Encana Corp. went on the offensive Tuesday following a federal report that for the first time theorized a link between a petroleum industry practice called hydraulic fracturing and groundwater pollution in a Wyoming gas field.
The company told reporters on a conference call about the objections it had to the Dec. 8 draft report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Encana spokesman Doug Hock said the company doesn't object to the EPA data so much as the agency's interpretation of it.
"The benzene, for instance. Yeah, they found benzene. We're not disputing that," Hock explained after the call. "That is there, naturally occurring, because they're in a gas-bearing zone."
Encana owns many of the wells in the Pavillion gas field and employed hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to help extract that gas. Fracking has become a critical element of rapidly expanding gas development in Wyoming and nationwide.
The process involves pumping pressurized water, sand and some chemicals underground to open up fissures and improve the flow of oil or gas.
Among the EPA's preliminary findings in the small, sprawling community of Pavillion was the discovery of chemicals the agency said could have been products of hydraulic fracturing chemicals. While Encana said EPA's procedures for drilling two wells to test the groundwater could explain the chemicals, the EPA said that isn't possible.
Hydraulic fracturing could have facilitated the underground migration of benzene and other chemicals, according to the EPA report.
"Alternative explanations were carefully considered to explain individual sets of data. However, when considered together with other lines of evidence, the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing," the report said.
The EPA has opened a 45-day public comment period on the report. A 30-day period of scientific peer review will follow the public comment period.
"We welcome the public's input, including Encana's, during this public comment process and EPA looks forward to an ongoing constructive dialogue with the company about the safe and responsible development of our important natural gas resources," spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara said in a statement.
Encana officials said the peer review should be fully independent without too much influence from either the agency or company. The EPA said a contractor will use criteria provided by EPA to find peer review panel members not affiliated with EPA.
Environmentalists for years have sounded the alarm about the risk of fracking contaminating groundwater.
The EPA report did not link fracking and low levels of hydrocarbons found in domestic water wells in Pavillion. But the report was groundbreaking because the EPA had not previously suggested a link between fracking and groundwater pollution in a specific case.
The fracking in Pavillion hasn't been identical to fracking elsewhere in the U.S. or even Wyoming. In Pavillion, the gas is relatively close to the surface -- just a couple thousand feet down, much shallower than other gas fields where the gas is as much as two miles deep.
As a result, the shallowest fracking occurred fairly close to the deepest wells used by Pavillion residents to get drinking water. The EPA also has been investigating more than 30 old industrial waste pits as possible pollution sources.
The report focused on the EPA's latest research in more than two years of study of possible contamination in Pavillion. The EPA conducted the studies at the urging of residents who said their well water had begun to stink of chemicals.