PR War: EPA Links Fracking to Water Contamination

We recently told you about the PR war over fracking (or hyraulic fracturing), a process that utilizes large volumes of high-pressured water, sand, and chemicals to fracture shale rock deep underground in order to extract the natural gas locked beneath it. In short, the oil and gas companies doing the fracking claim it’s completely safe, while citizens of towns being “fracked”, grassroots coalitions, social media campaigns, filmmakers and even some A-list celebrities insist it’s a dangerous, poorly-regulated process with the potential to contaminate land, ground water and air.

Well, in news that has dealt a major blow to the arguments of the energy companies and will undoubtedly force the PR professionals handling those companies to scramble for a positive spin, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has officially and scientifically linked fracking with underground water pollution, concluding that contaminants found in central Wyoming stemmed directly from fracking practices in the area. The study found that the contaminants included at least 10 compounds known to be used in fracking fluid–and that these chemicals had most likely seeped up from gas wells.

Not only do these findings create some obvious PR issues for the energy companies, but they also directly contradict several arguments that they’ve been using to assure the public that the process is safe.

Their claims: hydrologic pressure automatically forces fluids down rather than up; deep geologic layers act as a barrier that would prevent chemicals from moving back up toward the surface; issues with man-made barriers around gas wells aren’t connected to fracking.

In fact, the damage control campaign has already begun; Doug Hock, spokesman for energy company EnCana, which owns the wells in question, has denied that the company’s actions were to blame, saying in a recent email exchange, “Nothing EPA presented suggests anything has changed since August of last year–the science remains inconclusive in terms of data, impact, and source…It is also important to recognize the importance of hydrology and geology with regard to the sampling results in the Pavillion Field. The field consists of gas-bearing zones in the near subsurface, poor general water quality parameters and discontinuous water-bearing zones.”

Meanwhile, those on the other side of the debate have welcomed the report with a “we told you so” attitude, and they’re using the study’s results to push for more federal regulations. Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at Natural Resources Defense Council, responded on her blog:

“No one can accurately say that there is ‘no risk’ where fracking is concerned…this draft report makes obvious that there are many factors at play, any one of which can go wrong. Much stronger rules are needed to ensure that well construction standards are stronger and reduce threats to drinking water.”

As the debate continues to heat up and garner fresh attention in the wake of the EPA’s findings, we wonder how the next steps in this ongoing PR war will proceed. What do you think?