AP Report Shows Link Between Drilling and Water Contamination [Maybe]

The Associated Press has published a report on well-water contamination from oil and gas drilling that purports to "cast[] doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely happen."  The report, which was picked up by media outlets across the country, is based on data obtained from regulators in four states that have been at the forefront of the recent drilling boom:  Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas.

The AP review found that Pennsylvania authorities had confirmed at least 106 water well contamination cases (out of more than 5000 wells drilled) since 2005.  Ohio reported 6 confirmed contamination cases out of 190 complaints received from 2010 through November 2013.  West Virginia regulators reported 122 contamination complaints over the past four years, with enough evidence in four of those cases for the drillers to agree to take corrective action.  In Texas, a spreadsheet maintained by the Railroad Commission documents 62 claims of water well contamination over the past two years.  The Commission, however, has not confirmed any case of contamination caused by drilling in the past ten years.

While the data obtained by the AP appears at first glance to confirm drilling opponents' fears, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions.  For example, at least with respect to the Pennsylvania and Ohio data, it is unclear whether a "confirmed" case of contamination simply means that contaminants were confirmed to be present in a water well or that a connection to drilling activity was confirmed.  The distinction is obviously significant.  In some cases, contaminants may be naturally occurring or come from sources other than drilling.  The AP report references a 2011 Penn State study that found that about 40% of water wells tested prior to drilling failed at least one federal drinking water standard.

Also, while some may be quick to draw a connection between the contamination cases reported by the AP and the controversial practice of fracking, that connection is not absolutely clear.  A spokesman from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources told the AP that none of the six confirmed instances of contamination in Ohio related to fracking.  The AP article notes that conventional drilling continues, so at least some of the contamination cases could be related to conventional wells.  And, as noted above, it is not clear how many of the confirmed contamination cases are related to drilling activity, as opposed to other sources.

An interesting, if not particularly surprising, aspect of the AP report is the differences it reveals in the recordkeeping and responsiveness levels among various states' regulators.  The report states that, during a multiple-year period starting in 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection "aggressively fought" efforts to obtain information about drilling-related complaints, claiming that it did not track "determination letters" relating to contamination complaints.  When Pennsylvania did provide information to the AP, it simply consisted of raw numbers of complaints and confirmed instances of contamination.  The Railroad Commission of Texas, on the other hand, quickly provided a 94-page spreadsheet providing details such as the date of the complaint, the identity of the landowner and the drilling company, and a summary of the alleged problems.

It will be interesting to see whether regulators in states like Pennsylvania will improve their tracking of drilling-related complaints and/or become more forthcoming with information in response to the AP report and other efforts like it.  The AP article quotes several sources who suggest that transparency might help improve public confidence in both regulators and industry.

The AP report was written by Kevin Begos and posted on January 5, 2014.  It is available from many sources on the Web, including at http://bigstory.ap.org/article/some-states-confirm-water-pollution-drilling.

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