Fracking research: What's behind EPA's abandoned studies?
Fracking studies have pit the Environmental Protection Agency against the oil and gas industry, which says the agency has over-reached on fracking and that its science has been critically flawed. The recent closing of EPA fracking investigations has some environmentalists worried that the agency is feeling the effects of industry pressure and tight budgets.
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 supporters alike.Skip to next paragraph
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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. 2013 the first time such a claim had been based on a scientific analysis.
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 contamination.
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.
But environmentalists 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 triggers.
· 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 2013 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.