From The Editor | January 17, 2013

A Fracking Coverup?


By Kevin Westerling

Kevin Westerling

I’m not inclined to pick on the EPA, but in the wake of the recent report that they overstepped their authority on stormwater regulation, I saw that The Associated Press did an exposé charging the EPA with suppressing information on hydraulic fracturing’s link to drinking water contamination.

According to AP, the EPA took rare and severe steps in late 2010 in response to an alert that a Texas family’s water was “bubbling like champagne.”  The homeowner, Steve Lipsky of the Fort Worth suburb Weatherford, further claimed that he could ignite the water coming from his garden hose. In response, the EPA superseded state authority and issued an emergency order — both unusual measures — due to the “immediate danger” posed by the methane present in Lipsky’s well. Yet now, even after an independent report (sanctioned by the EPA itself) seemed to provide clarity on the issue by connecting a nearby gas-drilling operation to the contamination, the EPA has curiously rescinded the mandate that would have required the implicated company, Range Resources, to ensure clean water to homeowners.

Why the sudden change of course? Based on a confidential report and testimony obtained by AP, the EPA dropped the emergency order because Range Resources threatened to pull out of an EPA study on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking,” for short) and its potential harmful effects on drinking water sources.

Fracking, the practice of using pressurized fluid to extract oil and gas reserves from deep within rock formations, is a controversial technique for this very reason. It’s been called an unprecedented energy opportunity for the United States, and also a substantial pollution risk. I myself have vacillated on the issue, mostly because of the back-and-forth conclusions issued by researchers and scientists — a group to which I usually defer. These days, however, it seems each side of the issue has their own researchers and their own scientists to help push their agenda.

This recent news muddies the waters even more. The EPA is typically seen as the foil to the oil industry, yet it tucked this supposed smoking gun away. How did Range Resources get leverage over the EPA simply by refusing to take part in a broad, national study? Surely the study could have been carried on without their participation. Meanwhile, the bird in hand was the conclusion of Geoffrey Thyne, the independent scientist who said the gas in Lipsky’s well mirrored the gas from the production site located a mile from his home. That information only came to light now, thanks to AP, so whatever forces were at play in the decision to suppress it, transparency and public awareness were the casualties — to say nothing of the Lipskys’ health concerns.

Whatever amounts from this discovery or the multitude of studies that are sure to keep coming — whether by the federal government, oil companies, or “independent” scientists — one thing is for certain: the viability of hydraulic fracturing hinges on water treatment technology. If we can prove that these vast oil and natural gas reserves can be tapped in a way that is safe to the public and environment, the objections would cease (save for the truly stubborn) and the U.S. economy would get the boost we’ve all been hoping for.

Let’s turn on technology, so we can turn down the noise.

Who can we trust in the fracking saga? Please share your thoughts below...