In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched an ambitious and highly consequential study of the risks that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, poses to American drinking water supplies.
“This is about using the best possible science to do what the American people expect the EPA to do – ensure that the health of their communities and families are protected,” Paul Anastas, Assistant Administrator for the agency's Office of Research and Development, said in 2011.
But the EPA's study has been largely shaped and re-shaped by the very industry it is supposed to investigate, as energy company officials were allowed to edit planning documents, insisted on vetting agency contractors, and demanded to review federal scientist's field notes, photographs and laboratory results prior to publication, according to a review by DeSmog of over 3,000 pages of previously undisclosed emails, confidential draft study plans and other internal documents obtained through open records requests.
Company officials imposed demands so infeasible that the EPA ultimately dropped a key goal of the research, their plans to measure pollution levels before and after fracking at two new well sites, the documents show.
All told, the documents raise serious questions about the study's credibility and they highlight a certain coziness between the EPA and Chesapeake Energy, one of the most aggressive oil and gas companies in the shale gas rush.
“[Y]ou guys are part of the team here,” one EPA representative wrote to Chesapeake Energy as they together edited study planning documents in October 2013, “please write things in as you see fit”.
Chesapeake took them up on the offer.
Company officials repeatedly pushed EPA to narrow the scope of the national study to focus exclusively on the fracturing stage, the documents show, even though the agency had already announced that the study would include drilling, wastewater disposal and other parts of the process (times when water contamination can often occur).
“It appears the EPA has extended the scope of the study to include all development activities,” a company representative wrote, objecting to language used in study plans in October 2013. “CHK recommends that the EPA focus only on hydraulic fracturing.” CHK refers to Chesapeake Energy.
Though it is not clear whether Chesapeake's attempts to wordsmith were adopted by the EPA, the company did successfully pressure the agency to start its baseline testing at a Chesapeake site later in the oil and gas extraction process, after drilling was completed.
The reason this matters to the public is that it meant that EPA's tests would not be able to spot problems that emerged during the stages before the actual fracking stage, effectively narrowing the scope of the research.
Read also: EPA's National Study into Fracking Narrowed as Key Goals Fall by Wayside Due to Industry Pressure
In a sort of death-by-a-thousand lashes approach, the company created other delays in the study.
For example, EPA's plans to focus on a Chesapeake site in the Haynesville Shale were put in jeopardy when the company decided to move forward with drilling before the EPA would be able to take its baseline testing.
“We are disappointed that all our collective work associated with that site cannot be accomplished based on these documents,” Chesapeake wrote to the EPA on February 6, 2012, “but will nonetheless work with you to find another prospective site.” A draft EPA statement asserted that this would not affect the study's overall timing – but the agency went on to miss the deadline described in that document.
Chesapeake next used their ability to edit the documents to raise additional objections that ultimately led the EPA to cancel their testing plans altogether.
“Given the current schedule, there does not appear to be enough time to capture the seasonal variation in sample characteristics, however this is critical to determining if a change is significant,” Chesapeake warned EPA in October 2013.
Federal environmental officials later cited this issue in explaining why their agency has been unable to find any suitable well sites to conduct its testing.
“For a location to be suitable, it is necessary to gather a minimum of one year of characterization data for ground water and surface water prior to and following unconventional exploration activities in the study area, and for there to be no other hydraulic fracturing activities on adjacent properties, currently or potentially leased, during the entire study period, which could last several years,” Claudia Meza-Cuadra, Office of Science Policy of the EPA, wrote in a June 13, 2014 email to a Greenpeace representative who inquired if testing plans were cancelled. “Unfortunately, so far we have not identified a suitable location.”
In essence, the industry successfully bogged the federal agency down, eventually forcing the EPA to lower its ambitions.
The role Chesapeake and other industry officials are playing in re-shaping the EPA's study matters.
Historically, regulation of oil and gas drilling has largely been left to states. Federal lawmakers pushed for the EPA to conduct its own national study as a potential first step toward imposing tighter and more uniform rules on the industry. But this study, which has proceeded at a glacial pace, has progressively been watered down since the outset.
Initially, the study was supposed to consist of four distinct parts. It would use powerful computers to model theoretical risks, investigate reported contamination in five states, devote itself to precise quality control, and crucially, directly measure pollutant levels before and after fracking at two separate well sites, to show what changed after the industry began its work.
But EPA's plan — especially for the direct measurement part of the study — called for a heavy reliance on industry cooperation and voluntary agreements about access to drilling and fracking sites. Companies like Chesapeake Energy and Range Resources used this to extract a series of promises from the EPA (and their leverage increased as other companies in the industry declined to participate in the study). The documents reviewed by DeSmog were provided by Greenpeace, which obtained them through an open records request.
Range Resources Enjoyed Favorable Treatment from EPA
For example, a confidential agreement between Range Resources and the EPA shows a series of concessions by federal officials. Three days notice was to be given before scientists visited the well site. Scientists were to be accompanied by a company expert at all times. Range was to be given accelerated access to any test results showing possible contamination. Range would be given 30 days to review “any draft report” using data from their sites before publication. The company would be provided with copies of all pictures and video taken at the site.
Companies were also promised the ability to take samples at the same time and locations as EPA, enabling them to conduct their own shadow studies. The industry used that access to hire a contractor to conduct a review of the EPA's study. Emails between top level EPA officials show repeated references to those reviews.
EPA officials declined to respond to specific questions from DeSmog surrounding the documents, but did point to the agency's commitment to robust involvement by stakeholders. “[F]rom a scientific point of view and working with the budget Congress gave us, we have been gathering the data necessary to best answer the scientific questions that were posed in the hydraulic fracturing study,” EPA spokesperson Liz Purchia wrote in an email to DeSmog.
Over the past two years, while the federal research has dragged, in no small part due to the extensive energy industry involvement, consensus opinion within the broader scientific community has begun to coalesce on the serious risks posed by fracking. Two thirds of scientists surveyed in January by the Pew Research Center oppose increased use of fracking, while 31 percent support it.
A representative from API failed to respond to a request for comment from DeSmog, but API has previously called for EPA to pay greater attention to input from stakeholders such as oil and gas drillers.
And yet, the documents highlight that the industry has no shortage of access to the study.
EPA officials repeatedly offered to allow Chesapeake Energy to fund additional sampling (“If CHK wants 3 [samples], they can pay for it,” an EPA official tells the company, for example). It is not clear whether Chesapeake paid for additional tests or whether such data was integrated in the federal study. If either occurred it could raise questions about the independence of the federal agency's research.
“Review of the field results is very important and needs to be conducted immediately after sample collection by both EPA and CHK jointly,” a company official wrote in the margins of EPA's planning documents, objecting to EPA's plans to have field results reviewed by EPA and its contractor.
The companies also used their access to planning documents to sow the seeds for later objections. For example, Chesapeake officials called for all other possible sources of contamination within a three-mile radius of wells to be identified. They pushed for the EPA to limit their testing to shallower depths of underground water supplies. They criticized the types of testing and the substances to be tested for. They called for the EPA to describe exactly how they will distinguish between various possible causes for any changes in chemical levels revealed by tests.
But the oil and gas industry is not the only outside interest group playing an active role in federal research that was supposed to be independent.
The documents show active participation from former and current political appointees.
For instance, the documents show Heather Zichal, former Obama White House Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, was involved in discussions surrounding the study. Ms. Zichal has been nominated to the board of directors of Cheniere Energy, which plans to export Liquified Natural Gas through a LNG terminal in Corpus Cristi, as DeSmog recently reported.
The role played by White House level oversight drew some mild chiding from EPA officials involved in the study. “This is after all a scientific study” Robert M. Sussman, a Senior Policy Counselor for the EPA, wrote in a June 2012 email to others high up in the agency, including then-administrator Lisa Jackson, “and the scientists need some room to do their work.”
Photo Credit: “Pipette adding fluid to one of several test tubes”, via Shutterstock.