A former Wyoming oil and gas regulator is tripping over himself to take back statements that groundwater pollution in the town of Pavillion was caused by energy developers.
Robert Johnson, who is now the oil and gas program manager at the Idaho Department of Lands, said at a meeting last week that the pollution in Wyoming was caused by a leaking, unlined above-ground pit.
“Did the industry cause it? Yes, they did,” he said on an audio recording of the public meeting in Idaho. “Are they mitigating it? Yes, they are.”
Environmental groups quickly seized upon the statements as refuting Wyoming officials — as well as the energy company that developed the gas fields in Pavaillion — who have questioned a 2011 study by the Environmental Protection Agency, which blamed hydraulic fracturing for the contamination. Encana, the energy company, maintains the pollution in Pavaillion is naturally occurring and has nothing to do with fracking.
Johnson quickly changed his tune when he was contacted by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which “set me straight and told me I was wrong.”
The Caspar Star-Tribune characterized Johnson as “backtracking,” but his comments are more like a complete retraction.
He told the paper that his statements at the meeting were “dead incorrect.”
“I can’t prove them,” he said. “I made a mistake here. I cannot as a scientist come forth with a repeatable conclusion.”
He said he based his comments on a presentation in Houston by an engineer with experience studying the energy industry, who concluded that the Ph levels found in Pavillion’s groundwater were beyond what would be found in nature, but that she couldn’t conclude that it was due to fracking.
“I assumed when I was down there she was a qualified professional and everything she was saying was vetted,” Johnson said.
Johnson also told the crowd in Idaho that he “had a little more insight on this than the average person” because he worked on the Pavillion investigation for the state engineer’s office, but that too was refuted.
“Bobby was not assigned to that project,” Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell told the Star-Tribune. “Whatever he was doing was from sidelines.”
For their part, environmental groups have also distanced themselves from Johnson’s comments, with Wyoming Outdoor Council Associate Director Chris Merrill telling the paper that the incident underscores “the need and the importance of collecting baseline data before drilling happens.”
“That is really the only way to avoid this kind of confusion and controversy in the future,” he said.
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