- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The company at the center of a nationally watched battle with the Environmental Protection Agency over the safety of natural gas “fracking” fears the case could have a “chilling” effect on the development of a booming source of domestic energy.

Earlier this month, the EPA issued a draft report alleging that fracking — the use of water, sand and chemicals to break underground rock and release natural gas — may have been responsible for drinking-water pollution in the small town of Pavillion, Wyo.

The owner of the Pavillion drilling fields, Encana Corp., is waging a public relations battle on behalf of the entire natural gas industry, defending the controversial practice of fracking and its part in freeing the U.S. from dependence on foreign energy.

“There is enhanced interest in the industry and its practices. This EPA study is now playing a central role in that dialogue,” said John Schopp, vice president of Encana’s Wyoming Business Unit, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

The Dec. 8 report from the EPA is not final, and the agency’s findings will be reviewed soon by an independent third party. Encana fiercely denies that its methods contributed to the water pollution in Pavillion, and the corporation is calling for reserved judgment until outside analyses are completed.

By releasing the study before it was peer-reviewed, the EPA has given fracking opponents more ammunition, and the Pavillion episode could be the precursor to a much harsher indictment of the natural gas industry in the near future.

In addition to Pavillion, the agency is monitoring ongoing fracking operations in Louisiana and Pennsylvania and also is conducting five “retrospective case studies” in North Dakota, Colorado and elsewhere. Its findings will be compiled in a much broader fracking safety study, the draft version of which is due out next year for peer review and public comment.

Many in the oil and gas business, as well as the larger business community, fear that the Obama administration is so fundamentally opposed to domestic drilling that the results of the EPA study are already foregone conclusions.

A highly critical report from the agency likely would stir greater opposition to fracking and could deal a major blow to one of the few economic success stories of the past few years.

“It becomes harder and harder to believe that [increased natural gas production] is what the president wishes to happen,” said John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, in an interview with Washington Times editors and reporters on Tuesday.

In its report, the EPA stressed that “the findings are specific to Pavillion,” where fracking is taking place in proximity to drinking-water wells. Nearly all fracking occurs at depths far below the water table, and companies are required to seal their wells with layers of cement and piping to prevent leaks.

The study identifies “methane, other petroleum hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds” that contaminated the aquifer, and it posits that fracking may have been the cause, a theory strongly disputed by Encana.

The company’s environment, health and safety chief in Wyoming, David Stewart, said Tuesday that the hydrocarbons found in the Pavillion samples “were put there by nature, not Encana.”

Mr. Stewart also said it’s possible the EPA contaminated its own samples by using various chemicals in deep underground test wells.

“EPA made mistakes and misjudgments at almost every step of the process,” he said. “Many of EPA’s findings are conjecture, not fact, and only serve to trigger undue alarm.”

The agency denies that it influenced the results of the study through monitoring wells and said in a statement Tuesday that “EPA and its contractor used stringent standards for the installation and development of the two monitoring wells, practices that addressed the possibility of influencing sampling results.”

It also doubled down on the theory that “the best explanation” for the chemicals found in Pavillion water samples is nearby fracking.

In the coming weeks, the EPA said it will lay out specific criteria for an outside contractor “to find qualified independent panel members not affiliated with EPA” to perform the third-party review.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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