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Fracking contamination "inconceivable," says John Hickenlooper -- but EPA disagrees

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Governor John Hickenlooper has walked a taut tightrope on energy issues since taking office, pushing for more natural gas drilling in a state already leading the region in drilling starts, while at the same time nudging the industry toward greater disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" processes. But he may be exhibiting too much confidence in the way the fossil fuel crowd does business.

Earlier this week, in his opening speech at the Colorado Oil & Gas Association annual meeting, the former geologist-brewer-mayor told state energy moguls that more information on the toxic brew of chemicals injected into wells needs to be shared with the public, according to this account in the Denver Business Journal.

"Everyone in this room understands that hydraulic fracturing doesn't connect to groundwater, that it's almost inconceivable that groundwater will be contaminated," the governor said. "But the industry needs to be transparent. It needs to demonstrate, beyond a doubt, that this doesn't happen."

There's only one problem. It does happen.

In the widespread debate over fracking, oil and gas executives have kept their message simple and adamant -- in the course of drilling more than a million wells using fracking techniques, there's never been a documented case of groundwater contamination. The wells typically extend thousands of feet below freshwater aquifers and are sealed after use; while there have been cases of surface spills or gas seepage contaminating drinking water, no one has demonstrated that the fracking chemicals have migrated into acquifers.

That's the message, anyway. But this story in today's New York Times unearths an Environmental Protection Agency report that does deal with a drinking supply contamination by fracking in West Virginia.

The incident described dates back to the 1980s, and industry leaders are quick to point out that fracking methods have improved greatly since then. But sources interviewed by the Times strongly suggest there may be other instances that have been hushed up in lawsuit settlements, and that the EPA's probe of the issue has been less than comprehensive.

It's sobering reading -- and, when added to the pile of other exposés and reports on fracking concerns, it makes a case that more disclosure and supervision of the industry's extraction methods is not simply a good-sense exercise in public relations, but downright essential.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Fracking primer: State seeks to address uproar over drilling process."

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