State regulator admits, but not to Congress, that gas production led to water contamination in Colorado

Neslin’s narrow definition of hydraulic fracturing misleads Committee members

**As Pennsylvanians deal with the breaking news that wastewater from a Chesapeake hydraulic fracturing well blowout has entered their drinking supplies, similar stories continue to unfold in Colorado.**

Within minutes after his testimony about the safety of hydraulic fracturing in front of the United States Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works Committee last week, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director David Neslin said that gas production in Colorado has indeed led to groundwater contamination throughout the state. But when testifying, Neslin repeatedly told members of the committee that he had no “verifiable evidence” that fracking had contaminated groundwater supplies or aquifers in Colorado.

Yes, literally moments after the committee hearing ended, Neslin validated what many Coloradans already know: gas development in the state has contaminated Colorado ground water. In an interview with the Checks and Balances Project, Neslin divulged a few details he left out of his testimony. “We have not found a verifiable instance of hydraulic fracturing contaminating ground water, but oil and gas development has contaminated ground water in other ways. Sometimes a pit leaks, sometimes a pit overflows” (emphasis added).

Neslin justifies the contradiction by adopting a blinkered, compartmentalized definition of hydraulic fracturing. By his definition, pit leaks, overflows and even cracks in concrete pipe casings are not considered part of the fracking process, despite being essential components to gas development in Colorado.

Like Neslin, industry also defines hydraulic fracturing using rhetorical tactics. Speaking in April at a journalism lecture, Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon told his audience that, “We can tear up a road, we can be noisy, we can create dust, we can hurt somebody, and sometimes there is a lack of transparency about operations. All those are legitimate concerns, but fracking is not the story” (emphasis added).

This type of messaging has even penetrated national politics. On Thursday morning, the day after a the Chesapeake gas well blew out, spilling thousands of gallons of toxic fracking fluid, the same senator Neslin addressed during his meeting, James Inhofe (R-OK) said, on record, that, “[There's] never been one case — documented case — of groundwater contamination in the history of the thousands and thousands of hydraulic fracturing” (emphasis added).

It’s true that states vary in how they deal with waste fracking fluid. The state of Pennsylvania, for example, has tried and failed to process its fracking wastewater safely in public water treatment facilities. The failure of treatment plants to remove carcinogens from wastewater and the admission by industry that those toxins had entered drinking supplies has led the state’s governor to order a stoppage to treating the wastewater at public works facilities immediately.

Meanwhile, Colorado stores its waste frack fluid in concrete containment casings and storage pits. Neslin does not consider the disposal of waste produced by fracking a part of the fracking process.

Neslin’s comments raise two questions. First, there is the obvious question of whether or not he was being completely forthright with the Senate committee when he characterized fracking as having never contaminated water supplies. Even if he honestly believes that fracking is not contaminating groundwater supplies, why didn’t the officer tasked with overseeing oil and gas production in Colorado tell the Environment and Public Works Committee that contamination had happened, even if it was, as he suggested, tangentially related to the process.

The second question surrounds his frequent use of the term “verifiable evidence,” when saying that groundwater contamination has not been caused by hydraulic fracturing. Just like his statements about groundwater contamination, Neslin’s use of “verifiable evidence” seems to fall well short of telling the whole truth about gas production in his state.

Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, a geologist tasked with studying contamination in the West Divide Creek in heavily fracked Garfield County, Colorado understands verifiable evidence very well. The geologist is often credited with conducting one of the most conclusive studies connecting ground water contamination with fracking. In fact, Thyne’s West Divide Creek study was deemed so conclusive, and therefore so damning to the gas industry, that many say it led to the loss of his job as a professor at the Colorado School of Mines. Thyne says that gas interests at the university had allegedly pressured Thyne to stop the study. Thyne didn’t stop the study, and he lost his job. But, as Thyne explains in the video below, the verifiable evidence he found while conducting his study suggests that fracking fluids seeped into the West Divide Creek as recently as 2004.

How was Thyne so sure? Just like the situation in Pennsylvania it comes down to salt, which is also found in fracking fluids. When asked about fracking and water contamination during the congressional committee meeting, Neslin did not once bring up the Thyne study.

Despite the contradiction pointed out by the Thyne situation, there still remains the issue of Neslin separating failures in the process associated with fracking from fracking in general. This tactic has become known as compartmentalizing. Community organizer Frank Smith, who advocates for safe drilling procedures in western Colorado happened to be in Washington, D.C. at the same time as Neslin. Smith said Neslin’s selectivity when talking about hydraulic fracking before the Senate committee was a tactic Smith has gotten used to seeing out west. “Too often they don’t want to look holistically at all of it. It’s all one and the same. It’s all part of the same system. If in fact there is a faulty casing, or those fracking chemicals or fluids do in fact end up where they shouldn’t end up that’s all part of the problem,” said Smith.

It should be pointed out that Neslin and all those who answered questions before the Senate Environment and Public Works committee were speaking of their own accord and therefore didn’t have to take an oath before talking. Neslin has returned to Denver where he has been asked to reapply to continue serving as the Director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

3 Responses to State regulator admits, but not to Congress, that gas production led to water contamination in Colorado

  1. Pingback: Gas patch scientists explain how hydraulic fracturing can permanently contaminate public water supplies « The Checks and Balances Project

  2. Pingback: Neslin brings his message back home « The Checks and Balances Project

  3. Pingback: THE BALANCE SHEET: APRIL 26, 2011 « The Checks and Balances Project

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