About Air and Water

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Wyoming's governor persuaded the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to postpone an announcement linking hydraulic fracturing to groundwater contamination, giving state officials - whom the EPA had privately briefed on the study - time to attempt to debunk the finding before it rocked the oil and gas industry more than a month later, an investigation by The Associated Press has found.
During the delay, state officials raised dozens of questions about the finding that the controversial procedure that has become essential to unlocking oil and gas deposits in Wyoming and beyond may have tainted groundwater near the gas patch community of Pavillion.
Gov. Matt Mead contacted EPA Director Lisa Jackson and persuaded her to hold off any announcement, according to state emails and an interview with the governor. The more than 11,000 emails made available to AP in response to a state records request show that Wyoming officials took advantage of the postponement to "take a hard line" and coordinate an "all-out press" against the EPA in the weeks leading up to the announcement Dec. 8.
Meanwhile, the chief state regulator of oil and gas development fretted over how the finding would affect state revenue.
And even as the state questioned the EPA's science, there were internal doubts about how effective those objections would be.
"It's already too late. The White House has already seen the report with conclusions," wrote Gary Strong, an engineer with the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, following a presentation by EPA deputy assistant regional administrator Martin Hestmark. The emails indicate that, at least in the minds of Wyoming officials, the federal agency was being pressed by the White House to release its report.
"Once local folks received data and it showed what it did they had the responsibility to take it to HQ and in fact it ended up with them in front of the White House. HQ and White House decided that now that data is released EPA must release conclusions quickly," wrote Tom Kropatsch, a natural resource analyst for the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, who also took the notes at a Nov. 16 EPA-state meeting.
But the state's questions did set the stage for additional groundwater and household well water sampling in the Pavillion area that began a couple weeks ago.
The struggle by both Wyoming officials and the EPA for message control shows the extent to which they fretted about the findings. Wyoming depends on oil and gas for its economic well-being while environmentalists have pushed the Obama administration to crack down on a process responsible for increasing U.S. onshore production.
The worry wasn't misplaced: Though the findings were unique to Pavillion, they ricocheted amid heightened scrutiny of fracking in other drilling regions including the Marcellus Shale states of New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The emails also suggest an uneasy partnership now that the EPA and Wyoming, as well as U.S. Geological Survey and two American Indian tribes, say they are working together on further study of the Pavillion groundwater.
However, some recent re-sampling by the EPA of household well water in the Pavillion area took Mead and other state officials by surprise. They had presumed that only two monitoring wells the EPA had drilled to test for groundwater pollution would be retested this spring.
"I won't tell anybody not to test. But if you're going to test, you need to bring everyone in the process," Mead said in an interview Monday.
The EPA did not make Jackson available for an interview. EPA Region 8 Director Jim Martin said in a statement through spokesman Richard Mylott that the EPA "has been transparent and has relied on the best science" to inform Pavillion-area residents about their water.
Environmentalists including the Natural Resource Defense Council and Sierra Club have looked to the Obama administration EPA to get tougher on fracking, the practice of cracking open oil and gas deposits by pumping pressurized water, fine sand and chemicals down well holes. They maintain that fracking is a threat to clean groundwater.
The EPA study in the Pavillion area followed years of complaints from homeowners that their well water took on a chemical stink around the time that fracking picked up in their neighborhood about eight years ago. Environmentalists welcomed the draft report as validation of their concerns.
Wyoming is the third-ranked state for onshore gas production and ninth for onshore oil production. Nearly every new oil and gas well in Wyoming that isn't a coal-bed methane well is fracked.
In internal emails that followed the Nov. 4 briefing, state officials expressed support for fracking as critical to oil and gas extraction, a $7.7 billion a year industry in Wyoming that accounts for 20 percent of the state's gross domestic product.
"The limiting of the hydraulic fracturing process will result in negative impacts to the oil and gas revenues to the state of Wyoming. A further outcome will be the questioning of the economic viability of all unconventional and tight oil and gas reservoirs in Wyoming, across the United States, and ultimately in the world," wrote Tom Doll, supervisor of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, in a long email that circulated among top state officials.
Wyoming's top state regulator of oil and gas development, including essentially all fracking in the state, Doll was a district manager for Tulsa, Okla.-based Williams Production Company until 2008.
The spark for Doll's missive was the closed-door meeting at Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality headquarters in Cheyenne two days earlier. EPA administrator Martin briefed Wyoming officials about what the EPA was about to announce based on its research in Pavillion. Doll took part by phone.
"Contaminants present at high concentrations in the deep monitoring wells are likely a result of hydraulic fracturing," read a "Key Findings" slide in an EPA PowerPoint shown at the meeting. Each slide was marked "Confidential-Do Not Disclose."
The public announcement more than a month later stated that the groundwater "contains compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing."
The EPA also suggested at the private meeting that gas development likely had contaminated household well water in the Pavillion area but that current data did not definitively support such a link. The EPA has made no such claim in public to date.
Emails show that Mead sought to reach Jackson within hours. Mead confirmed that he got her to hold off on the findings report until state officials could review the data.
"When I talked to Lisa Jackson they were going to release the findings regardless. That wasn't even the question. The question was on the timing of it. We wanted a chance to see what are they basing this on," Mead told the AP.
"She said, 'Well, maybe we can hold off a couple weeks to give you guys this data.'"
The EPA released raw data on pollution in the two monitoring wells at a public meeting in Pavillion on Nov. 9, five days after the private state briefing. Among the pollutants was the carcinogen benzene as high as 50 times the EPA limit. The EPA showed a PowerPoint similar to the one shown at the private meeting but without announcing any findings. There was no "Key Findings" slide.
Releasing the data and findings outside of the purview of two "working groups" angered state regulators. The working groups made up of state and EPA officials had been examining the Pavillion pollution for the better part of a year.
Wyoming didn't take the news from the private EPA briefing sitting down.
The state could "get ahead of the curve" by assigning its own experts to review the data, suggested John Corra, the environmental quality director."Sort of an all out press," Corra wrote to Doll and others Nov. 7.
Doll suggested to Corra and others in a Nov. 19 email that Wyoming take "a hard line" after one EPA official told them to drop their concerns.
"EPA has not substantially defended their explanation, the data is questionable on many levels, and EPA has ignored our alternative explanations," Doll wrote.
Dozens of questions from state regulators followed. They included why the monitoring well water samples had high pH readings. The EPA report referred to the high pH and mentioned the detection of potassium hydroxide, a basic chemical used in fracking.
Pavillion residents didn't hear about the finding before the public announcement, said John Fenton, chairman of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens.
Fenton said he was unhappy that regulators hadn't kept local residents fully apprised of the latest developments concerning their water supply. Yet he held EPA in higher regard than the state officials he said ignored Pavillion for years, prompting residents to request the EPA investigation.
"Those of us living out here, we don't trust the state," he said.
State officials actively kept the media in the dark about the upcoming EPA announcement, even as reporters questioned them about the data.
"My sense is that the reporter was searching for a conflict to write about, and I tried to head that off," Corra wrote Nov. 29 to several other state officials about one reporter's questions.
Another state regulator suggested that Wyoming officials keep in mind how they're perceived while they questioned the EPA data.
"This could go on for a long time, during which we'll likely continue to be in an adversarial discussion with EPA, the public and the press," the Department of Environmental Quality's groundwater chief, Kevin Frederick, wrote to Corra on Dec. 2. "Is there a way to shift the focus of discussion to show the State in a more positive light while the present uncertainties continue to simmer?"
The additional sampling since agreed to has extended the study of the Pavillion groundwater. Peer review of the sampling results, set to begin this spring, now is scheduled for this fall.
Follow Mead Gruver on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/meadgruver

Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/2012/05/03/3933449/ap-exclusive-wyo-got-epa-to-delay.html#storylink=cpy

Gas Drilling Industry files law suit opposing Arlington's Fire Fee


ARLINGTON -- Two natural gas well trade organizations filed suit Monday in a District Court in Tarrant County to prevent Arlington from implementing what they deem an unnecessary and discriminatory new tax on gas wells.
Last month, the City Council unanimously approved a $2,397 annual fee per well to pay for more firefighters, training and equipment, which Fire Chief Don Crowson said the city needs to prevent and better respond to gas well emergencies. The fee, the first of its kind in the Barnett Shale, is expected to generate an estimated $800,000 for the Fire Department's gas well emergency preparedness and response program.
The Texas Oil & Gas Association and the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association argue that the city, which has more than 300 gas wells, is trying to unfairly "expand its revenues by taxing a single industry."
"It's seven times higher than any other permit fee they charge to a particular business," said Justin Furnace, president of the royalty owners association. "We're really left with no alternative but to seek relief from the court."
The associations call the Fire Department's gas well program, which will add a layer of inspections at well sites, unnecessary given the industry's safety record in the Barnett Shale. The suit says that while the Fire Department responds to tens of thousands of service calls annually, the city has had only three natural gas well incidents in six years and that those releases were handled by the companies, not firefighters.
The city has also repeatedly turned down well operators' offers of free training, Furnace said.
"The industry has a terrific record when it comes to public safety in the city of Arlington," Furnace said, adding that companies have their own emergency responders available around the clock. "To the extent that extra training is needed, we stand ready as an industry to provide that training free of charge to the city."
Advanced training
Crowson defended his program Monday, saying first responders need training in an urban environment that is more advanced than the cursory gas well site awareness classes being offered by the industry. Though the fee has not been implemented, the Fire Department has hired a gas well safety and security inspector and a captain to oversee the preparedness and response program.
Dozens of firefighters are also expected to undergo industry-specific training in Houston this summer to learn how to protect the community during gas well fires or other incidents, he said.
"At the end of the day it's my team that is responsible for public safety. The only way we can do that is to properly equip and train our team to do those things that keep the public safe," Crowson said. "Awareness-level training does not come anywhere close to matching our need to deal with an emergency. We need to know more than just what elements are on a pad site."
The Fire Department also plans to use the fee to pay for six additional firefighter positions and to train and equip 42 current firefighters to create two gas well emergency response teams.
The council approved the program despite opposition from Chesapeake Energy, XTO Energy and Quicksilver Resources. Representatives from those companies told the council that they were concerned that the Fire Department's program could lead to "potentially unsafe measures, unreasonable costs and additional burdens that may prohibit the industry from quickly and safely managing any unforeseen or unplanned critical incident."
Crowson said that the program was reviewed by the city's legal department and two outside legal teams and that they determined that the city has jurisdiction to implement to an industry-specific fee for additional public safety expenses.
Unattractive for drilling
The associations say the new fee will make Arlington unattractive to natural gas operators and could cost the community jobs and mineral rights revenue, Furnace said.
"My hope is they understand that tens of thousands of jobs are created up there through the oil and gas industry. It affects thousands of mineral owners anytime one of these fees are assessed this way," he said.
The lawsuit says that Arlington has one of the highest gas well permit fees in North Texas and that the city collected more than $1.7 million in fees from natural gas well operators in 2011. The city also collected more than $105 million in bonuses and royalty payments for gas well leases on public lands, according to court documents.
While the Fire Department plans to charge drillers nearly $2,400 per well to cover public safety risks, it charges other businesses that store, haul or handle hazardous materials no more than $350 in permit fees per year.
"There is simply no justification, no reasonable basis, for singling out natural gas well operators among similarly situated businesses when it comes to the potential dangers and hazards they pose to public health and safety," the suit says.
Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578
Twitter: @susanschrock

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