Michele Hallowell contributed to this post

Preliminary results from a comprehensive study at University of Texas study reveal no direct link between hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination. The effort is notable because the Environmental Defense Fund is helping to gather and analyze the data. The preliminary review shows that problems associated with wastewater pits and well cement/casing are more prevalent at fracking sites, and more likely to cause problems than the fracking process itself. Such surface problems can occur with any type of drilling operation. Critically though, the study did not find any evidence that casing/cement issues have resulted in any significant groundwater contamination. According to the lead author, Chip Groat, the goal of the study is “simply [to] separate fact from fiction,” noting that the scientific community has done few studies on the relevant issues, and the media coverage has been largely negative (if not inaccurate).

Admittedly, separating fact from fiction can be a difficult task.

Last week, EPA released data from an ongoing investigation in Pavillion, Wyoming, where residents have experienced contaminated drinking water since 2008. There is little doubt that the drinking water in Pavillion is contaminated (high levels of methane have been found, and EPA has warned residents not to drink or shower with the water). The relevant question is whether “fracking” is responsible. Conventional drilling has occurred in the area for more than 20 years, and there are known contamination issues stemming from legacy pits. The newest data released last week foreshadows some potentially troubling results, including a finding of 2-butoxyethanol (2-Be) (a compound often found in frack fluid), other petroleum-related compounds (BTEX), and thermogenic methane not associated with naturally-occuring, shallow migration. The data also appears to have ruled out fertilizers or pesticides as the cause. Even though EPA has not drawn any conclusions [PDF] from the data regarding the cause of the contamination, other activist groups were not so scientific in their coverage (for example, see here, and here.

These two events, which both occurred in the same week, highlight the difficulty in understanding the actual environmental risk posed by the fracking process. The events in Pavillion may prove to be a critical moment in the debate. They may not—it is simply premature to draw any conclusions. The fact remains that fracking has been used over 1 million times, for decades, with no direct evidence that it causes widespread contamination or unacceptable environmental risk—a fact even EPA concedes. Regardless, EPA and others are likely to look to sites like Pavillion as justification for a more comprehensive federal regulatory framework. In the face of this growing federal pressure, the broader industry should  proactively address identified problems at unconventional drilling sites (like the casing/cement/wastewater issues identified by the preliminary results of the UT study) and continue to improve and implement best management practices.