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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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House Dems Want EPA to Reopen Investigation on Fracking

Eight House Democrats sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on April 1, requesting the agency reopen an investigation into the effects of fracking on groundwater contamination. Specifically, there were three major cases of suspected contamination – in Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and Texas – and the EPA has largely abandoned the issue and left regulation to the states. The Democrats called on the EPA to step up and protect communities in those states from the effects of fracking.

“While we appreciate that states act as the major source of regulation for unconventional drilling operations, we believe the Environmental Protection Agency has a key role to play in oil and gas development. Despite the industry’s exemptions from some of our bedrock environmental laws, the EPA does have the power to help ease the burden of directly impacted communities,” they wrote in a letter to EPA on April 1. The letter was signed by Matt Cartwright (Pa.), Alan Lowenthal (Calif.), Jared Huffman (Calif.), Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Keith Ellison (Minn.), David Scott (Ga.), Mark Pocan (Wis.) and Rush Holt (N.J.).

Related Article: Colorado Sets US Fracking Rule Precedent

Although their request will likely go unheeded, it does highlight the degree to which the federal government has taken a back seat to regulating shale gas, letting the issue fall to the states. Of course, that is what the industry prefers, but it also appears to be the Obama administration’s preference as well. President Obama has calculated that shale gas is necessary for his broader clean energy agenda to work. He has positioned shale gas as a central pillar in the country’s transition towards cleaner energy.

That has meant that he has called off the environmental watchdog, at least when it comes to fracking (on coal, he is clearly unleashing the EPA to crack down). The EPA conducted a three-year study in Pavillion, Wyoming, and in a December 2011 publication, the EPA found evidence that tied fracking to groundwater contamination. Yet, on June 20, 2013, the EPA decided not to follow up on the issue, and abandon its work in Pavillion, passing off the responsibility to the state of Wyoming. “We applaud the leadership of Wyoming in conducting further investigation and assuring safe water and look forward to partnering with the State as it conducts its investigation,” Acting EPA Administrator Robert Perciasepe said at the time. The announcement to leave the issue with Wyoming state regulators, which are obviously much more favorable to the oil and gas industry, came just days before President Obama delivered his much heralded climate action plan at Georgetown University.

“And, again, sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this:  We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions,” the President said.

Related Article: White House Targets Methane Emissions

So there has been a calculation on the part of the White House not to kill the golden goose. The President wants to have it both ways – a clean energy economy, but still allow the U.S. to be a massive producer of oil and gas. It is kind of difficult to imagine a scenario in which those two desires can be reconciled, but the President seems intent on trying.

Last week, the administration released a plan to tackle methane emissions, 28% of which come from natural gas production. The extent to which the administration is serious on the issue remains to be seen – the EPA is going to study methane emissions over the next few months and publish a few reports. Then it will decide whether or not to take more action. Still, EPA action on methane is probably more likely at this point than the regulation of fracking that the House Democrats want. The administration seems content leaving the issue to the states.

By Nicholas Cunningham of Oilprice.com


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