INSIGHT: US ‘fracking’ controversy intensifies with EPA finding

08 December 2011 18:44  [Source: ICIS news]

US EPA raises new challenge to frackingBy Joe Kamalick

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--Controversy over the impact of hydraulic fracturing intensified this week as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that “fracking” is linked to drinking water contamination, a finding that a Republican senator charged is based on politics rather than science.

The EPA issued a draft report this week saying that fracking is the cause of contamination of drinking water supplies under the town of Pavillion, Wyoming.

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, was quick to challenge the EPA’s finding, contending that the agency was “trying to make the data conform to that conclusion, instead of engaging in an open scientific inquiry”.

“This is a serious problem,” Inhofe said in a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.

The senator also called the EPA finding premature and likely to undermine the two-year scientific study of fracking that the agency launched just last month.

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is the drilling technique that is critical to ongoing development of vast new US supplies of shale gas – natural gas deposits locked in deep shale rock formations that, until the recent combination of fracking and horizontal drilling, were thought to be unrecoverable.

The advent of shale gas has opened huge new natural gas feedstock options for the US petrochemical and downstream chemicals industries. 

As many as three petrochemical majors are considering building new world-scale crackers in the US to take advantage of what chemical industry economists term a game-changing development in gas feedstock resources.

But fracking, which involves the injection of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure to break up shale formations and release the gas, has come under broad attack by environmentalists who contend that chemicals used in the process are contaminating drinking water supplies.

The US energy industry argues that in the 60-plus years that fracking has been used in conventional oil and gas drilling operations there has not been a single proven case of drinking water contamination.

But now EPA says it has found that previously lacking “smoking gun” – hard evidence of water contamination due to fracking.

However, Inhofe argues that EPA administrator Jackson is jumping to conclusions, trying to force the desired result – fracking contaminates water supplies – from a two-year-long study of Pavillion’s water issues that so far has been inconclusive.

“I am concerned that EPA has pre-determined that hydraulic fracturing is the cause of contamination in their Pavillion investigation, and the agency is trying to make the data conform to that conclusion,” Inhofe charged.

He said that in several briefings over two years provided to him and his office staff by EPA district officials involved in the Wyoming investigation, including one as recently as last month, results from the Pavillion investigation were inconclusive and that “EPA was not making any conclusions or findings from the data”.

In a Senate hearing on Thursday morning, Inhofe charged that “EPA’s conclusions [about the Pavillion investigation] are not based on sound science but rather on political science”.

The senator went further, contending that EPA’s Thursday announcement about the Pavillion investigation implicating fracking “is part of President Obama’s war on fossil fuels and his determination to shut down natural gas production”.

He said he has asked Jackson for, and she has agreed to provide to him, all the data and methodology used from the Pavillion inquiry that supports a link between the town’s contaminated water supply and fracking.

By: Joe Kamalick
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