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The Associated Press today printed a story today entitled “Reps scrutinize EPA fracking link in Wyo.”  The article describes yesterday’s compelling hearing where the House majority called in to question the scientific credibility of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  In December, the EPA issued a draft report linking the contamination of drinking water near Pavillion, WY to hydraulic fracturing activities by EnCana Inc.  Since this is the first time a federal agency has acknowledged the dangers fracking poses to drinking water quality, drilling proponents needed to quickly circle the wagons.

The Associated Press story suggests that EPA thinks their Pavillion study revealing that hydraulic fracturing caused contamination of water supplies is not indicative of gas development around the country.  Simply not true.  EPA said nothing of the kind. Despite rigorous questioning from the chairman of the full committee, Ralph Hall (R-TX), EPA went to great lengths to preserve the application and integrity of the Pavillion study.  It was Congressman Hall and others who attempted to limit the scope of the study. But at no time did EPA waver from the study’s merits, nor did they speak to its precedential value for other regions of the country.


The beginning of the article reads:


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in no way contends that a draft report on groundwater pollution in Wyoming could apply to hydraulic fracturing in any other part of the U.S., an EPA official told a U.S. House subcommittee….”The geologic conditions that exist with the Marcellus Shale are significantly different,” (EPA) told the House Science Committee's energy and environment subcommittee.


EPA made no such claim. The fact is that the principles and results of the Pavillion study do apply other places.  Flowback pits still leech in other states. Well integrity fails.  And migration pathways exist for contaminants. The article is misleading because it suggests EPA’s opinion is that fracking could not cause groundwater pollution elsewhere.  EPA does not think that. What EPA was actually saying is that fracking caused groundwater pollution in Wyoming. And that Wyoming and New York differ.   The need for closed loop systems, strong well casing standards, water quality monitoring, and baseline testing still applies everywhere we frack.  

Attack the Messenger

The EPA drilled monitoring wells in Pavillion and took measurements for benzene, a known carcinogen.  Listening to the committee, we heard the House majority claim only that a second test at the monitoring wells revealed benzene levels half of what was discovered six months before.  I guess the implication is that additional testing might reveal even lower levels.  It took the minority to point out that the second test, though revealing benzene levels half the initial result from the first- still found benzene at 25 times its safe level.

Tom Doll testified before the committee ostensibly on behalf of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. But in his open statement, Doll intimated he speaks for Wyoming’s Governor, Matt Mead.  It’s true the Governor sits atop the Commission.  But directly stating that a witness is speaking for an elected official, rather than in his own capacity as the head of a nonpartisan administrative body, reveals that the views expressed are political rather than scientific.  Doll’s (Mead’s) view suggested that EPA did not properly consult with the relevant local authorities and that they employed poor quality data and science. 

Well, it’s either one or the other.

If the EPA’s science and data are faulty, then Doll knows that only because the EPA consulted him about the science and data.  If the EPA did not consult him, how then can he speak to the quality of their investigation?

Kathleen Sgamma, a lobbyist for the Western Energy Alliance, criticized the EPA as a political body rather than a disinterested scientific institution.  As opposed to the Western Energy Alliance-which I guess is somehow apolitical and disinterested.

It’s important to point out that this is only a draft report.  The study has so far taken more than three years and the preliminary results are thorough, thoughtful, and carefully worded.  EPA has extended the comment period and is soliciting a committee of outside scientists to take part in a peer review process.  To that end, the EPA has posted 622 pages of documents online detailing the data received from their investigation at Pavillion.  The purpose here is transparency and sound science.

Besides attacking the EPA, the tone of the hearing concentrated upon limiting the scope of EPA’s results to Pavillion alone.  Differences between the Wind River Basin in Wyoming and the Marcellus shale play in the East, should not lead us to conclude that no further study is warranted.  Nor should we think that geological differences compel us to believe that drilling must be safe elsewhere.  That is, if we know drilling is harmful in Pavillion, it does not mean that the differences in Dimock, PA make us safer.  We need the science.  Instead, we have a dog and pony show where politicians accuse scientists of acting like politicians-talk about the pot and kettle.