by Keith Mauck
Facts are essential in today’s debate over energy policy. It is a fact, for example, that the United States is producing more of its own oil and natural gas due to advances in technology. It’s also a fact that anti-oil critics are using fear tactics to fight the American drilling renaissance because the facts are not on their side.
Such political games are not unusual in America, but when a federal agency like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), entrusted with overseeing human health and the environment, appears to be swayed by the fear mongering, facts become more important than ever.
Consider the EPA’s actions in the Range Resources debacle in Parker County, Texas. In late 2010, the EPA Region 6’s Dr. Al Armendariz issued an emergency order against Range, demanding that the company take “immediate action” to protect homeowners who reported their tap water “was bubbling and even flammable.” The culprit was believed to be hydraulic fracturing, the technology that is credited with unlocking oil and gas from shale formations.
But extensive research by the Texas Railroad Commission and private industry revealed that Range’s fracturing operations were not to blame. In fact, testimony and emails presented to the 43rd District Court suggested that Range was the victim of a conspiracy.
According to the judge, Alisa Rich, an environmental consultant and, Steven Lipsky, the owner of a water well, worked together “to intentionally attach a garden hose to a gas vent—not a water line—and then light and burn the gas from the end nozzle of the hose.” The judge added that the demonstration“was not done for scientific study but to provide local and national media a deceptive video, calculated to alarm the public.”
After this embarrassment, Armendariz, who resigned from EPA after he threatened to “crucify” oil and gas companies, moved on to work for the Sierra Club in Austin, and the EPA quietly dropped the case. But it’s not clear that the agency learned anything from this example of regulatory zeal run amok.
In addition to the Texas case, the EPA also conducted research in two other states in an apparent effort to find evidence linking hydraulic fracturing to groundwater contamination. The results from this triumvirate of testing have been disappointing to fracturing naysayers.
In Dimock, Pa., where celebrities like Matt Damon and Yoko Ono—not exactly two paragons of the science of hydrology or geology—have criticized fracturing operations, the EPA tested several water wells and ultimately had to admit that the water was safe. And now, we know from internal EPA email messages that the tests were conducted after the EPA was pressured by Josh Fox, the producer of the discredited Gasland documentary. State water tests had previously confirmed the water was safe, results that the EPA agreed with. Yet for some reason, the agency later ignored those details after receiving a letter from an activist filmmaker.
In Pavillion, Wyo., where EPA’s testing methodology has come under fire by water quality experts, the agency once against suggested hydraulic fracturing had contaminated groundwater. The U.S. Geological Survey tested the same wells but was unable to replicate the EPA’s results. Due to the lack of clear scientific findings, the agency has once again extended the public comment period on its draft test results. This possibly signals that the agency is slow-walking a decision on fracturing regulations while buying time to figure out how to deal with its critics.
The EPA’s questionable tests are not the only items raising eyebrows. A Freedom of Information Act request has uncovered that former Administrator Lisa Jackson and one other high-ranking administrator have used phony identities in government email correspondence in violation of federal law; EPA is facing a lawsuit against its tests on humans who were exposed to very high levels of air pollutants; and several observers have accused the agency of acting beyond its statutory authority.
In a recent article, molecular biologist and physician Henry Miller of Stanford University wrote that EPA’s “policies and actions torture both statutes and common sense to a degree that approaches malfeasance.”
The agency’s future direction depends directly on President Obama. Let’s hope his appointee for Jackson’s successor will put science before politics and facts before fears.