Encana: EPA made mistakes in Wyoming water well testing

[This story was updated, adding Gov. Mead's letter to EPA]

Encana Oil & Gas USA Inc. representatives question the source of some chemicals found by the US Environmental Protection Agency in water well test samples near Pavillion, Wyo., where residents in early 2008 complained to EPA about questionable taste and odor in drinking water.

The water wells in question are in the vicinity of Pavillion gas field, which has 169 vertical production wells.  EPA launched an investigation, collecting samples from various water wells in a four-phase program during March 2009-April 2011.

EPA said analysis of samples taken from deep monitoring wells drilled outside Pavillion detected synthetic chemicals like glycols and alcohols consistent with ingredients used in hydraulic fracturing fluid (OGJ Online, Dec. 9, 2011).

In a Dec. 8 news release about its draft report, EPA said the compounds found were “likely associated with gas production,” including fracing.

David Stewart, environment, health, and safety lead for Encana’s North Rockies business unit, discussed the draft report with reporters during a Dec. 20 briefing teleconference from Encana’s Denver office.

“EPA made mistakes and misjudgments at almost every step of the process,” Stewart said, adding that he believes the preliminary findings “are conjecture, not fact, and only serve to trigger undue alarm.”

Encana plans to provide EPA with detailed documents about the chemicals that were used in the gas wells in question, which date back to the 1960s. Encana later acquired the assets and continued development using fracing. The Calgary company publicly discloses the chemicals used in its fracing fluids.

Stewart said EPA did not examine whether some of the materials it found occurred naturally in the region. Water wells typically extend no lower than 300 ft because methane is known to be present at shallow depths in the area, he said.

Comment-review process

The EPA has launched a 45-day comment period that ends Jan. 27. EPA also plans a peer review by independent scientists that is expected to take 30 days.

Stewart called for an independent third-party review. He said that Encana should not have representatives  on the panel and that EPA should be limited to one or two experts on the panel. The panel should primarily involve people not having a stake in the outcome, Stewart said.

Some within industry and Wyoming state officials have questioned whether EPA could have introduced contaminants in the drilling of the monitoring wells. State officials have noted the EPA's monitoring wells are deeper than typical private drinking water wells.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead wrote a Dec. 21 letter to EPA Administror Lisa Jackson asking for "a cooperative approach between the state and the EPA to best serve a scientific, credible inquiry." He requested that EPA obtain more samples from test wells and schedule any peer review panel public hearings in Wyoming.

Mead also asked EPA what specific charge will be given to the peer review group and if the selection process for panel members will give deference to "the unique geology and hydrology of the Wind River and Fort Union formations."

Separately, the American Petroleum Institute has said numerous questions exist about the EPA’s sampling process

Erik Milito, API’s group director for upstream and industry operations, said,“The opportunity that shale energy production provides for American job creation and economic support is too important to delay.”

API noted in an October 2011 letter to the EPA that the protocols followed by the agency should ensure credible and scientifically defensible results.

Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to EPA on the draft, particularly whether if had been “leaked” before its public release.

“The onus is now on EPA to legitimize this report after more than 6 decades of safely hydraulic fracturing over a million wells,” Russell said. “As we have seen time and again, the current EPA has made our industry a primary target.”

Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, issued a Dec. 8 release saying, “There is no connection between oil and natural gas operations and impacts to domestic water wells.”

Contact Paula Dittrick at paulad@ogjonline.com

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