The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was put in the hot seat Friday as House lawmakers took the agency to task for what they said are flawed reports on hydraulic fracturing (fracking), most notably the December 2011 report that found groundwater in Pavillion, WY, to be contaminated. That report was later retracted. Before directing any more funds to the EPA for reseach into fracking, the lawmakers demanded that it furnish Congress with more information on reseach activities so far.

The Pavillion draft report was “quite frankly wrong and completely impeached by subsequent work,” said Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) during a joint hearing by the Science, Space and Technology subcommittees on Energy and Environment (see NGI, Oct. 22, 2012). “[I’m] hugely frustrated with the EPA for the treatment of my state and hydraulic fracturing,” said Lummis, who is chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Energy. The “problem that I’m having is the EPA is not distinguishing between drinking water and groundwater.”

The “EPA’s past and ongoing hydraulic fracturing studies and investigations demonstrate a cart-before-the-horse approach to the science that should make members think seriously about whether a blank check [for fracking research] for the administration is a good policy,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), chairman of the Subcommittee on the Environment.

A recent report found that Eagle Ford Shale development in Texas is now producing 700,000 b/d of oil and natural gas liquids, but “unfortunately, a widely publicized handful of unsubstantiated charges that fracking pollutes groundwater has led many to question the safety of this practice. The EPA is at the center of this debate, linking fracking to water contamination in at least three cases, only to be forced to retract their statements after further scrutiny,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the full Science, Space and Technology Committee.

When it comes to fracking, the EPA is more interested “in a rush to judgment” and making media headlines, rather than making science-based decisions, said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX). In the upcoming Kentucky Derby, he said a horse — named Frac Daddy — will be running. His odds of winning are 45-1. “He has the same odds that you have with me,” Hall said to Kevin Teichman, senior science adviser for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

In April 2012, President Obama signed an executive order creating a senior-level task force charged with coordinating federal actions related to the development of unconventional natural gas (see NGI, April 16, 2012). Concurrent with the president’s announcement, the EPA, Department of Energy and the Department of Interior signed a memorandum of understanding committing to develop an interagency plan to guide implementation of the administration’s $45 million budget request to study environmental impacts associated with unconventional oil and gas production.

The agencies vowed to release a draft of the research plan by October 2012 and complete a final plan by January 2013. “Today, a year after the president’s original announcement, the administration has not even released a draft version of its plan for comment,” Lummis said. “I want the plan.”

Teichman told her that the plan was currently under development and that he would have it to her as soon as he could.

Until then, “Congress and the public have very few details regarding the administration’s ongoing activities in this area. In addition to last year’s $45 million request, the president is seeking an additional $38 million in fiscal year 2014. Our concerns regarding these activities are simple and straightforward: before Congress redirects tens of millions of dollars for this research effort, the administration must tell us what it wants to spend the money on,” Lummis said.

“Bringing sunlight to these activities is especially important given the administration’s embarrassing track record of unsubstantiated allegations when it comes to hydraulic fracturing.” She cited the EPA’s report that concluded that fracking contributed to water contamination in her home state of Wyoming. “In the days and weeks that followed this announcement, the state of Wyoming, industry and other federal agencies exposed EPA’s study as deeply flawed. Former [EPA] Administrator Lisa Jackson even admitting to me during questioning…that the EPA was not confident it had discovered groundwater contamination in Pavillion related to fracking.”

In addition to researching water contamination and air quality, the EPA and energy and interior departments are researching the impact of fracking on earthquake activity.

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