The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently in the midst of conducting an important, potentially decisive study on the safety of natural gas “fracking” in the United States. When completed, this study is likely to play a major role in determining the future course of federal policy with regard to this entire natural gas “fracking” industry. In a paper outlining its plan for the study, EPA provides important context and background:
…As the use of hydraulic fracturing has increased, so have concerns about its potential impact on human health and the environment, especially with regard to possible effects on drinking water resources. These concerns have intensified as hydraulic fracturing has spread from the southern and western regions of the US to other settings, such as the Marcellus Shale, which extends from the southern tier of New York through parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, eastern Ohio, and western Maryland…
In response to escalating public concerns and the anticipated growth in oil and natural gas exploration and production, the US Congress directed EPA in fiscal year 2010 to conduct research to examine the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water resources…
In addition, EPA promises that, in conducting its research, it will employ “the best available science, independent sources of information, and a transparent, peer-reviewed process that will ensure the validity and accuracy of the results.” EPA also pledges to “work in consultation with other federal agencies, state and interstate regulatory agencies, industry, non-governmental organizations, and others in the private and public sector in carrying out this study,” including ”work with industry and other stakeholders to conduct two prospective case studies in different regions of the US.”
Theoretically, this approach could work out alright, but as the saying goes, “the devil’s in the details.” Specifically, our question – and, frankly, our serious concern – relates to how much sway the natural gas “fracking” industry itself will end up having over the sources of information feeding into this study, as well as over the analysis of that information. Ideally, the answer to this question should be “very little influence,” given that the industry has a major financial stake in the outcome and significant influence with policymakers in Congress and elsewhere. In practice, however, at least according to this story by PennEnergy, it sounds like the natural gas industry’s level of influence might be much greater than it should be. As the PennEnergy story explains:
In a collaborative effort, Chesapeake Energy Corporation consultants collected split samples with the EPA from 15 individual drinking water sources for analysis by accredited laboratories. Chesapeake then commissioned WESTON Solutions, Inc. to critically evaluate the results and compare them with more than 4,000 historic and baseline groundwater samples in the area. Approximately 310 of these samples came from the United States Geologic Survey’s public databases and predate any Marcellus Shale natural gas development activity in the area. Based on the data evaluated, WESTON has concluded these drinking water sources have not been impacted by Marcellus Shale natural gas development activity – including hydraulic fracturing.
So, based on this story at least, it appears that one powerful, wealthy natural gas fracking company – Chesapeake Energy (a company which is currently embroiled in controversy and potential wrongdoing) - was able to collect its own data, then hire its own consultant to analyze that data they themselves had collected. The result, not coincidentally it would appear, was exactly what Chesapeake Energy would want it to be, namely that “drinking water sources have not been impacted by Marcellus Shale natural gas development activity – including hydraulic fracturing.”
The question is whether the public interest is best served in this way – allowing a major natural gas company, one with a strong vested interest in the results, to collect and test water pollution most likely caused by its own operations, for use in a potentially decisive EPA study regarding future regulation of that company’s own industry. It certainly raises caution flags for us.