The first thing to note about EPA's investigations into local cases concerning impacts of gas drilling on water is that they are few in number. To my knowledge, just the fingers on one had is enough to count them.
The EPA has intervened in three cases involving drilling or hydraulic fracturing--Parker County, Texas, Pavillion, Wyoming, and Dimock, Pennsylvania--and is also conducting a general investigation mandated by Congress. In each case, EPA has responded to sustained and often organized expressions of public concern.
EPA must respond to legitimate public concerns, but the Parker County, Pavillion, and Dimock cases are teaching the EPA through hard experience that beginning its own investigation is a truly big decision. Inevitably, these cases are complex, controversial, and also involve state regulators. None of that means the EPA should never intervene, but it does counsel the EPA to be always cautious about intervening.
Putting aside EPA's general investigation into hydraulic fracturing that is in its early stages but seems to be going well, let's focus on the three local cases in which the EPA has intervened. How is it doing?
During the afternoon of Friday, March 30, EPA Region 6 issued a public statement that effectively dropped its case against Range Resources concerning alleged contamination of water wells in Parker County. Range Resources will no longer be required to deliver water to two homes and will cooperate with EPA to monitor water quality at a number of water wells in the area.
The Friday afternoon timing of the EPA Region 6 statement concerning Parker County suggests EPA is less than pleased that it got involved in the Parker county case. Indeed, the Parker County matter includes a judge finding that evidence had been doctored by some opposed to gas drilling for the purpose of encouraging EPA to enforce against Range Resources. The judge's finding on a fabricated video is shocking reading and reminds that some are willing to trample truth to win.
Bottom line is that EPA should never have pursued action in Parker County. Its intervention was a mistake. On this one, EPA gets an F.
In the case of Pavillion, Wyoming, EPA issued a draft report and sought public comment. As a result of comments received from Encana and others, EPA has agreed to take more water samples. Some characterize the EPA process and response as examples of regulatory failure. I don't agree.
No matter what the additional water testing of the aquifer shows concerning whether or not hydraulic fracturing itself contaminated water, the EPA Pavillion investigation has apparently confirmed at least two events that are troubling. First, there seems to be no argument that storage pits did leak and did cause some water contamination, as the EPA report states. Second, there seems to be no argument that hydraulic fracturing was conducted within, at most, a few hundred feet of the aquifer, a practice that simply is too risky, regardless of whether contamination did or did not result.
As to EPA's willingness to do more water testing and sampling in Pavilion, in response to thoughtful criticisms made by Encana and others, I give credit to EPA for doing so and for establishing an investigation process that began with a draft of its Report issued to the public and then included an opportunity for public comments that the EPA has obviously taken seriously. These investigations are complex and difficult. The goal for a regulatory agency must be to establish the truth and not not to win for winning's sake. EPA is behaving in keeping with that duty.
To date on Pavillion, I give the EPA a tentative B minus, as the case is not over.
Dimock has become a political football, where most discussion of it contains big errors, and so I have viewed the EPA testing as an opportunity to clarify matters. I have never seen any evidence that hydraulic fracturing itself caused pollutants to contaminate anybody's water at Dimock, but substantial evidence established that gas did migrate, at least during 2009 and 2010, to 18 water wells, as a result of gas drilling.
On Dimock, I give the EPA a tentative B.
Three cases and three grades--F, B minus, and B--averages to a C for the EPA. If it completes well the Pavillion and Dimock investigations, EPA's cumulative grade could rise to a B for the three investigations, and that would be good for everyone.