For EPA, a Troubling (Email) Chain of Events
As has been pretty well and widely documented by now, EPA’s ongoing effort aimed at inserting itself into state investigations broadly focused on shale and hydraulic fracturing issues has not, heretofore, gone especially well. First, there was Parker Co., Texas; then came Pavillion, Wyo. And who can forget Dimock, Pennsylvania? In each case, EPA came, saw, and eventually retreated. Not because of some grand conspiracy or back-room dealing – but because in the end, after all the data was collected and all the numbers were run, the science simply wasn’t on its side.
But if you thought you knew everything there was to know about EPA’s fracking follies last year, a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by E&E News (sub’s reqd.) provides valuable insight into the agency’s deliberations on these matters. Time and again reading through the emails, it appears the agency assigns greater weight to claims made by anti-shale activists rather than the testimonials and direction imparted by the professionals who regulate oil and gas activities on the state level. The same regulators, by the way, whose proven record led former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to declare “states are stepping up and doing a good job” in regulating natural gas development.
Let’s examine these cases again, with the benefit of additional context from these newly recently internal EPA emails.
Parker County, Tex.
EPA’s troubled history in pursuing alleged claims of contamination first became publicly apparent following the agency’s fits and starts in Parker County, Texas. As we reported previously, the agency’s enforcement actions in Texas were pursued only after close coordination and prodding from local activists.
The collusion was epitomized in an infamous email from former EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz, who gleefully alerted anti-shale activists of a forthcoming endangerment order again Range Resources:
“We’re about to make a lot of news…there’ll be an official press release in a few minutes … time to Tivo channel 8.”
Fifteen months later, EPA withdrew its order — no doubt due to the begrudging acknowledgment that its case was scientifically baseless. But the story doesn’t end there.
According to emails sent on January 4, 2011, former EPA communications officer Betsaida Alcantara and Associate EPA Administrator Seth Oster were corresponding with Josh Fox, the producer of the widely discredited 2010 documentary ‘Gasland.’
Following that exchange, Alcantra remarks to Armendariz that “Josh spoke very highly of you fyi!” Armendariz response was even more concerning as he noted “it was good working with [Fox] for Gasland, we try to keep in touch every so often.” (emphasis added)
The regional administrator not only happily accepts the interview, but then shifts into the film-maker’s production assistant, asking his colleagues to arrange an outdoor interview where Fox “can get good background shots.” Helping Josh Fox get the best scenery for one of his hyperbolic films is hardly indicative of an administrator — or an agency — interested in being a neutral arbiter.
Now, compare that exchange to communications between senior EPA officials and the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), the state regulatory body that oversees oil and gas development in Texas. The Commission tried to warn the EPA that the agency’s findings were “premature” due to RRC’s ongoing investigation and a lack of data supporting EPA’s assertions. Armendariz’s response to those repeated warnings consisted of one single word, that word being “stunning.”
In separate correspondence, Steven Chester, Deputy Assistant Administrator at EPA for enforcement and compliance, and Bob Sussman, then Senior Policy Counsel to Administrator Jackson, attempted to console the regional administrator after RRC Commissioner David Porter calls for Armendariz to be terminated over the flap (the regional administrator would later resign only to later gain employment with the Sierra Club).
Wait, what? On the one hand, senior EPA officials are giddy to receive praise from a known and discredited activist filmmaker; on the other, they reject the pragmatic advice of state regulators and then chastise those regulators for expecting the EPA to base its actions based on sound science.
A similar situation can be seen in correspondence unearthed by a Scranton Times Tribune FOIA request that yielded more than 3,000 emails relating to EPA’s actions in the small town of Dimock, Pa. Like the FOIA request in Texas, that correspondence shows an agency quick to respond to dubious claims from activists that, in this case, were rejected by state regulators. Here again, senior level EPA officials seemed to provide more credence to activists’ claims than the findings of state enforcement agencies who actually have expertise in the field.
To wit: In original correspondence EPA’s Chief of Groundwater and Enforcement in Region 3, Karen Johnson, sent Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) official Scott Perry an email confirming that the water in Dimock did not pose a threat to human health. In fact, Johnson even sought to assuage Perry’s concerns that EPA’s involvement would inflame the situation; a real concern given sensitivities with the topic at the time. From the email (page 284):
From: KarenDJohnson/R3/USEPA/US 11/07/2011 07:43 AM
To: “Perry, Scott (DEP)”
Subject RE: Dimock visit
Believe me we aren’t going to do anything to do that…the guy from ATSDR hopefully can alley fears about health effects…I’ve been going through the data , even the “outside” analytical services agree with range of sampling already done just fine…can’t figure out what is going on..
I’ll let you know how it goes…
Karen D. Johnson, Chief
Ground Water & Enforcement Branch
That sentiment would later be solidified when EPA sent an email to Dimock residents on December 2, 2011, stating “the data does not indicate that the well water presents an immediate health threat to users.”
But four days later, Josh Fox sent an open letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson calling for her agency to intervene in Dimock because state regulators had allegedly “failed.” No evidence, no facts, just a classic attempt to garner headlines. Within two days of receipt of that letter, EPA staff in Washington, D.C. organized a conference call between Jackson and officials from Region 3 to discuss the agency’s ongoing efforts in Dimock. From the emails (page 496):
From: Ann Campbell /DC/USEPA/US
Sent: 12/08/2011 06:17 AM
To: Cynthia Dougherty, Ann Codrington, Fred Hauchman, Jeanne Briskin, Linda Boornazian, KarenD Johnson, Victoria Binetti, Carrie Wehling, Jon Capacasa
Subject: An Open Letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to Intervene in Dimock, PA because the State of Pennsylvania has Failed
Folks – below is the letter from Josh Fox to the Administrator that was discussed during yesterday’s call. A briefing has been scheduled for Friday, Dec 16 to provide the Administrator with background on the situation in Dimock, any analysis or conclusions that have been drawn from the review of the state’s data, and options, if appropriate, for dealing with the situation. Bob will be setting up a prebrief to prep for the Administrator’s meeting early next week so I’d like to spend some time on this during the Tuesday workgroup call.
Seemingly in response to Fox’s baseless claims, EPA announced a few weeks later that they would “perform water sampling at approximately 60 homes in the area of Dimock, Pa.,” based on what the EPA termed potential “health concerns.”
In other words, the EPA – based on hard data that had also been reviewed by state regulators – agreed that Dimock’s water was safe. But shortly after receiving Josh Fox’s open letter, they abandoned their evidence-based conclusion. As Al Armendariz might say, stunning.
In each of these examples, EPA either ignored efforts by state regulators or placed a higher emphasis on the unsupported claims of known – and discredited – anti-natural gas activists. And remember, these are the same activists who tried to instill fear in the public by promoting breast cancer claims in Texas — which, predictably, were later rebuffed by actual health experts in an Associated Press review titled “Some Fracking Critics Use Bad Science,” where even the AP explained the lack of basis for anti-shale activism.
In the end, EPA’s actions against oil and gas operators in at least two high profile cases were directly related to pleadings from known and discredited anti-natural gas activists, and directly against the findings of actual regulators. Little wonder, then, why the EPA has been consistently forced to back track in each of these cases, as scientific investigations yielded different results than what activists’ talking points would suggest. It happened in Texas, it happened in Dimock, and — barring an internal EPA shift away from giving primacy to opponents’ claims over regulatory judgments — chances are it will happen again.