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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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The EPA issued an "imminent and substantial endangerment order" forcing Range Resources, the company it suspected of being responsible, to take immediate action to address the contamination.

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But once again, the EPA's actions ignited an explosive response from the oil and gas industry, and a sharp rebuke from Texas state officials, who insisted that their own data and analysis proved Range had done no harm.

According to the environmental news site Energy Wire, Ed Rendell, the former Governor of Pennsylvania, whose law firm lobbies on behalf of energy companies, also took up Range's case with then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Internal EPA emails used in the EnergyWire report and also obtained by ProPublica discuss Rendell's meeting with then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, though Range has denied it employed Rendell to argue on its behalf. Neither the EPA nor Rendell responded to a request for comment on the Parker County case.

In March 2012, the EPA dropped its case against Range without explanation. Its administrator in Texas at the time had been assailed for making comments that seemed to show an anti-industry bias. He subsequently lost his job. An Associated Press investigation found that the EPA abandoned its inquiry after Range threatened not to cooperate with the EPA on its other drilling-related research.

Agency critics see a lack of will, rather than a lack of evidence, in the EPA's approach in Parker County and elsewhere.

"It would be one thing if these were isolated incidents," said Alan Septoff, communications director for Earthworks, an environmental group opposed to fracking. "But every time the EPA has come up with something damning, somehow, something magically has occurred to have them walk it back."

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So where does this leave the EPA's remaining research into the effects of fracking?

The agency has joined with the Department of Energy, U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Interior to study the environmental risks of developing unconventional fuels such as shale gas, but those involved in the collaboration say that little has happened.

That leaves the EPA's highly anticipated national study on hydraulic fracturing.

When the EPA announced it was ending its research in Pavillion, it pointed to this study as a "major research program."

"The agency will look to the results of this program as the basis for its scientific conclusions and recommendations on hydraulic fracturing," it said in a statement issued in partnership with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.

That national study will concentrate on five case studies in Pennsylvania, Texas, North Dakota and Colorado.

It will not, however, focus on Pavillion or Parker County or Dimock.

Nor will it devote much attention to places like Sublette County, Wy., where state and federal agencies have found both aquifer contamination and that drilling has caused dangerous levels of emissions and ozone pollution.

It will be a long time before the EPA's national study can inform the debate over fracking. While the agency has promised a draft by late 2014, it warned last month that no one should expect to read the final version before sometime in 2016, the last full year of President Obama's term.

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