1. EPA water contamination study dropped
In 2011, the EPA released a preliminary report suggesting a connection between drinking water contamination and fracking in Pavillion, Wyoming. Late last week, the EPA suddenly abandoned the investigation altogether – the long-awaited peer review process, the conclusions, everything. Read here for more details. Although the study was replicated by the USGS and data from both agencies confirmed contamination in deeper areas of the aquifer by fracking fluid chemicals, skeptics found the studies inconclusive. It was not only that these conclusions were the first of their kind – hotly contested by industry officials and a lynchpin for anti-fracking activist organizations – but that the findings relied on data from test wells and not the actual domestic drinking water wells in question. The findings bear upon the question of which agencies (state, federal, government, private) should be charged with conducting unbiased, “scientifically supported” studies on such a politically contentious issue, where the stakes and number of lobbies involved are high. Is the integrity of the study compromised by the fact that local oil & gas commissions, companies, and the EPA can “weigh in” on the results?
Nevertheless, 20 citizens in the area have been provided drinking water cisterns after years of distress over foul water that many perceive is related to fracking operations. Now, Wyoming’s state government agencies will take over the research effort, bolstered by a $1.5 million grant from the company accused of contaminating the water – Encana Oil & Gas Inc. This effort will instead examine 14 in-use water wells near the Pavillion gas field to determine contamination. Spectators are torn as to whether the decision to pull out of the study was a step forward or backward and whether or not either research effort could be unbiased. After-all, there are not many studies of this kind and water contamination is among the biggest of concerns among the American public about fracking.
The significance of this event cannot be overstated. On the one hand, it’s important to remember that findings made across several states may vary because companies’ practices and well construction/maintenance procedures are different. In Arkansas, for example, a test of 127 wells in a region well-acquainted with the use of fracking found no fluid contaminants in the water supply. Contradicting reports don’t necessarily prove or disprove the potential risk of fracking fluid contamination – reports are regionally specific:
Far from contradicting the earlier studies, the Arkansas study ‘suggests that variations in local and regional geology play major roles in determining the possible risk of groundwater impacts from shale gas development. As such, they must be taken into consideration before drilling begins.’ (Futurity)
Who conducts the study is also of particular importance; the Arkansas study was conducted by researchers from Duke, while the Wyoming study both focused on a slim number of test wells and was conducted by the EPA and is now being passed onto industry-funded state agency research.
B) State > fed
This event also carries significance for the wobbly, ever-shifting debate about what role the federal government should play in determining regulations for this novel corner of the energy industry. As the EPA cedes both regulatory and research ground to state government agencies and industry partnerships, it could represent a broader shift on the part of federal government to leave crucial decisions about fracking up to state and local communities. Or it could be related to a lack of funding and general financial support for EPA research at the federal level. Regardless, officials from the agency have declared that they still stand by their findings, which raises questions about what responsibility the EPA should take on behalf of citizens in light of the risks they perceive or have even uncovered.
Some are dismayed that after four years of research, extended public comment periods, and delayed plans for an independent review of the EPA’s research, the EPA is simply dropping the case. Others have supported the motion; perhaps its best for states and local agencies to carry out their own investigations. Analysts from across the board recognize that, regardless of current political circumstances surrounding regulation and impact-testing, it’s difficult to pin down and study potential pollutant pathways whereby fracking chemicals could be migrating from deeper to more shallow areas of drinking water aquifers.
If reliable and unbiased impact studies are hard to come by, citizens may be reassured by the fact that state governments are passing relatively strict regulations for hydraulic fracturing operations anyways. Our Regulator of the Week goes to Illinois: governor Patt Quinn signed the nation’s most rigorous fracking regulatory bill into law on June 17. Notable provisions include requirements for companies to test and register water samples before and after fracking treatments and to fully disclose to the state all chemicals involved. Water quality is the chief concern referenced throughout the bill, which is no surprise considering that Illinois has weathered substantial droughts over the past few years and citizens have had to bear mandatory water use restrictions. Where fracking projects may now be legally underway, extra restrictions have been placed to protect the drinking water supply for sensitive populations while also placing extensive accountability on companies:
Illinois provides a rebuttable presumption, which, unless rebutted, presumes that high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing operations are responsible for pollution or diminution of a water supply if the well is within 1,500 feet of the water source, the background data did not identify the presence of the identified contaminant, or the pollution is discovered within 30 months of closure (Chicago attorney Bill Anaya).
Additionally, the law stipulates that any requests made by citizens for an investigation of their water supply, should they have fears about pollution, will be met by an investigation by the Department of Natural Resources within 30 days. In order to ensure that these regulations are enforced, the DNR will be hiring more engineers, inspectors, and attorneys in the coming months. Other states may well emulate the strong protections enacted by Illinois, which aims to attract investment and jobs from the oil & gas sector but balance those economic considerations with environmental and public health concerns.