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Evaluating the Veracity of Scientific Reports Used to Argue Against a Social License to Operate for CSG: The Curious Case of the Pavillion Wyoming Deep Monitoring Well Study


The US EPA's draft report, released in 2011, on their extensive study of two deep monitoring wells within the Pavillion Wyoming gas field, has been used to argue that CSG and hydraulic fracturing is too hazardous to deserve a Social License to Operate. The EPA initially concluded their data “supports an explanation that inorganic and organic constituents associated with hydraulic fracturing have contaminated ground water at and below the depth used for domestic water supply”. The observations that EPA based their conclusion on include: 1) abnormally high pH's; 2) enormously high potassium concentrations; 3) the detection of “synthetic organic compounds” such as isopropanol, diethylene glycol, triethylene glycol, tert-butyl alcohol (TBA) and the surfactant 2-BE; 4) the detection of petroleum hydrocarbons including methane, ethane, propane, isobutane, and n-butane; and 5) detection of compounds such as acetate, benzoic acid, formate, lactate, and propionate that the EPA interpret as breakdown products of hydraulic fracturing fluid. This report has been widely used as evidence of the dangers of hydraulic fracturing. Josh Fox the creator of the movie Gasland, writing in The Guardian, noted that the “stunning announcement from US EPA … implicates hydrofracturing … as the cause of groundwater contamination [in Pavillion]” and that this is “news that has rocked the world”. The Pavillion investigation became shrouded in mystery when the USGS resampled the wells and released detailed new data sets but provided no interpretation. Soon thereafter the EPA stopped further work on the project without explanation. Reanalysis of the EPA's data suggests that the high pH and potassium values probably reflect the pore water of grouting cement injected into the sampled formation by poor well completion. Both these parameters decrease with increasing volume of water purged from the well. Similarly glycols and 2-BE (known to be contaminants from the manufacture of grouting cements also decrease to negligible levels as purging of the wells proceeded. A new analysis of the oxygen and hydrogen isotopes of the EPA's samples shows that all four fall on a mixing line between local river water (used to mix the cement) and the formation water. The river water component decreases as the monitoring wells were purged. It is concluded that there is no evidence supporting contamination of fresh water by hydraulic fracturing fluids.