By Tom Kenworthy, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress Action Fund
Rather than face the unpleasant fact that hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells actually can lead to contamination of underground water supplies, Republicans on a subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee yesterday decided to shoot the messenger.
The messenger – no surprise here – is the Environmental Protection Agency, which in early December released a draft report based on a three-year investigation into possible groundwater contamination by natural gas drilling near Pavillion, Wyoming. The report concluded that hydraulic fracturing and other gas development drilling practices likely contributed to the contamination of groundwater by a suite of chemicals including materials found in fracking fluids. EPA is now in the process of having the draft report peer reviewed.
As Region 8 EPA administrator Jim Martin said in his prepared testimony today, aquifers appear to have been contaminated by fracking fluid:
Analysis of samples taken from the deep monitoring wells in the aquifer indicates detection of benzene, methane, and synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids.
That carefully calibrated conclusion – including EPA statements that the geology around Pavillion is unique and that the study’s conclusions aren’t transferable to other gas producing areas – has shaken defenders of the oil and gas industry and its widespread practice of hydraulic fracturing. That process pumps a mixture of water, chemicals and sand at high pressure deep underground to stimulate production of natural gas from shale formations. Combined with advances in horizontal drilling it has opened up vast new reserves of shale gas for development extending from New York State to Texas.
As concerns about threats to drinking water supplies have mounted with the spread of hydraulic fracturing, the oil and gas industry and its allies have frequently claimed that there has never been a documented case of groundwater contamination through fracking. Typical of those claims was ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson’s statement in congressional testimony in 2010 that “There have been over a million wells hydraulically fractured in the history of the industry, and there is not one, not one, reported case of a freshwater aquifer having ever been contaminated from hydraulic fracturing.”
Because the EPA’s draft report deals a serious if not fatal blow to those claims, the industry is fighting furiously to discredit the EPA’s methods and conclusions in the Pavillion study.
Appearing before the subcommittee today, Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, accused EPA of being “a political body, not a disinterested scientific institution” and charged the agency had rushed its report “without proper review and verification.”
Republican members of the science committee went even further. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), chairman of the panel’s energy and environment subcommittee, accused EPA of practicing “press release science” and “outcome-driven” regulation. Rep. Ralph M. Hall, chairman of the full committee, said the agency was “trying to build a case” for shutting down oil and gas production around the country.
But ranting and raving won’t make the damage disappear.
As EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a letter sent last month to Wyoming Gov. Matthew H. Mead, her agency’s study of the Pavillion issue was “rigorous, transparent and objective.” The evidence “supporting the likely role of fracturing in the observed contamination is exhaustively presented in our draft report,” she said.