The EPA has issued a 278-page progress report on its gigantic hydraulic fracturing study due for completion in 2014 or thereabouts. Predictably, the interim report offered a multitude of words one assumes are intended to obscure the ultimate direction of the report and say little for now. Nonetheless, there are some interesting aspects to the report and, to be fair, the agency seems to be trying to ensure the appearance of objectivity.

The EPA’s Study of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources – Progress Report was released this past week to much anticipation in some quarters, but not this one. The EPA has a very mixed track record that wildly swings from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. The embarrassing actions of the agency in Pavillion and Parker County and its political collaboration with EarthJustice and the like in regard to the Marc-1 Pipeline, all suggest an out-of-control bureaucracy, at least at the regional level. Lisa Jackson, its Administrator, on the other hand has been a model of reasonableness and propriety when it comes to hydraulic fracturing, careful to note there is no definitive determination the process has ever polluted a water supply and offering her views the states should do most of the regulating.

Perhaps no case demonstrates the EPA split personality better than Dimock, where the Philadelphia Regional Office abused the Superfund process to conduct redundant testing and even trucked in water while it did its tests, all on the apparent word of a handful of litigants who manipulated events. The Regional EPA, in taking these actions, also rejected the word of Pennsylvania’s DEP and independent testing laboratories as it pursued what everyone with any real knowledge of the case knew was a fool’s errand. Rushing in where angels feared to tread, it conducted an extensive investigation that, in the end, thanks to the professionalism of the career employees involved, found Pennsylvania DEP had it right all along. It was an expensive learning process raising.

This dualism is reflective of political reality. EPA has some great staff and, it appears, an honorable Administrator committed to science. Its Regional Directors? Well, not so much. They are political appointees with political agendas, as Al Armendariz demonstrated so effectively. Fortunately, the EPA hydraulic fracturing study is being run from Washington and not the regional offices. The progress report reflects this. It doesn’t offer anything much new, but a review indicates the agency is, for now, approaching the task more scientifically than politically, and is operating in the real world. As reassuring as this is, though, there are still some issue that suggest continued is warranted.

Let’s take a look at some of what may be found amidst those 278 pages.

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