A drill rig near the town of Pinedale, Wyo. (Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

A drill rig near the town of Pinedale, Wyo. (Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

In November, 2008, ProPublica investigated the possibility that natural gas drilling is contaminating our water supply. At issue is a process pioneered by Halliburton called hydraulic fracturing, which shoots vast amounts of water, sand and chemicals several miles underground to break apart rock and release the gas. The process has been considered safe since a 2004 study (PDF) by the Environmental Protection Agency found that it posed no risk to drinking water. After that study, Congress even exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Today fracturing is used in nine out of 10 natural gas wells in the United States.

Over the last few years, however, a series of contamination incidents have raised questions about that EPA study and ignited a debate over whether the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing may threaten the nations increasingly precious drinking water supply.

An investigation by ProPublica, which visited Sublette County and six other contamination sites, found that water contamination in drilling areas around the country is far more prevalent than the EPA asserts. Our investigation also found that the 2004 EPA study was not as conclusive as it claimed to be. A close review shows that the body of the study contains damaging information that wasnt mentioned in the conclusion. In fact, the study foreshadowed many of the problems now being reported across the country.

Since then, ProPublicas reporting has come under fire, but it stands by the original story. Heres an update:

In his Jan. 10 column in the Rocky Mountain News, Independence Institute analyst David Kopel significantly misstates the record on the environmental risks posed by the gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing.

Using carefully culled quotations and selected statistics, Kopel asserts indisputably false facts in ProPublicas reporting on this subject.

In fact, it is his column that is indisputably misleading.

Kopel quoted a press spokesperson for New Mexico as saying the state had never compiled numbers about groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing the actual forcing of water into rock. He cites a similar remark from a Colorado official.

These are classic examples of framing a precisely tailored question to elicit a misleading response, much as the tobacco industry used to ask scientists whether smoking could be conclusively identified as a cause of lung cancer.

Here are the facts.

State and federal officials have identified what several said was an alarming pattern of water contamination in and around drilling sites across the country. Until ProPublica began asking questions last year, few environmental officials had examined what role hydraulic fracturing may have played in this contamination.

Colorado records (PDF) cite some 1,500 cases from 2003 to 2008 in which drilling companies reported a hazardous spill, with 300 instances leading to what state officials determined was a measurable impact on water supplies. A tally of Colorado data was performed by the advocacy group Oil and Gas Accountability Project.

In New Mexico, Mark Fesmire, director of the Oil and Gas Conservation Division, said his state had documented some 800 cases in which water has been contaminated by oil and gas operations, half of them from waste pits that had leaked chemicals into the ground.

As ProPublica has reported, its difficult for scientists to say which aspect of drilling the hydraulic fracturing, the waste water that accidentally flows into the ground, the leaky pits of drilling fluids or the spills from truckloads of chemicals transported to and from the site causes such pollution.

Heres why: The industry has adamantly refused to make public the ingredients of the chemicals it forces into the ground and later stores in the waste pits near drilling sites. Scientists say that information is crucial to tracing the source of pollution. Without those data, environmental officials say they cannot conclude with certainty when or how certain chemicals entered the water.

Click the image to enlarge. (Illustration by Al Granberg for ProPublica)

Click the image to enlarge. (Illustration by Al Granberg for ProPublica)

Ask officials in New Mexico and Colorado: Are there any cases in which we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that hydraulic fracturing caused water contamination? Answer: No, weve never studied that question.

Ask those same officials: Are there hundreds of cases of water contamination in drilling areas, the vast majority of which use hydraulic fracturing? Answer: Yes.

The drilling industry, echoed by Kopel, cites three documents when asserting the environmental safety of hydraulic fracturing. They are a 2004 EPA study (PDF), a 2002 survey of state agencies (PDF) by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and a similar survey in 1998 by the Ground Water Protection Council (PDF).

In its Nov. 13 article, ProPublica detailed flaws in the EPA study and reported that the two surveys were anecdotal, meaning that they included none of the basic data required to qualify as a scientific study. The results were drawn from questionnaires sent to state officials. ProPublica did misstate the date on one of these surveys, referring to it as more than a decade old when it had been published in 2002.

ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.