Groundwater testing near oil and gas wells: how much data is enough?

Oct 18, 2013

A proposal to test water quality at oil and gas wells before and after drilling is making its way through the rulemaking process. The governor’s office and industry hope it will answer some of the questions surrounding groundwater contamination near oil and gas development, but as Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce reports, the rule may not actually be able to answer the question of who’s responsible, if contamination occurs, and that has some people questioning whether it’s valuable at all.

STEPHANIE JOYCE: The rule has been touted as the strongest in the country… But Bob LeResche, with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, says just because it’s better, doesn’t mean it’s good.

BOB LERESCHE: It really just doesn't do anything. It’s kind of a phony sham of a regulation, as far as I’m concerned.

JOYCE: LaResche says the rule is too limited in scope -- it proposes testing water wells for a wide range of metals, and a handful of petroleum derivatives, but not the many chemicals that are used in hydraulic fracturing. LeResche says in light of that, it only serves to muddy the issue of who’s responsible for groundwater contamination, when it occurs.

LARESCHE: Let's have some proof one way or another. And not this phony thing that makes people feel warm and fuzzy, but doesn't really prove anything.

JOYCE: In order to get that kind of proof, LeResche would like to see a requirement that companies include a unique tracer in the fluids they use for fracking. That way it would only take one test to pinpoint the source of contamination.

LARESCHE: Right now, commercially available tracers can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and almost all of them involve radioactive elements… but that might not be the case six months from now. Several companies are developing products that would act as “fingerprints” for frack fluid. In North Carolina, the state is considering regulations that would exempt drillers from certain testing requirements if they use a tracer.

JOYCE: But that’s not on the table in Wyoming. Jerimiah Rieman, the governor’s natural resources advisor, says as it stands, the proposed rule isn’t just about figuring out how fracking affects water -- it’s focused more broadly on understand water quality.

JERIMIAH RIEMAN: This isn’t a rule that deals with the drilling process. But that doesn’t mean we won’t go there. We did hear comments about it, and we need to evaluate that before we make a final determination.

JOYCE: Even though the proposed rule doesn’t require testing for all of the possible frac fluid components, Rieman says it will provide a lot of good information about what’s in people’s water -- information that isn’t currently available.

RIEMAN: In particular those constituents that might be a true harm to human health and safety, and those that potentially could be explosive.

JOYCE: Written comments submitted to the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission suggest most people agree with that approach -- that something is better than nothing.

Amber Wilson is the environmental quality coordinator for the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

AMBER WILSON: There can’t be anything more confusing about getting more information. That can only go towards helping to form better decisions in the future.

JOYCE: The Outdoor Council does want to see some tweaks to the proposed rule, including a lower sampling threshold for methane -- the explosive gas that’s been linked to groundwater contamination from oil and gas drilling in Pennsylvania. But Wilson says just because the rule isn’t perfect, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t move forward.

WILSON: We do think it should be improved, but it can't be improved if it doesn't pass. So, we have to start somewhere.

JOYCE: The oil and gas industry sees the rule as a compromise too. John Robitaille is the vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. He says association members aren’t happy with some details of the proposed rule. In particular, they’d like to get rid of the second round of post-drilling tests. They also want to only test water wells within a quarter mile of the drilling pad, as opposed to the half mile currently proposed. But Robitaille says generally speaking, the rule is a good idea.

JOHN ROBITAILLE: We’re hearing over and over that people believe that our activities are disrupting their groundwaters [sic]. If we test prior and post drilling, then if nothing changes, then it’s very clear that, no, in fact, by doing what we do, we’re not disrupting your groundwater.

JOYCE: But some experts say exonerating the oil and gas industry isn’t going to be that easy.

Kevin Schug is a professor of chemistry at the University of Texas Arlington, and he led a major study of water quality near oil and gas wells in that state. They tested for a wide range of contaminants -- including frack fluid constituents. They didn’t find those, but they did find elevated levels of arsenic in wells within five kilometers of oil and gas drilling pads. Since arsenic isn’t used in the drilling process, Schug says that suggests there may be indirect ways that drilling is causing contamination -- ones that wouldn’t be detected by simply adding a tracer to frack fluid. Wyoming’s rule only deals with direct causes. For example, arsenic isn’t part of the proposed testing. Schug says while he understands there are economic constraints, limiting what’s tested for now is a mistake.

KEVIN SCHUG: You can only be so prescient in seeing what the data is -- you just don't want to be coming back and saying "Oh, I wish we had sampled for something else."

JOYCE: Because then we’re back where we are now, just out lots of money.