The Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) has dropped its two cents into the debate over the validity of a draft Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on the potential link of groundwater contamination to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Pavillion, WY.

RRC commissioners appealed to the EPA to classify the Pavillion draft report as a “highly influential scientific assessment” as has been requested by several members of Congress.

The commissioners said in their letter that EPA has been directed by the Obama administration to classify its report as “highly influential” if “it is determined that the dissemination is novel, controversial or precedent-setting. We believe this report is definitely both novel and controversial since it is the first time a governmental body has put forth an assessment that attempts to link groundwater contamination to hydraulic fracturing. Once this classification is applied, the draft report will be subject to stringent peer review requirements, which we believe is of paramount importance.”

The RRC and the EPA are anything but strangers — and anything but friends. The state and federal regulatory bodies have scrapped publicly numerous times over what the former generally views as the intrusion of the federal government into state business and the latter views as the failure of the state to adequately protect citizens and the environment.

Commissioner Barry Smitherman recalled the RRC’s disagreement with the EPA over the allegation that producer Range Resources Corp. contaminated water wells in the Barnett Shale in North Texas with its fracking activities (see Shale Daily, March 23, 2011).

“Unfortunately, the EPA seems to be using the same template here that they did in the Range Resources case: first, make a preliminary, unproven assertion that will be perceived by the media and the public as a condemnation of hydraulic fracturing, then quietly back away once the science has proved the assertions to be false,” Smitherman said.

During a recent U.S. House subcommittee hearing on the Pavillion draft report, industry representatives lamented how the document has been taken up as a call to arms among some of those who oppose fracking (see Shale Daily, Feb. 2). EPA’s Pavillion report also has put the agency at odds with the state of Wyoming. However, the state’s governor, Matt Mead, has been more restrained in his comments on EPA and its report (see Shale Daily, Feb. 8) than regulators in Texas have historically been about the agency.

Encana Corp., the producer whose fracking is under the microscope at EPA, has blasted the agency’s draft report as being seriously flawed. Subsidiary Encana Oil & Gas USA Inc. has said many of the EPA’s findings are “conjecture, not factual” and “only serve to trigger undue alarm” (see Shale Daily, Dec. 21, 2011; Dec. 13, 2011).

RRC commissioners highlighted a number of concerns in their letter, including their assertions that the EPA did not consider other potential sources of poor water quality in Pavillion, and also that the agency dismissed reports of problems with groundwater quality in the Pavillion area prior to any hydraulic fracturing activity.

“The Railroad Commission of Texas bases its regulatory decisions on science and fact,” said RRC Chair Elizabeth Ames Jones. “It appears EPA reached its conclusions based on limited and questionable data.”

EPA stressed that its findings in its draft report are unique to Pavillion, where fracking has taken place both in and below the drinking water aquifer, conditions that are not common elsewhere in the United States or Texas, the RRC said. There have been no documented cases of the process of fracking harming groundwater in Texas, according to the RRC.

“Usable quality groundwater has not been impacted in Texas because the fracturing of tight shales occurs very deep underground, and strict well construction requirements ensure no hydraulic fracturing fluid can escape the wellbore,” the RRC said. “In Texas, hydraulic fracturing occurs sometimes a mile or more below aquifers, with many thousands of feet of isolating rock in between fresh water zones and the hydraulically fractured zone.”

“This is one more example of the federal government trying to pre-empt state regulatory authority in the oil and gas industry and it must be stopped,” said Commissioner David Porter.