Hydrofracked? One Man’s Mystery Leads to a Backlash Against Natural Gas Drilling
When the well water on Louis Meeks’ ranch turned brown and oily, he suspected that the thousands of natural gas wells dotting the once-empty Wyoming landscape were somehow to blame. The hard part was proving it. Meeks’ struggle to get the energy companies to take responsibility, meticulously documented through three years of investigative reporting by ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten, coincides with a national uproar over the oil and gas drilling process called hydraulic fracturing. The technology, which is explored in the Oscar-nominated film “Gasland,” promises to open large new energy supplies, perhaps at the expense of the nation’s water.
A Suspicious Correlation
The blowout, roaring like a jet engine, continued for 72 hours, until a judge ordered EnCana engineers to use their equipment to control it. In that time, according to one estimate a gasfield worker gave Meeks, 6 million cubic feet of natural gas shot out of his 540-foot-deep water well, more than many gas wells in that part of Wyoming produced in an entire month.
Meeks suspected the 24-2 well was to blame, so he hired an environmental engineer to examine the gas production records of surrounding wells. The engineer found a curious correlation — but it was with well 14-2, which was 1,000 feet away from 24-2 and had been drilled in 1980, more than 23 years before EnCana bought the operations in that area. On the week Meeks’ water well was being drilled, gas production in 14-2 fell off by about 25 percent. But on the day Meeks’ rogue water well was plugged, gas production at 14-2 more than tripled.
Meeks is no scientist. He has an eighth-grade education. But based on circumstantial evidence — the proximity of the gas wells to his water and the timing of when his water turned bad — he was convinced that the energy industry was to blame. EnCana’s Hock said that the company was working on 24-2 to optimize its gas flow, but that no one had done much at all on 14-2 since it was drilled. He called the apparent correlation “merely coincidental.” The sharp variation in the 14-2 well, Hock said, was part of the normal variation of the well’s production over time.
Hock hypothesized that Meeks struck a natural pocket of gas with his water well. Hock also said that Meeks’ well was illegal, because he had a permit to drill it only to 300 feet. But Dickinson, who drilled the water well for Meeks — and has also drilled a water well for EnCana — said that while the allegation is technically accurate, permit depth is considered more of a guideline and is not normally enforced. “It is your best guess,” confirmed Lisa Lindemann, administrator of the groundwater division that issues permits for the Wyoming state engineer’s office. Lindemann said the state would have allowed Meeks to drill deeper than his permit and had no reason for concern.
Convinced he now had tangible evidence tying EnCana’s wells to his water problems, Meeks set out to build a case and get the company to help him. He wanted clean water restored to his property or enough money to buy another ranch. He hired and fired lawyers and sent missives to the press. He spent almost all of his savings — more than $100,000 — and armed himself with data culled from thousands of hours of painstaking technical research. In his living room, where two buffalo hides cover couches that sit beneath the mounted bust of a large bull, file boxes full of well records and scientific reports gradually rose in a teetering tower against the wall.
Meeks began developing a theory. The contamination could have come from leaky old waste pits or from a crack in a well pipe. But the more he learned, the more he suspected it had something to do with hydraulic fracturing.
Thousands of pounds of pressure from fracking, he believed, could exploit tiny cracks or flaws in a well’s cement casing. What else could possibly force contaminants through long distances underground, through layers of solid rock? The 14-2 gas well drew gas from more than 1,200 feet lower than his water well. Given the apparent correlation in the gas production and the distance between the wells, he thought something had to be connecting them underground. Since fracturing is designed to crack open the rock, and since no one knows for sure how far those cracks go, such a connection seemed logical.
“If this well is producing at 1,700 feet and that gas is coming up to 500 feet, there is a void in there or something that’s making it come all that way,” he says. “How else would it come up? Fracking is a problem out here because they don’t know where it’s going.”
Dickinson, who drilled the well, said he had never experienced anything like it. “I’ve had a few blow outs,” he said. “It was definitely coming from that lower formation.”
When Meeks began his research in the mid-2000s, there was little factual basis for his suspicions. Outside the industry, not much was known about fracking. All he had was his own logical, but subjective, interpretation of the curious set of circumstances before him.
In fracturing, between 200,000 and 6 million gallons of water are mixed with a cocktail of solvents, surfactants and acids that make up about 1 percent by volume and are pumped into the well under enough pressure to bore a hole in a sidewalk. The fluids are mixed with sand, so they can lodge deep in the cracked earth, prop open the fissures they create and keep the gas and fluids flowing freely.
Exactly how far these man-made cracks reach, or whether they can connect with other faults and fissures to create a pathway toward the surface, is unclear. That 1,000 feet of solid rock and layers of steel pipe should be an effective barrier between the gas well and his water well sounded plausible enough to Meeks, but then someone needed to explain to him how his blowout happened.
EnCana’s Hock said the company never injected enough fluid into the 24-2 well or any other well in the area to make its way all the way back to the surface. Hock insisted the industry had proved such a connection was impossible.
But Meeks couldn’t find a single independent or peer-reviewed study of fracturing’s effects on water resources; the reports he found were mostly drafted by or paid for by the oil and gas industry. The Environmental Protection Agency had said fracturing was safe, but it had based its conclusion in part on a review of many of the same industry materials Meeks had studied. The EPA never tested water wells itself. And scientists say that sort of testing — both before and after drilling takes place — is essential to a sound scientific analysis of the impacts of drilling.
“The critical thing that has to be done is a systematic sampling of the background prior to drilling activity, during and after drilling activity,” said Geoffrey Thyne, a geologist and former professor at the Colorado School of Mines and an environmental-engineering consultant with expertise in drilling and fracturing. “Ideally we would go out, we would put monitoring wells in and surround an area that was going to be fractured as part of normal operations.”
The budget for that kind of project would run to a ballpark of $10 million, which Thyne said would be a relatively small project for the U.S. Geological Survey or the EPA to undertake. But such a study had never been done.
The thing that kept bugging Meeks — a nagging lesson from his own days on the rigs — had to do with the cement and casing. To protect shallow water aquifers, the regulations say that oil and gas wells have to be encased in concrete far deeper than residents usually drill for water. But some of the records Meeks gathered showed that many of the wells had never been cemented that far. And he couldn’t get any of the regulators he talked to to do anything about it.
“I was doing anything I could to get help,” says Meeks. “I’d try to tell them there was a problem here but nobody would listen to me.”
For one, nobody could agree that anything was actually wrong with his water. There was little debate that it looked brown, smelled like fuel and tasted awful. But by the standard commonly used to decide if water is safe to drink — the sort of test a homebuyer would require before signing a mortgage — Meeks’ water was fine. It didn’t contain heavy metals or arsenic or any of the handful of obvious contaminants that drinking-water specialists look for. But the tests didn’t look for the vast array of obscure compounds that can come from industrial processes like drilling, many of which are unknown, even to the scientific community.
The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.
The Story So Far
The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.