Water concerns bubble up over drilling technique

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March 24, 2011 - 7:00pm

The prospect of expanded oil drilling in Nebraska has safety advocates concerned about drinking water. That's because both vertical and horizontal drilling these days involves hydraulic drilling basically creating fractures and propping them open with sand.

If you don't have well integrity and a good job of cementing and casing then anything you put down that hole can get into the subsurface," said Deb Thomas, an organizer for the Powder River Basin Research Council in Wyoming. That subsurface in Nebraska involves the vast Ogallala Aquifer, a vital water source.



From oil companies, to farmers, to records keepers,
horizontal drilling could mean big changes in western
Nebraska. Video by Clay Masters, animation by Scott
Beachler, NET
Watch how horizontal drilling works. Animation by Scott
Beachler, NET

Thomas lives in the small community of Clark, Wyo., just outside of Yellowstone National Park. It sits atop natural gas reserves where there's been drilling since the 1960s. In 2006 a gas well blew out and contaminated water aquifers. Now, three drinking water wells in the area have been showing traces of chemicals that have harmful effects on the human central nervous system.

But Bill Sydow, director of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said hydraulic drilling is safe.

"We polled everybody, and this is in the regulatory community, has anybody ever seen a hydraulic stimulation contaminate groundwater and it was 100 percent no one had ever seen because it takes multiple thousands of feet below the surface," he said.

And, Sydow said, safeguards are already in place.

Pat Webb, leader of an oil crew recently setting up drills in Wyoming, said that because there's enough concrete casing pumped through the hole that there's no concern of damaging or contaminating the aquifer.

But Thomas said all drilling can have a negative impact.

"You're still using equipment to drill deep in the ground with lots of chemicals and heavy equipment to produce hydrocarbons, then you have to move from where you're pulling out of ground lots of pipeline, power lines, roads look at the whole process," she said.

Thomas is concerned that as drilling expands, more communities will be dealing with contamination. Hydraulic drilling is exempt from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

"I work with people who have already been impacted who are experiencing huge contamination issues," she said. "We are not against oil and gas development. We represent our members and many of members have been negatively impacted by this."

Thomas said Nebraskans need to pay attention to how hydraulic drilling expands into the state and insist that local, state and federal government representatives be tuned in as well.

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