Sustained Outrage

ProPublica: As Obama touts gas, EPA retreats

President Barack Obama speaks about climate change at Georgetown University in Washington, Tuesday, June 25, 2013. The president is proposing sweeping steps to limit heat-trapping pollution from coal-fired power plants and to boost renewable energy production on federal property, resorting to his executive powers to tackle climate change and sidestepping the partisan gridlock in Congress. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Last week, when President Obama unveiled his broad plan for trying to slow climate change, West Virginia political leaders acted as if coal was the only thing the president talked about. As we reported in the Gazette, the president also voiced very strong support for continuing to increase natural gas drilling:

West Virginia’s political leaders raced this week to attack President Obama’s climate change plan and its potential impacts on the already declining coal business, but they didn’t mention another key part of the administration’s plan: strong support for continued growth in natural gas drilling, especially in places like the Marcellus Shale region.

During his landmark speech Tuesday at Georgetown University, Obama praised shale-gas drilling as a cheaper, cleaner fuel that can power the nation and create thousands of new jobs.

“It’s the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future,” Obama said.

The White House’s 21-page climate plan adopts the natural gas industry’s line that gas is a “bridge fuel” that generates fewer greenhouse gases and is ripe for replacing coal in power plants and gasoline or diesel as vehicle fuel.

As we also explained:

Obama acknowledged that more needs to be done to make natural gas drilling safe for water supplies and surrounding communities. The president also noted the need to better control leaks of the potent greenhouse gas methane from natural gas production, an issue that scientists say urgently needs more attention before the drilling boom advances much more. However, the president still cited it — along with renewable sources — as providing “clean energy.”

“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 in his speech Tuesday.

Obama’s strong push on natural gas didn’t sit well with everyone in West Virginia, where environmental groups say a new state drilling law is far too weak and questions persist about whether new gas-industry jobs are going to in-state residents or not.

“We look forward to a day when the administration sees fracked gas for what it is — a fossil fuel of the past and a threat to public health,” said Jim Kotcon, conservation chairman of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

And now, ProPublica has an important new piece headlined EPA’s Abandoned Wyoming Fracking Study One Retreat of Many:

When the Environmental Protection Agency abruptly retreated on its multimillion-dollar investigation into water contamination in a central Wyoming natural gas field last month, it shocked environmentalists and energy industry supporters alike.

In 2011, the agency had issued a blockbuster draft report saying that the controversial practice of fracking was to blame for the pollution of an aquifer deep below the town of Pavillion, Wy. – the first time such a claim had been based on a scientific analysis.

The study drew heated criticism over its methodology and awaited a peer review that promised to settle the dispute. Now the EPA will instead hand the study over to the state of Wyoming, whose research will be funded by EnCana, the very drilling company whose wells may have caused the contamination.

Reporter Abrahm Lustgarten explains:

Industry advocates say the EPA’s turnabout reflects an overdue recognition that it had over-reached on fracking and that its science was critically flawed.

But environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.

The story runs through a list of EPA retreats and then reports:

The EPA says that the string of decisions is not related, and the Pavillion matter will be resolved more quickly by state officials. The agency has maintained publicly that it remains committed to an ongoing national study of hydraulic fracturing, which it says will draw the definitive line on fracking’s risks to water.

In private conversations, however, high-ranking agency officials acknowledge that fierce pressure from the drilling industry and its powerful allies on Capitol Hill – as well as financial constraints and a delicate policy balance sought by the White House — is squelching their ability to scrutinize not only the effects of oil and gas drilling, but other environmental protections as well.

Contrary to a recent Associated Press account that told readers “it’s hard to nail down how often natural gas drilling is contaminating drinking water,” the ProPublica report noted that a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences actually “underscored a link between the methane contamination in water in Dimock and across the Marcellus shale, and the gas wells being drilled deep below.”

The story concludes:

That leaves the EPA’s highly anticipated national study on hydraulic fracturing … It will be a long time before the EPA’s national study can inform the debate over fracking. While the agency has promised a draft by late 2014, it warned last month that no one should expect to read the final version before sometime in 2016, the last full year of President Obama’s term.