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Science be damned

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How many scientists does it take to block a plan to inject wastewater into an aquifer with drinkable water?

We’re not sure how many, but those who lined up in opposition to a plan by Encana for such a well apparently were too few.

The hydrologists thought it was a bad idea. The geologists thought it was a bad idea. The scientists who know the ground and water said it was a bad idea. The science wasn’t clear, they said.

But the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission? It thought it was a good idea.

Last month it chose to allow Encana Corp. to drill a well into an aquifer, a water-bearing zone, known as the Madison. The company isn’t drilling the well to access the water. It doing so to inject wastewater from nearby oil and gas wells into it. The commissioners, including Gov. Matt Mead, granted the company a 50-year license to inject waste into the aquifer, up to 750,000 gallons per day.

Even at first blush, the well sounds like a bad idea. As the old line goes, whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over. Water is a precious commodity in Wyoming.

There are many aquifers accessible in Wyoming. Not all contain water suitable for drinking.

But the Madison does. It contains water that, with treatment, would be suitable for human consumption. Some Wyomingites even depend on the aquifer for their drinking water.

Encana is correct to say nobody is currently getting their water from the 15,000-foot-deep aquifer in the immediate vicinity of the waste well. They forgot a key word: Yet. While those nearby communities may not yet get their water from the aquifer, is it possible that could change within 50 years? We suspect so.

Two geologists on the commission, State Geologist Tom Drean and the recently appointed Mark Doelger, voted against Encana’s permit.

Before the vote, Drean told commissioners he wasn’t comfortable with Encana’s computer modeling of the water-bearing formation. The modeling might’ve innacurately characterized the formation, raising the risk that the waste injection could hurt harm the aquifer outside of Encana’s permitted impact zone.

Encana first proposed the well in late 2011, and the commissioners gave it a preliminary OK in 2012 although they wanted to find out if the aquifer’s water would be difficult to treat and therefore unlikely to be used for drinking.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality opposed the plan.

“Clearly, future potential use of the Madison in the area of development is within the realm of possibility,” wrote James O’Connor, a DEQ geologist, to the commission.

Testing showed the aquifer was economically treatable, so commissioners initially blocked the well permit. Encana responded by claiming treating the well would cost $20 million, an impractical situation for water situated far from communities.

“It would be impractical for Riverton or Lander or Shoshoni’s needs, even 50 or 100 years from now,” Paul Ulrich of Encana told the Star-Tribune.

Despite Ulrich’s assurances, we’re quite sure it’s a bit early to know how thirsty Riverton, Lander or Shoshoni will be in 50 to

100 years.

This well is the product of short-sighted thinking by Encana and the commission. Worse, it’s short-sighted thinking opposed by scientists — including some on the commission itself — who aren’t yet convinced the Encana has accurately described the wastewater well’s possible effects.

In situations elsewhere we’ve said science should guide decisions — in the ongoing investigation into Pavillion’s drinking water, for example.

We stand by that guidance. We hope next time the oil and gas commissioners consider doing the same.

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