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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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One reflection 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 2013 whose office did not respond to questions from ProPublica -- was quick to applaud.
"EPA thought it had a rock solid case linking groundwater contamination to hydraulic fracturing in Pavillion, WY, but we knew all along that the science was not there," Inhofe said in a press release issued the day of the announcement.
Others, however, wonder whether a gun-shy EPA is capable of answering the pressing question of whether the nation's natural gas boom will also bring a wave of environmental harm.
"The EPA has just put a 2018kick me' sign on it," John Hanger, a Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania and the former secretary of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, wrote on his blog in response to the EPA news about Pavillion. "Its critics from all quarters will now oblige."
Before fracking became the subject of a high-stakes national debate, federal agencies appeared to be moving aggressively to study whether the drilling technique was connected to mounting complaints of water pollution and health problems near well sites nationwide.
As some states began to strengthen regulations for fracking, the federal government prepared to issue rules for how wells would be fracked on lands it directly controlled.
The EPA also launched prominent scientific studies in Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania, stepping into each case after residents voiced concerns that state environmental agencies had not properly examined problems.
The EPA probe in Pavillion began in 2008 with the aim of determining whether the town's water was safe to drink. The area was first drilled in 1960 and had been the site of extensive natural gas developmentsince the 1990's. Starting at about the same time, residents had complained of physical ailments and said their drinking water was black and tasted of chemicals.
The EPA conducted four rounds of sampling, first testing the water from more than 40 homes and later drilling two deep wells to test water from layers of earth that chemicals from farming and old oil and gas waste pits were unlikely to reach.