When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the latest follow-up tests of water surrounding natural-gas-drilling sites near Pavillion, Wyo., October 10, they appeared to confirm how water can be contaminated by hydraulic fracturing. The operator of the gas field in question, Encana Corp., last week re-asserted it is not responsible for any chemicals found and that the natural gas found in this and other tests is naturally occurring.

This is the location of the natural gas field under scrutiny for water contamination in Wyoming stemming from a Dec. 2011 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). CREDIT: EPA

OK, so whom are environmental policymakers and the public supposed to believe in this closely-watched showdown?

If companies were drilling for shale natural gas on land where you live — and you were earning money by permitting them to drill — how confident would you feel your water is safe to drink? Is the money worth the risk?

If one were to listen closely to comments by Mitt Romney and President Obama in their debates, you might think this is a non-issue. Both are promoting the benefits of finding and producing all the domestic natural gas we as a country can get our drill bits on in the hope for energy independence.

While these benefits undeniably are positive for U.S. energy security and the U.S. economy, all it takes is one serious accident to end what could prove to be just a honeymoon. Proof of water contamination could halt the progress industry seems to be making in producing shale natural gas safely.

The volume of this debate reached new heights when the EPA released a 121-page report in December 2011 raising questions about Pavillion’s water quality. The follow-up tests performed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) would seem to add weight to EPA’s original findings.

Not so say Ecnana and the oil and natural gas industry’s principal lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute, API.

API said its analysis of water-testing data pulled by the USGS from an EPA-drilled test well did NOT find evidence of chemicals the EPA found in its original report. What it DID find, the API said, are examples of shoddy scientific practices.

In remarks to reporters, API Director of Upstream Erik Milito accused EPA of failing to follow sound scientific practices at Pavillion. API goes into to some detail here.

Milito said it raises concerns about the testing it is now doing in its national study on potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources.

Much of the debate could be settled if one or more collaborative efforts getting started could make credible progress in sorting out the facts. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

I summarized a few of the collaborative efforts underway in this August 30 post. I haven’t seen a announcement about either of them but if you have any such news to share, please post a comment.