EPA official defends Pavillion fracking study, but warns of its limits

A top Environmental Protection Agency official on Wednesday fended off Republican and industry attacks on the agency’s controversial draft study that found hydraulic fracturing likely caused groundwater contamination in Pavillion, Wyo.

In testimony before Congress, Jim Martin, EPA regional administrator for the area that includes Pavillion, rebuffed accusations that the agency’s sampling, data analysis and findings were flawed. He also rejected allegations that EPA hadn’t consulted with industry representatives and state officials in Wyoming, saying the agency reached out to various stakeholders at all phases of the study.

“EPA has acted carefully, thoughtfully, deliberately, and transparently in our ground water investigation and in sharing the data and findings contained in our draft report,” Martin said in written testimony to the House Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. “We have applied the highest standards of scientific rigor.”

In its draft report released in December, the EPA said it had found synthetic chemicals associated with natural-gas production and hydraulic-fracturing fluids inside deep water wells in the region. But it came under fire from industry and Republicans almost immediately.

EPA has put out a request for peer reviewers and extended public comment period on the study into March. Martin stressed that the study isn’t final and “that our analysis is limited to the particular geologic conditions in the Pavillion gas field and should not be assumed to apply to fracturing in other geologic settings.”

Tom Doll, supervisor of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and a critic of EPA’s study, responded: “This fact is lost in the public reaction to EPA’s announcement, and a worldwide damnation of hydraulic fracturing has occurred.”

Industry executives have insisted that hydraulic fracturing is safe. But the draft study has prompted calls for tougher regulation of fracturing, in which mixtures of water, chemicals and sand are injected at high pressures underground to break up shale rock and free trapped oil and gas.

On Wednesday Republicans accused EPA of distorting its findings to the press. House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall, R-Texas, said the study shows EPA is “going after fracking everywhere they can.”

Martin told Hall that the scientists who did the study approved of the agency’s press outreach efforts.

Bernard Goldstein, former EPA assistant administrator under President Ronald Reagan, said the public’s concerns about the possible health effects of unconventional gas drilling are warranted and more research is needed soon.

He added he would support a pause in drilling expansion until the public-health effects are better understood.

“What is the rush?” he said. “Unless the Canadians can horizontally drill under Lake Erie to get to the Marcellus shale, that gas is not going to anyone but us.”

Before the hearing Josh Fox, director of “Gasland,” a controversial documentary critical of hydraulic fracturing, was arrested for unlawful entry, according to Capitol police.

Republicans had objected to his filming the hearing, saying he didn’t have the necessary press credentials. Fox refused to turn off his camera upon request by Capitol police, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s GOP staff said in a statement.

On party-line votes the subcommittee rejected a Democratic motion to allow him to film and a subsequent motion to recess the hearing for a week to let him get credentials. The arrest and resulting fallout delayed the hearing’s start by almost an hour.

Republicans further criticized the EPA for releasing 622 pages of documents on the study the night before the hearing, not allowing enough time for the committee to review them.

“It’s unfortunate that this transparency appears only to have been compelled by the calling of a congressional oversight hearing,” said Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., subcommittee chairman.

Wyoming officials and Encana Corp., the gas field owner in Pavillion, have accused EPA of not following agency protocols for sampling and data analysis in its study. They also contend the EPA held onto samples too long before analyzing them and may have caused some of its own contamination in drilling its water wells.

Martin insisted EPA did follow proper protocols and used its “highest level” quality-assurance procedures. He said an independent contractor helped do audits of data quality and technical systems in the laboratory and the field.

He added: “Where sample holding times where exceeded, EPA protocols were followed and professional judgment was used to determine the appropriate use of the data.”

Martin said EPA was open to the Wyoming government’s suggestion of doing more studies in Pavillion, “which we believe is important considering the results of our initial investigation.”

Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group, used the hearing to call for stricter oversight of EPA science.

“There is an inherent conflict between EPA’s regulatory and compliance roles, and its ability to conduct objective science,” Sgamma said.

This story was last updated at 5:30 p.m.