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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.

This story was published as part of Amazon's Kindle Singles program, and is available for reading on that device. ProPublica's first Kindle Single,"Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story," is also available.

There are few things a family needs to survive more than fresh drinking water. And Louis Meeks, a burly, jowled Vietnam War hero who had long ago planted his roots on these sparse eastern Wyoming grasslands, was drilling a new well in search of it.

The drill bit spun, whining against the alluvial mud and rock that folds beneath the Wind River Range foothills. It ploughed to 160 feet, but the water that spurted to the surface smelled foul, like a parking lot puddle drenched in motor oil. It was no better — yet — than the water Meeks needed to replace.

Meeks used to have abundant water on his small alfalfa ranch, a 40-acre plot speckled with apple and plum trees northeast of the Wind River Mountains and about five miles outside the town of Pavillion. For 35 years he drew it clear and sweet from a well just steps from the front door of the plain, eight-room ranch house that he owns with his wife, Donna. Neighbors would stop off the rural dirt road on their way to or from work in the gas fields to fill plastic jugs; the water was better than at their own homes.

But in the spring of 2005, Meeks’ water had turned fetid. His tap ran cloudy, and the water shimmered with rainbow swirls across a filmy top. The scent was sharp, like gasoline. And after 20 minutes — scarcely longer than you’d need to fill a bathtub — the pipes shuttered and popped and ran dry.

Meeks suspected that environmental factors were to blame. He focused on the fact that Pavillion, home of a single four-way stop sign and 174 people, lies smack in the middle of Wyoming’s gas patch. Since the mid 1990’s, more than 1,000 gas wells had been drilled in the region — some 200 of them right around Pavillion — thousands of feet through layers of drinking water and into rock that yields tiny rivulets of trapped gas. The drilling has left abandoned toxic waste pits scattered across the landscape.It has also disturbed the earth itself. One step in the drilling cracks and explodes the earth in a physical assault that breaks up the crust and shakes the gas loose. In that process, called hydraulic fracturing, a brew of chemicals is injected deep into the earth to lubricate the fracturing and work its way into the rock. How far it goes and where it ends up, no one really knows. Meeks wondered if that wasn’t what ruined his well.

Meeks couldn’t have foreseen it when he began raising questions about his water, but hydraulic fracturing was about to revolutionize the global energy industry and herald one of the biggest expansions in U.S. energy exploration in a century. Although the basic technique was developed decades ago, technological advances had made it possible to frack deeply buried rock formations long thought to be inaccessible. That meant a vast stockpile of domestic energy was suddenly available to help loosen the grip of foreign oil on the U.S. economy. It also meant that gas — which burns cleaner than coal — would become a pillar of the government’s campaign to address climate change.

As a result, drilling was about to happen in states not typically known for oil and gas exploration, including Michigan, New York and even Maryland. It would go from rural, sparsely populated outposts like Pavillion to urban areas outside Dallas, Denver and Pittsburgh. Along the way, a string of calamitous accidents and suspicious environmental problems would eventually make hydraulic fracturing so controversial that it would monopolize congressional hearings, draw hundreds in protests and inspire an Academy-Award-nominated documentary produced for Hollywood.

Louis Meeks, unintentionally, would be a part of that fight from the very beginning. His personal fight began with something simple: the energy industry’s insistence that fracturing couldn’t contaminate water.

If the earth were an apple, the argument goes, Meeks’ drinking water was drawn from the thin skin, while the gas drilling happened far deeper, close to the seeded core. The environment is also protected by the meticulous construction of the gas well itself, with layers of cement poured around redundant layers of steel to contain whatever happens inside the pipe and shield the fresh water around it from contamination.

“You’ve got about a mile of rock between the areas you are fracturing and the drinking water,” says Doug Hock, a spokesperson for the U.S. Division of EnCana, which owns several hundred gas wells around Pavillion. With its Canadian division, EnCana is the fifth largest oil company in North America.

Still, the circumstances near Meeks’ property in Pavillion all pointed to drilling.

Three months before his water went bad, EnCana had laid pipe down into a gas well about 500 feet from Meeks’ front door. The well, called Tribal Pavillion 24-2, had “circulation” problems during its construction — meaning that the cement may not have filled all the space between the well and the earth, and that its walls had to be strengthened. EnCana says the problems were minor and had nothing to do with the deterioration of Meeks’ water. “There is no evidence to suggest the well bore integrity was in any way or at any time compromised,” Hock said. But over time Meeks’ water had become undrinkable. His neighbors stopped filling up their bottles with it. Soon they were afraid to touch it.

Meeks started calling state environmental officials, but he got little help. They said his water met national standards, so it was still safe to drink. The taste, they said, was probably from rare iron bacteria that can’t easily be removed.

EnCana vehemently denied responsibility. The company’s engineers explained to Meeks that the layer of natural gas EnCana was mining was some 3,200 feet — more than half a mile — below the bottom of Meeks’ water well. It would be like a drop of poison seeping its way through the granite massif of El Capitan for drilling fluids to wind up in his water. “Activity in the natural gas well did not contaminate the surrounding soil or groundwater,” Hock stated.

In the spring of 2005, however, EnCana began bringing Meeks a tanker full of fresh water each month as a “good neighbor” gesture. A 5,000-gallon cistern full of fresh water was connected via a long black plastic pipe to the plumbing in his home and refilled every month. But EnCana made it clear that the tank was temporary, and Meeks decided he had to drill a new hole from scratch. This one, he decided, would need to be deeper than his old well and a football field’s length further from the gas wells. He paid a contractor $13,000 to drill it, taking the money from his retirement savings. He felt he had no choice. He’d settled on the land intending to spend the rest of his life there.

“It’s a nice little place,” Meeks said. “We raise our own lamb, raise our own beef, eggs, we put a garden in. It’s pretty hard to just start over.”

Meeks was born in Riverton, a ranching and drilling town 26 miles from Pavillion, in 1950. In the spring of 1969, he was stationed with the 34th Engineer Battalion in Vietnam when his base was attacked in the middle of the night. Rockets rained down on the barracks, and a piece of shrapnel sliced through his buttocks and into his gut. He received medals for his service, including the Purple Heart, but he also spent the next two years in hospitals — in Tokyo and then Germany and finally at Fitzsimmons Veterans facility in Denver, where a colostomy reconstructed his intestinal tract. After the Army he came home to Wyoming, where he found day work tying wool for a sheep shearing crew, and then on the drill rigs. He was part of a cementing crew and a workover crew — the team that goes back to an old well and re-stimulates it to get it to produce more oil or gas. But when he complained of stomach pain his VA doctor said he shouldn’t lift more than 25 pounds. “In the oil field you’ve got to lift more than that,” he says, “so they got rid of me.”

Before Meeks retired he learned a thing or two about drilling. He knew that cementing a well was crucial to holding in the gas and contaminants and that sometimes — more often than people liked to say — it failed. After all, there was no way to know for sure that every little crevice and cavern in the earth surrounding a well bore had been completely sealed. The best measure of the strength of that barrier was the circulation process, which works on the assumption that when excess cement comes back up the sides after being pumped down the middle, it has filled everything in between. And that was the very process that EnCana had trouble with on 24-2.

So, there Meeks was on Dec. 19, 2005, watching his contractor drilling deeper, puncturing one layer after another of clay, shale and sandstone bedrock interspersed with overlapping aquifers that trapped fresh water beneath the ground like a giant natural filter. The drill bit hit 340 feet, but the water was still bad. At 440 feet, it wasn’t any better. Geologists say that 30 rock formations containing fresh water may lie beneath Pavillion — layers that supply drinking, irrigation and cattle water for almost all the rural residents in that part of the state. How many of those layers were no longer clean?

At 540 feet the new well still wasn’t drawing water suitable for the cattle trough, and Meeks’ contractor, Louis Dickinson, shut down the engines and brought the drill bit to a rest. But before Dickinson could finish the job, a distant rumbling began echoing from below. It grew steadily louder, like some paranormal force winding its way through the earth. “Then, holy mackerel,” says Meeks, “it just came on us.”

An explosion of white foam and water, chased by a powerful stream of natural gas, shot out of the ground where Meeks had drilled his well. It sprayed 200 feet through the air, nearly blowing the 70-foot-tall drilling derrick off its foundation, crystallizing in the frigid winter air and precipitating into a giant tower of ice.

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.

EnCana also took samples of Meeks’ water, had them tested, and said that it found nothing.

Wyoming state officials, including Mark Thiesse, then the West District groundwater supervisor for the Department of Environmental Quality, told him they didn’t have the inspectors or money to conduct a scientific analysis. “I don’t know how many times Thiesse told me ‘we don’t have a smoking gun and we don’t have any money, so what do you want us to do?’ ” Meeks said.

Thiesse, who has since moved to a different part of the DEQ, said he tested Meeks’ well five times. “We have not found hydrocarbons. We have not found fracking chemicals. We have found nothing out of the ordinary. So it’s pretty circumstantial.”

Each agency Meeks contacted — including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is partially responsible for regulating drilling on the Wind River Reservation lands — treated him as if his story were the first time they had heard the suggestion that drilling fluids could wind up in drinking water.

By this time, Meeks’ neighbors, loyal to an oil and gas industry that pumps billions of dollars into Wyoming’s economy and is a significant employer, thought he was a hothead threatening to dismantle their livelihoods more than a victim defending the region’s water. As many people saw it, there was nothing to win by complaining. At best, Meeks would be proved right, and the natural landscape around Pavillion would forever carry a stigma. At worst, he would discredit the industry, hurt their business and put everyone’s jobs at risk.

One afternoon Meeks was down by the road, tearing out a section of fence. “There’s a preacher works a mile down. He stopped and said, ‘You are the worst neighbor I could ever have,’ ” Meeks said. “ ‘Every time I see you you’ve got a jar of water in your hand or you are in the newspaper. What if one of these days I want to sell my land? You’re making it so I can’t.’ ”

Nearly two years after his water first turned bad, Meeks found himself alone, an aging near-bankrupt war vet facing off against one of the more powerful corporations on the continent.

The Feds Grow Alarmed

As Meeks continued his quest, hydraulic fracturing was transforming the energy industry and unfurling a wave of drilling that rippled quickly across the country. The fracturing technology that was first used commercially by Halliburton in 1949 had been reworked until a sweet spot combination of chemicals and pressure was derived that made it possible to reach gas far deeper in the earth than energy companies had previously been able to.

In 1995 hydraulic fracturing was used in only a small fraction of gas wells, and the nation’s gas reserves were around 165 trillion cubic feet. The United States was so desperate for energy that energy companies were scrambling to secure foreign oil and building $300-million ports to import liquefied natural gas from Russia, Qatar and elsewhere.

By late 2008, however, fracturing was being used in nine out of 10 of the roughly 33,000 wells drilled in the United States each year, and estimates of the nation’s gas reserves had jumped by two thirds. Drilling was taking place in 31 states, and geologists claimed the United States contained enough natural gas to supply the country for a century. Russia’s president (and former chairman of its state gas company, Gazprom), Dmitri Medvedev, said he would curtail his own nation’s gas drilling efforts because he thought the United States might have so much gas that it wouldn’t buy more from Russia.

“Hydraulic fracturing is one of the U.S. oil and gas industry’s crowning achievements,” said Lee Fuller, vice president of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America and an influential lobbyist who helped shape federal policy on fracturing. Fracturing, Fuller said, takes place “with surgical precision and unrivaled environmental safety records.”

As the

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