EPA Defends Three Fracking Investigations, Will Work With States to Prevent Pollution

Bloomberg BNA -- The Environmental Protection Agency is working with states and will continue to do so to prevent or investigate groundwater contamination from shale gas drilling, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told a prominent environmental advocate.

McCarthy in a letter Jan. 10 was responding to a September letter from Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who accused the EPA of “a troubling trend of abandoning investigations of hydraulic fracturing before they are completed.”

Beinecke's letter to the EPA cited three high-profile investigations of well water contamination, all near natural gas wells where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, had been used to stimulate underground gas flow. The investigations were in Parker County, Texas, near a Range Resources Inc. gas well; at Pavillion, Wyo., near Encana Corp. gas wells; and at Dimock, Pa., near Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. gas wells.

McCarthy responded that the EPA in its investigations worked closely with individual states, “which have key capacity and regulatory authority relevant to unconventional oil and natural gas extraction.”

That didn't sit well with NRDC. Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the group, posted a blog commentary Jan. 15 saying the letter from McCarthy “reiterates the, frankly, lame non-explanations that EPA has previously proffered.”

State Regulation Addressed

Beinecke's letter said state oil and gas regulators “ignored citizen complaints.” When the EPA withdrew from the cases, “the public lost confidence that EPA was truly dedicated to investigating the risks of hydraulic fracturing and ensuring full enforcement of federal environmental statutes,” Beinecke said.

McCarthy's responding letter didn't fault state regulators or suggest they had ignored problems, nor did she attempt to address the question of what confidence the public may or may not have in the EPA.

The Parker County and Pavillion cases remain in the hands of state oil and gas regulators, and McCarthy said the EPA is ready to contribute as needed to those cases. The EPA ended its work in Dimock after concluding that there was no threat to public health and no further EPA action was needed.

McCarthy's reference to state capacity and authority reflected something state agencies have been saying not only in those cases but in questioning the need of enhanced federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing. State oil and gas agencies have been regulating and investigating oil and gas drilling and production for many decades, and that work routinely includes investigations of contamination complaints.

McCarthy's letter pointed out that the EPA has several regulatory initiatives involving unconventional oil and gas, including a pending guidance on fracking with diesel fuels, working with the Bureau of Land Management on a BLM update of oil and gas regulations involving fracking on federal lands, a rulemaking on reporting of toxic chemicals in fracking fluids and a study of the risks posed to drinking water from fracking.

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