Is the Obama administration looking the other way on fracking?


Nearly five years into the Obama administration, we’ve watched with great frustration as Washington so often says the right things on the environment — then goes off and does something else. That was certainly the case after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, as federal regulators seemed much more likely to side with BP in trying to make the issue disappear, rather than undertake a serious investigation into the damaging effects of the oil spill.

The surge in the natural gas drilling technique known as fracking has been no different — regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere have promised to make sure that fracking is carried out in a safe manner, and are said to be studying tighter rules on a practice that has boomed since the mid-2000s. At the same time, however, President Barack Obama has touted natural gas as cleaner than other fossil fuels, and as a way for America to reduce greenhouse gases and to stop importing foreign oil. Since then, EPA officials seem ready and willing to look the other way on evidence that fracking pollutes the water supply.

The latest case, out of Pennsylvania, is the most alarming:

Drilling for natural gas caused “significant damage” to drinking-water aquifers in a Pennsylvania town at the center of a fight over the safety of hydraulic fracturing, according to a report prepared by a federal official.

The previously unreleased document from an employee at the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office found that drilling or fracking, in which water, sand and chemicals are shot underground to free trapped gas, caused methane to leak into domestic water wells in Dimock, Pa. The findings contradict Cabot Oil and Gas Corp., which drilled in the town and said the explosive methane gas was naturally occurring.

“Methane is released during the drilling and perhaps during the fracking process and other gas well work,” according to the undated slide show prepared by the EPA coordinator in Dimock, who is not identified, for other agency officials. The report, obtained by Bloomberg from critics of fracking, is based on a chemical analysis of methane in wells. The EPA said the findings in the presentation are preliminary and more study is needed.

Dimock, featured in the anti-fracking film “Gasland,” has become a symbol for opponents questioning the safety of fracking. In 2010, state regulators stepped in and said Cabot’s drilling contaminated local wells, a finding disputed by the company. A subsequent EPA investigation said the water posed no health risks to town residents.

Here’s what’s really disturbing: The Natural Resource Defense Council points out that this is just the latest in a series of moves by the EPA that seem to be dictated by politics, not science. It notes:

First, in March of 2012—without explanation—EPA abruptly withdrew an emergency order it had issued two years earlier against Range Resources Corporation after the agency found nearby natural gas production operations from the company had likely caused methane and toxic chemical contamination in Parker County, Texas drinking water supplies. … [T]he Associated Press reported that a leaked confidential report proved that EPA had scientific evidence against Range, but changed course after the company threatened not to cooperate with the agency’s ongoing national study of fracking. AP also reported that interviews with the company confirmed this. When asked to explain its actions in light of all of this, EPA’s silence has been deafening.

Then, in late June 2013, EPA made an equally abrupt and unexplained announcement that it was abandoning an investigation into a high-profile drinking water contamination case in Pavillion, Wyoming. …

Now it seems the third shoe drops in Dimock — the latest in what was a triumvirate of highly anticipated federal fracking-related investigations.

As noted previously, environmentalists once had high hopes for the EPA and its first-ever comprehensive study of fracking and drinking water pollution. But that study has already been postponed from 2014 to 2016, and if it does come out you have to believe that its findings will be watered down…pun intended. Meanwhile, the agency is looking at fracking abuse on a case-by-case basis — and every case is decided in favor of Big Gas. That’s why you should expect a rash of lawsuits over fracking in the years ahead — because an anxious public is sure to turn to the courts after it tires of waiting on Washington.

To learn more from the Washington Post about the water contamination from fracking in Dimock, Pa., please read:

For the report from the Natural Resources Defense Council on other tainted cases involving the EPA, check out:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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