Oil and natural gas operators use hydraulic fracturing to split open underground formations to allow oil and gas to flow to the surface.
But the practice, often known as fracking, has also brought down legal action against state rules, sparked new federal rules and has tentatively been linked to groundwater contamination in Wyoming.
The industry asserts the practice is safe, describes its first use more than half a century ago, and insists on its value to Wyoming, where fracking makes profitable virtually all gas wells and many oil wells.
But many private individuals and environmental groups believe the practice could pollute groundwater supplies.
Federal involvement in natural gas development is a touchy subject in Wyoming and was highlighted in an early May congressional subcommittee field hearing in Denver about federal coordination of natural gas production oversight.
Shawn Reese, policy director for Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, told the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources that 20 percent of that state’s workforce is tied to energy production.
“The importance of natural gas to the state’s economic situation cannot be overstated,” said Reese, who added that federal oversight would be “unnecessary and unreasonable.”
State rules under fire
Wyoming was the first U.S. state to establish rules for the practice, in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to fracture open new pathways for oil and gas.
In March, environmental groups challenged the state’s rules in state court, claiming the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has been too quick to offer trade secret exemptions to companies that want to protect the identity of chemicals in fluids pumped underground as part of the fracking process.
“It’s really just a difference of opinion about whether or not our policy or procedure is valid under the trade secret protection act,” Wyoming Oil and Gas Supervisor Tom Doll said. “Let the judge look at the facts, and we’ll change policy if that’s what’s necessary.”
While Doll usually receives a couple of trade secret exemption requests a month, the lawsuit put a cork in those requests he said. Interviewed about a month after the lawsuit was filed, he said he hadn’t received any recent requests.
“I think the industry is aware of the lawsuit,” he said.
New federal rules arrive
In early May, the U.S. Interior Department proposed rules for fracking that would for the first time require companies to disclose chemicals used in fracking on public and American Indian lands.
State and industry officials are examining the rules now to see how they’ll match with Wyoming’s rules, which are stricter in parts, and what additional work they will require from operators.
Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said he’s looking at the rules but thinks they may be a non-issue. Wyoming regulators already have a memorandum of agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management — which manages most federal lands in the state — in which any drilling in the state has to comply with the state rules.
Such drilling already required operators to get both federal and state drilling permits, he said.
“So any wells drilled had to comply with state regulations anyway,” he said.
New tests for Pavillion area
Last year the Environmental Protection Agency tentatively linked fracking to contamination found in wells near Pavillion — the first time the federal agency made such a link.
The result was hailed by environmental groups and residents in the area who suspected nearby gas wells had polluted the water.
But the agency’s findings angered industry and state officials, which immediately attacked the EPA’s testing methods and its results.
In March, the EPA agreed to hold off on the report results pending additional water tests. Those took place in late April and early May.
Doll said he expects to get the results of those tests in late summer or early fall.
“I don’t know how much time we’ll have to look at all that data and make conclusions from it before the public comment period is over” in October, he said.