by Abrahm Lustgarten
When the Environmental Protection Agency abruptly retreated on
its multimillion-dollar investigation into water contamination in a central
Wyoming natural gas field last month, it shocked environmentalists and energy industry
In 2011, the agency
had issued a blockbuster draft report saying that the controversial practice of
fracking was to blame for the pollution of an aquifer deep below the town of
Pavillion, Wy. – the first time such a claim had been based on a
The study drew
heated criticism over its methodology and awaited a peer review that promised
to settle the dispute. Now the EPA will instead hand the
study over to the state of Wyoming, whose research will be funded by
EnCana, the very drilling company whose wells may have caused the
Industry advocates say the EPA’s turnabout reflects an overdue recognition that it had
over-reached on fracking and that its science was critically flawed.
see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that
could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even
as President Obama lays out a plan
to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.
Over the past 15 months, they point out, the EPA has:
Closed an investigation into groundwater pollution
in Dimock, Pa., saying the level of contamination was below federal safety
Abandoned its claim that a driller in Parker
County, Texas, was responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents’
faucets, even though a geologist hired by the agency confirmed this finding.
Sharply revised downward a 2010 estimate showing
that leaking gas from wells and pipelines was contributing to climate change, crediting
better pollution controls by the drilling industry even as other reports
indicate the leaks may be larger than previously thought.
Failed to enforce a statutory ban on using
diesel fuel in fracking.
“We’re seeing a pattern that is of great concern,” said Amy
Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council in
Washington. “They need to make sure that scientific investigations are thorough
enough to ensure that the public is getting a full scientific explanation.”
The EPA says that the string of decisions is not related,
and the Pavillion matter will
be resolved more quickly by state officials. The agency has maintained
publicly that it remains committed to an ongoing national study of hydraulic
fracturing, which it says will draw
the definitive line on fracking’s risks to water.
In private conversations, however, high-ranking agency
officials acknowledge that fierce pressure from the drilling industry and its
powerful allies on Capitol Hill – as well as financial constraints and a
delicate policy balance sought by the White House — is squelching their
ability to scrutinize not only the effects of oil and gas drilling, but other
environmental protections as well.
Last year, the
agency’s budget was sliced 17 percent, to below 1998 levels. Sequestration
forced further cuts, making research initiatives like the one in Pavillion
harder to fund.
of the intense political spotlight on the agency: In May, Senate Republicans
boycotted a vote on President Obama’s nominee to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy,
after asking her to answer more than 1,000 questions on regulatory and policy
concerns, including energy.
The Pavillion study touched a particular nerve for Sen.
James Inhofe, R-Okla., the former ranking member of the Senate Environment and
Public Works committee.
According to correspondence obtained under the Freedom of
Information Act, Inhofe demanded repeated briefings from EPA officials on
fracking initiatives and barraged the agency with questions on its expenditures
in Pavillion, down to how many dollars it paid a lab to check water samples for
a particular contaminant.
He also wrote a letter to the EPA’s top administrator
calling a draft report that concluded fracking likely helped pollute
Pavillion’s drinking water “unsubstantiated” and pillorying it as part of an
“Administration-wide effort to hinder and unnecessarily regulate hydraulic
fracturing on the federal level.” He called for the EPA’s inspector general to
open an investigation into the agency’s actions related to fracking.
When the EPA announced it would end its research in
Pavillion, Inhofe – who’s office did not respond to questions from ProPublica