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Fracking process sound, say panelists, but human errors can lead to problems
Oct 3, 2013 - By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer
Listeners at Central Wyoming College's first "Hot Topics" forum of the fall got an earful on the specifics of hydraulic fracturing and the pros and cons of the controversial practice.
CWC assistant professor of environmental health and safety Jacki Klancher introduced the subject by showing a video on "fracking." The process extracts natural gas by drilling holes underground into the shale rock, inserting steel pipes, or casing, then adding cement to the surface casing after another pipe is inserted, mainly to protect the groundwater.
Once that gateway is in place, a mixture of water and sand, perhaps with other substances, is flowed in to break the shale, which releases the gas to be captured.
Klancher said the process has been used effectively for many years. She said hydraulic fracturing has been "painted over" with environmental concerns such as man-made earthquakes, contamination of groundwater, and other issues like spills, leaks, and the use of millions of gallons of water in the procedure.
Cementing and casing are two critical parts of the process that, when done correctly, should do no harm to groundwater, panel members said.
The panel consisted of Wind River Environmental Quality director Ryan Ortiz, energy industry engineer Craig Smith of Casper, who has worked in the energy field for 25 years , Jimmy Goolsby of the Casper geology consulting firm Goolsby Finley and Associates, and attorney and former Riverton mayor John Vincent.
Panelists said new methods of fracking horizontally allow wells to take up less space. Conventional, vertical franking required wells to be spaced out over a wider area to produce gas. The new method also reduces the need for access roads and pipelines.
The Environmental Protection Agency drilled monitoring wells at the natural gas field near Pavillion, 25 miles west of Riverton, in 2008. After residents complained about unhealthy drinking water, the EPA initiated further research and in 2011 released a report.
"They determined that fracking could be the reason for contamination in the water acquirer," Ortiz said.
This year, the agency retracted its monitoring plans and handed that job over to the state. The EPA was criticized for not carrying out plans to investigate and accused of monitoring the testing wells incorrectly.
"They did a poor job and didn't run the stainless steel pipe they said they would use in their plan," Goolsby said.
Oil and gas production giant Encana is now funding the research. Encana and is the same company that drilled the recent wells. The state is funding the construction of cisterns to provide drinking water for the residents of the area. The contaminated water comes from private wells outside the Town of Pavillion,where the municipal water supply is not contaminated.
There was a consensus among the panelists, that fracking itself is not what should be labeled as the cause for water contamination, but perhaps human errors that may have happened in the cementing, drilling or surface casing.
"We have this fuss because people make mistakes," Vincent said. "That has nothing to do with the fracking process."
The panelists listed several methods used to make sure water is not contaminated, including the number of casings performed. Fracking is a regulated process.
"Cement is required to be circulated from the bottom of the hole to the surface," Smith said.
Still, Vincent explained, mistakes could be made.
"We need to wait for the study before concluding what caused it," Goolsby said. "There is no proof yet that fracking caused that contamination."
The site near Pavillion was not using the new horizontal method.