On Tuesday I posted a reader’s report from last week’s water testing seminar in Lewistown. This video lecture looks at the issue of water from a different standpoint: what we know and don’t know about the risks to water quality created by oil and gas drilling.
The presenter is Dr. Joe Ryan, Associate Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado. He has recently received a five-year, $12 million grant to study the effect of oil and gas drilling on water in the Rocky Mountain region.
It’s an hour long and academic, but it’s really interesting if you want to understand why it’s so hard to figure out the relationship between the chemicals used in fracking fluid and the impact on source water.
The fact that this is such a hard question should raise a red flag right at the beginning. The oil and gas industry loves to say there is no proven relationship between fracking and water contamination. The fact that scientific proof is elusive speaks to how much is unknown in the process, not whether it has actually happened. A short drive to talk to the residents of Pavilion, Wyoming will convince you that it has.
Ryan begins by quoting former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who famously said,
There are no “knowns.” There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. But there are also unknown unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.
Proving the relationship between fracking chemicals and contamination is a tall order. Proof requires not only knowing the composition of the water used — the initial fracking
fluid, the flowback water, and the produced water; but also the persistence and mobility of the chemicals in the fracking fluid, and the underground pathways that it takes to get to an end point, or receptor.
He looks at three case studies to illustrate why the standard of proof is so hard to achieve:
- Methane in groundwater above the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania
- Benzene and other contaminants in groundwater near Pavilion, Wyoming
- Benzene and other contaminants in springs in Garfield County, Colorado
These are all locations where common sense tells you there was water contamination due to fracking, but where the difficulty of proving it after the fact makes it almost impossible to say that fracking was undoubtedly the cause. (Remember the discussion in the reader’s report about “chain of custody” in the storing of water samples? This is why it is so critical for you to get your water tested before drilling starts.)
He closes by looking at what we know, what we don’t know, and, in Rumsfeld’s words, what
are the “unknown unknowns.” In the “what we know” category, he tamps down the rhetoric of those who argue there are dozens of potential toxins in frac water. There are only a few. Under “known unknowns” he lists the proprietary chemicals in frac water, the underground flowpaths of water, and what happens to potential contaminants under the high temperature and pressure of fracking. And the big “unknown unknown” is what happens to people and water when they are exposed to fracking chemicals over time.
The bottom line
Here’s the bottom line for me. There are a lot of known and unknown unknowns in the business of fracking and how it affects local water. But this isn’t an academic exercise. There is only one water supply in Carbon and Stillwater Counties. Here’s how the Montana Department of Environmental Quality describes the Red Lodge source water:
The aquifer serving the two Red Lodge wells is interpreted to be unconfined, based on well logs information for the area. According to the Source Water Protection Program criteria, an unconfined aquifer is considered highly sensitive to potential sources of contamination….Surface water is also considered to be highly sensitive. (Chapter 1)
Why would residents of the area want to take a chance on having their precious water supply sullied by a technology that is still in its early stages, and one where the chances of contamination have not been disproven? How can public officials in good conscience risk leaving a legacy of spoiled water?
If public officials are going to rush headlong to let this happen, citizens need to look at ways to make sure there are enforceable standards for drilling throughout the area.
REMINDER: Petroleum industry presentation with Q&A TONIGHT (Thursday, January 30) from 6-8pm at the Elks Club in Red Lodge. Please come and communicate your concerns.