What promised to be a ground-breaking report into the effects of natural gas hydraulic fracturing on groundwater has devolved into a classic case of the fox in charge of the hen house.
The US Environmental Protection Agency’s hotly anticipated study into links between fracking and water contamination in Wyoming has been co-opted by the very company whose activities it was investigating – Canadian natural gas titan, EnCana.
ProPublica is reporting that the Wyoming study – a draft of which was published in 2011, stirring up significant controversy and opposition from industry – has been abandoned by the EPA to Wyoming state authorities and will now be funded by EnCana.
EnCana is also at the centre of a high-profile lawsuit regarding water contamination being brought in Alberta court by Jessica Ernst, an environmental consultant with 30 years experience working in oil and gas. Ernst herself released a landmark compendium of evidenceregarding water contamination from fracking last month.
The draft 2011 Wyoming report found carcinogenic fracking fluids in a pair of deep groundwater monitoring wells drilled into an aquifer in Pavillion, Wyoming. Local residents had been complaining that drilling “fouled their water has turned up alarming levels of underground pollution,” according to ProPublica – which has been doing leading-edge investigative work into the impacts of fracking on water from several years now.
Now, ProPublica reveals that the EPA is backing away from the research – which was the first of its kind to establish a scientific link between fracking and groundwater contamination – under significant pressure from the industry.
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.
- 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 agency is publicly maintaining the above developments and issues are unrelated, yet, according to ProPublica, “In private conversations…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.”