foot-tall drilling derrick off its foundation, crystallizing in the frigid winter air and precipitating into a giant tower of ice.
A Suspicious Correlation
The blowout, roaring like a jet engine, continued for 72 hours, until a judge ordered EnCana engineers to use their equipment to control it. In that time, according to one estimate a gasfield worker gave Meeks, 6 million cubic feet of natural gas shot out of his 540-foot-deep water well, more than many gas wells in that part of Wyoming produced in an entire month.
Meeks suspected the 24-2 well was to blame, so he hired an environmental engineer to examine the gas production records of surrounding wells. The engineer found a curious correlation — but it was with well 14-2, which was 1,000 feet away from 24-2 and had been drilled in 1980, more than 23 years before EnCana bought the operations in that area. On the week Meeks’ water well was being drilled, gas production in 14-2 fell off by about 25 percent. But on the day Meeks’ rogue water well was plugged, gas production at 14-2 more than tripled.
Mead Gruver wrote in the Los Angeles Times Greenspace Blog on March 5, 2011 about the proposal to drill a new well in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest near Yellowstone National Park near the site of a major gas well blowout whose cause has yet to be resolved.
Last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster focused international attention on offshore well blowouts. But they happen more often onshore, with dangerous effect: release of flammable and toxic gases, spills of oil and drilling fluid, and plumes of groundwater pollution.In 2006, in the shadow of Yellowstone National Park, a gas well blowout spewed a cloud of explosive natural gas, forced evacuations for miles around and polluted drinking water. Four years later, the people who live in Wyoming’s Line Creek Valley still wonder whether their lives will return to normal.
Photo: Environmentalist Deb Thomas stands next to the Crosby 25-3 gas well, which blew out in 2006 when it was being drilled in Wyoming’s Line Creek Valley, about 40 miles east of Yellowstone National Park. The blowout released potentially explosive gas and authorities evacuated homes in the valley for three days. Local residents remain concerned about a plume of groundwater pollution they fear could spread to their water wells. Credit: Mead Gruver/AP
Days of panic after the Aug. 11, 2006, blowout at the Crosby 25-3 well have been replaced by lingering uncertainty about a pollution plume 225 feet underground. Now Windsor Energy is applying to drill a new well — inside Shoshone National Forest, less than a mile from the blowout — even though the blowout’s cause, to this day, remains a mystery.
For some who live in this idyllic valley of cottonwoods cradled by sagebrush hills, where elk outnumber people and the occasional grizzly bear saunters down from the Beartooth Mountains, enough is enough.“I didn’t really believe in that ‘not in my back yard’ philosophy,’ ” Jim Sonderman, who retired to the valley in 2004, said of area gas drilling. “I’ve kind of changed my views on things.”
Most U.S. onshore blowouts occur at gas wells. Tracking them falls to the states. The Texas Railroad Commission lists nearly 100 blowouts in that state since 2006. Louisiana has had 96 onshore blowouts since 1987.
In November 2009, a gas well blowout killed one worker, injured another and prompted the evacuation of two dozen homes 20 miles south of Shreveport, La. In June, a well spewed gas for 16 hours after a blowout in rural central Pennsylvania. In August, a 200-foot plume of oil, gas and brine erupted for more than two weeks from an exploratory well 60 miles west of New Orleans.
Blowouts can result from the failure of blowout preventers, designed to seal off the well bore and block a surge of gas or pressurized oil from underground. They also can occur when the well bore ruptures, which is what happened at the Windsor Energy well, a couple of miles from the Montana line.
Gaseous mud and gas condensate, a type of light sweet crude, bubbled up around the rig. A sulfurous smell wafted through the air. Firefighters raced up and down the valley telling people to shut off their pilot lights, round up their pets and livestock, and get out.
“You could taste it. You could feel it on your skin. And it was just blowing. It was this huge cloud of gas coming off this pad,” said Deb Thomas, an environmentalist who lives less than a mile from the well. Twenty-five homes were evacuated. Gas spewed for two and a half days until workers plugged the well with 1,300 barrels of heavy mud.
The blowout happened when the well’s steel casing and cement surrounding the casing ruptured underground. Documents filed with the state show that Nabors Drilling was to use 9 5/8-inch steel pipe reinforced by concrete inside a 12-inch drilling hole. “Typically that should have been enough to prevent such a thing from happening,” Doll said.
It’s still unknown whether the pipe or cement was defective or whether human error was involved. In 2007, Windsor paid a $2,812.50 state fine as part of a settlement with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. Windsor also agreed to post a $300,000 bond to assure that it would clean up the groundwater. The cleanup is expected to begin in earnest this year.
In 2005, Windsor paid a $5,000 state fine for improperly dumping 200 barrels of drilling fluid and other liquid waste in the area. Benzene, a carcinogen, has been verified at a residential well a quarter-mile from the blowout. Windsor paid for a filter on the well.