Why are Fracking Critics Downplaying EPA’s Groundwater Study?

Inside Climate News (ICN) recently produced an article alleging that industry has somehow bought off the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), particularly with respect to its forthcoming study on groundwater and hydraulic fracturing. ICN, which has a history of taking sides when it comes to covering fracking, attempts to lend credibility to a dubious allegation from drilling critics, citing “the agency’s [EPA’s] weakness relative to the politically potent fossil fuel industry.”

ICN quotes Briana Mordick, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who said,

“Our expectations are low about getting anything conclusive about whether the risks with fracking are insurmountable or manageable.”

The NRDC followed up with a piece on NRDC’s Switchboard blog last week, complaining about the so-called “industry influence” on EPA. The blog was a great example of circular advocacy, as the NRDC cited the ICN report as supposed evidence that EPA’s report won’t tell us much:

“Unfortunately, recently released documents from the EPA reveal that the agency has narrowed the scope of the study and the data available, as a result of industry influence.  This, combined with comments from some close to the study, does not inspire confidence in what the draft will look like. Indeed, recent reports suggest it will not provide a clear answer on the risks fracking poses to drinking water.”

What’s really going on here? Could it be that NRDC, ICN, and other activists suspect EPA’s report isn’t going to find any evidence of groundwater contamination – an argument on which they have hinged their credibility as advocates for “the environment”?

Before we get to that, though, let’s address the claim that the EPA is doing industry’s bidding, an accusation that is laughable at best.

In May of 2012, the Washington Post editorial board said that the EPA was “earning a reputation for abuse,” primarily due to its attack on the industry and its lackluster handling of fracking issues.  That editorial came shortly after the release of a video showing then-EPA Region 6 Administrator, Al Armendariz, explaining that EPA’s philosophy was to “crucify” oil and gas producers – to “hit them as hard as you can” and “make examples of them.”

Armendariz was forced to resign in the wake of the “crucify” video and now works for the Sierra Club, which is aggressively campaigning to shut down all fossil fuel development in the United States. In its article, ICN explains that it relied on “[m]ore than a half-dozen former high-ranking EPA, administration and congressional staff members.” Could one of them have been Armendariz?

Furthermore, as the Wall Street Journal reported late last year, the Obama administration is moving forward with at least nine new federal rules on U.S. oil and natural gas activities, an effort the Journal describes as being “aimed at burnishing President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy in his final two years.” The rules include measures from the EPA, such as new restrictions on methane emissions.

Far from the claims of industry supposedly calling the shots, there is a well-documented history of influence from anti-fossil fuel groups within the EPA. As the New York Times reported last summer, the NRDC has been working hand in glove with EPA to write some of the most expansive environmental regulations in U.S. history. As E&E News reported a little over a year ago, “it would be hard to find a group with more connections in state or federal agencies than NRDC.” Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol added: “NRDC seems to me to be very pleased that it can fall back on writing reports and getting EPA to do things through legal action” (emphasis added).

The EPA has been known to have what the Times Picayune called a “cozy relationship” with other activist groups like the Bucket Brigade, which played a starring role in the dubious scientific case against fracking in New York.  They also have come to the aid of Keystone XL and Pebble mine opponents.

Late last year, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) released a report outlining the how the EPA has worked closely with the very groups ICN cites on hydraulic fracturing issues as well.  From the report:

“Many of the Administration’s policies affecting oil and natural gas were laid out in a 2007 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report outlining the group’s regulatory agenda to attack domestic oil and natural gas development. The EPA and its far-left allies are accomplishing many of NRDC’s stated policy goals in response to sue-and-settle arrangements or through a similar friendly petition process.”

As for ICN and NRDC’s claims that the industry somehow made EPA tighten the scope of its groundwater study, the EPW report explains what actually happened regarding the study’s parameters:

“Despite clear Congressional language, EPA tried to alter the mandated scope of its inquiry to seize any potential opportunity to justify a federal regulatory power grab. Emails obtained by the Committee provide evidence of EPA scheming to push the limits of the study’s parameters. In one instance, an email from an EPA official and member of the hydraulic fracturing study steering committee reveals that as of March 11, 2010:

‘[The official] was successful (at least for now) in getting the most expansive scope definition. Still limited to drinking water, but would include the drawdowns of fresh water (surface, ground or utility supplied) used to make-up the frac fluids (2 to 7 million gallons a frac event), the fracturing process itself, and waste management issues like produced water handling, spills, waste pits that might impact surface or ground water sources.’ (emphasis added).

After unilaterally expanding the study, EPA ignored warnings by the Science Advisory Board (SAB) that its scope was too broad, inconsistent, and included aspects not directly related to the hydraulic fracturing process.” (emphasis added)

Why did EPA decide to take this course and broaden the study?  As a meeting summary from 2010 between EPA and environmental groups explains, anti-fracking groups

“expressed concern that the study will not include all aspects of the HF and natural gas extraction process. EPA will use a lifecycle framework to organize the study. While a complete mass balance will most likely be beyond the scope of the study, EPA is currently planning to consider all stages of HF activities, including initial water withdrawals and waste storage and disposal.”

EPA apparently complied with their wishes, and in so doing went far beyond what Congress clearly mandated for the study. In other words, greens pushed EPA to broaden the scope of the study, and are now alleging, essentially, that the EPA is no longer doing their bidding.

Interestingly, when EPA first launched its study, the New York Times quoted NRDC’s Amy Mall in a March 19, 2010 article as saying,

“We are very pleased that the EPA is responding to families across the country who are concerned that oil and gas development is contaminating their drinking water” and “we eagerly await the results [of the EPA study].” (emphasis added)

Having gotten EPA to expand the scope of its study beyond what Congress had authorized, the NRDC, ICN, and other green groups are now attempting to move the goal posts again.

Why would that be the case?

Given NRDC’s well-known, cozy relationship with EPA, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the group knows something that the rest of us do not – namely, that the EPA’s extensive review of the evidence shows nothing to indicate that hydraulic fracturing poses a credible risk to groundwater. Certainly, that would undercut the primary argument that anti-fracking groups have used to try to restrict oil and natural gas production.

And if a highly-anticipated report reveals that such a risk is exceedingly low, then the multi-million dollar advocacy campaign against hydraulic fracturing will have an interest in trying to undermine the science that supports that fact – and indeed has supported it for over half a century. What better way to do that than sowing the seeds of doubt before the study is ever released? How else could one explain NRDC’s complete flip-flop on the value of EPA’s groundwater study?

In the end, ICN is simply parroting anti-fracking group’s favorite bogeyman: “industry influence” at the highest levels of government. But in its haste to promote that fringe movement’s conspiracy theories, ICN apparently missed a far bigger story.

1 Comment

Post A Comment