It’s no mystery that President Obama is tying the country’s energy future to shale gas development. He articulated this commitment first in his campaign and later in his State of the Union Address. Now his actions show just how supportive his administration is to the industry’s quest to build demand and discourage regulation.
Last month, Obama approved policy for shale gas export terminals – a move the industry needs to capitalize on global markets and buoy prices needed to support aggressive expansion of domestic wells, infrastructure, and exploration. Those banking on shale gas received more good news last week, when the president, speaking to an international audience from Berlin, announced a federal plan to regulate CO2 emissions from coal. Coal regulations impact shale gas markets, as natural gas is a cheap alternative to coal at power plants. (I won’t get into the broader discussion here on shale gas versus coal as greenhouse gasses, other than to acknowledge there is fierce debate about the wisdom of embracing policy that encourages another generation of fossil fuel extraction.)
The administration’s gas industry-friendly stance, while good for natural gas investors, does not bode well for those hoping the federal government will step up regulations, or at least close loopholes to federal environmental laws. An exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act allows operators – with no disclosure -- to inject hazardous chemicals into the ground to stimulate well production; and exemptions from federal hazardous waste laws allows the industry to dispose of toxic waste through conventional methods.
Hours after the president announced to the world his proposal to regulate coal emissions, his EPA issued a press release without fanfare stating the agency is dropping a key investigation into a link between fracking and ground water contamination. Consequently, the agency will be turning its probe of groundwater pollution in Pavillion, Wyoming over to the state. It’s hard to overstate the symbolic importance of this. The EPA’s findings in Pavillion –- that fracking could be linked to groundwater pollution -- ran directly counter to claims by the industry that no such evidence exists. The EPA’s decision not to pursue the Pavillion case in the face of industry opposition illustrates how policy is made at the intersection of politics and science.
Obama has made his politics on shale gas clear. So what about the science? It’s mixed, inconclusive, and largely out of the line of public scrutiny because the industry controls it almost exclusively. There are places, however, where groundwater contamination has become so bad around shale gas fields that the EPA has stepped in. Among these places are Pavillion, Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania.
In Pavillion, the agency issued a summary of its investigation into polluted water wells near fracking operations on the Wind River Indian Reservation in 2011. Testing of two deep monitoring wells found:
detection of synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids, benzene concentrations well above Safe Drinking Water Act standards and high methane levels. Given the area’s complex geology and the proximity of drinking water wells to ground water contamination, EPA is concerned about the movement of contaminants within the aquifer and the safety of drinking water wells over time.
Testing of two drinking wells found:
chemicals consistent with those identified in earlier EPA samples include methane, other petroleum hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds. The presence of these compounds is consistent with migration from areas of gas production. Detections in drinking water wells are generally below established health and safety standards. In the fall of 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reviewed EPA’s data and recommended that affected well owners take several precautionary steps, including using alternate sources of water for drinking and cooking, and ventilation when showering. Those recommendations remain in place and EnCana [an operator] has been funding the provision of alternate water supplies.
Similarly, analysis of water tests prompted a federal investigation in Dimock in December, 2011. Following tests from the Pennsylvania DEP showing that methane from nearby drilling had polluted wells along Carter Road, officials at the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry found evidence of elevated levels of various solvents, metals, and glycols that posed “a possible chronic public health threat based on prolonged use of the water” in “at least some” of the Dimock wells. A follow up investigation by the EPA last year found elevated levels of arsenic, barium, manganese, and methane in five of 64 water wells.
So those are small but important examples of the science and politics at work. What was the policy outcome?
In Dimock, the EPA determined “no further action” necessary because the industry, which has denied responsibility for the pollution, has provided alternative drinking water or filtration systems to the affected homes. The EPA turned its results back over the ATSDR, with no timetable for the release of further analysis.
In Pavillion the EPA was working against the wishes of Encana, the company implicated in the investigation and which has denied responsibility. The EPA was also working against the wishes of the state of Wyoming, where officials were angered by the suggestion that the state’s efforts to control the industry fell short. Hence, the EPA’s announcement last week the was cast in an awkward tone attempting to defend its work while yielding to officials at Encana and the state who wanted the agency to butt out:
While EPA stands behind its work and data, the agency recognizes the State of Wyoming’s commitment for further investigation and efforts to provide clean water and does not plan to finalize or seek peer review of its draft Pavillion groundwater report released in December, 2011. Nor does the agency plan to rely upon the conclusions in the draft report.
The report went on to explain that the agency was working on a broader evaluation of fracking and groundwater. But the status of that, too, remained unclear. According to the press release, the report is expected next year. But an Associated Press report earlier this week said that the EPA report has now been delayed until 2016.
These are all clear signs that the EPA’s investigation into the safety of shale gas development – along with federal regulatory possibilities – have been put on the back burner if not abandoned all together. In the meantime, policing of the national shale gas boom will continue to be left to individual states in the absence of federal baselines, regional planning, and uniform rules. Measures to gauge and control the cumulative impact of fracking and waste disposal on water supplies, and the legacy of abandoned infrastructure for future generations, will be left to faith in the belief that capital markets can adequately protect public health and the environment.