Op-ed: EPA and Fracking – They Don’t Give a Frack About Us!
Reference article: Hydraulic Fracturing Dangers
So there is abundant evidence that the practice of fracking is wreaking havoc with our environment, and with our water supplies in particular, and these problems do cross state boundaries. It has gotten so bad, in fact, that a few states have had little choice but to place an outright ban on the practice. So isn’t there some US federal ABC-type agency that can put an end to this insanity? Where is the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) on this matter? Shouldn’t they be chiming in? After all, it is the charter of the EPA to “protect human health and the environment.” (EPA Charter can be read here).
Well, in fact, the EPA has been intimately involved in attempting to evaluate the safety aspects of fracking, and its efforts have met with mixed success. The story highlights a war taking place beneath our noses between the private corporate interests of oil and gas and those who wish to protect our environment and ourselves from harm.
To understand the power behind corporate lobby for oil and gas development, one need only look at the data reflecting money spent by said lobbyists to further their agenda. Obviously, if their efforts to influence peddle were not successful and well oiled – no pun intended, you would not see these huge expenditures year after year.
Below is a chart provided by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Short History of Federal Regulation Fracking – EPA and Fracking
- 1997: EPA gets involved with fracking regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act by order of U.S. Appeals for the 11th Circuit (Atlanta). This decision is spurred on by a complaint/petition that residential water well was contaminated as a result of hydraulic fracturing activity in the state of Alabama (1994)
- 2000: The FDA begins a 5-year study (concluded in 2004) to determine whether there is any merit to the argument that hydraulic fracturing causes contamination of underground sources of drinking water(USDWs).
- 2004: FDA concludes its study , and determines
“that the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into CBM wells poses little or no threat to USDWs.”
FDA also suggests that further research into this topic is not warranted.
- This conclusion creates a backlash from concerned scientists that the findings are not valid. In particular, Weston Wilson, a scientist who had been working at the EPA for 31 years, turned whistle blower, composed an 18-page document to Congress and to the Inspector General, citing:
“EPA’s conclusions are unsupportable. EPA has conducted limited research reaching the unsupported conclusion that this industry practice needs no further study at this time. EPA decisions were supported by a Peer Review Panel; however five of the seven members of this panel appear to have conflicts-of-interest and may benefit from EPA’s decision not to conduct further investigation or impose regulatory conditions.” (Source: Wilson’s Letter)
- 2005: Inspector General Nikki Tinsley expresses concern over EPA’s handling of the hydraulic fracturing study to warrant consideration of Wilson’s complaints. In parallel with this development, The Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) issues a review of the EPA study. They conclude:
“We found that EPA removed information from earlier drafts that suggested unregulated fracturing poses a threat to human health, and that the Agency did not include information that suggests fracturing fluids may pose a threat to drinking water long after drilling operations are completed. OGAP’s review of relevant data on hydraulic fracturing suggests that there is insufficient information for EPA to have concluded that hydraulic fracturing does not pose a threat to drinking water.” (Source: Our Drinking Water at Risk)
- 2005: Under the direction of Vice President Dick Cheney, formerly CEO of Halliburton (which holds patents on hydraulic fracturing), a task force was able to insert a provision into an energy bill that would be known as the “Halliburton Loophole,” exempting hydraulic fracturing from federal oversight under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This provision effectively removes the EPA’s ability to regulate hydraulic fracturing, placing control instead at the state level. Another ramification of the 2005 energy bill is that gas and oil companies do not have to disclose the toxic cocktail of water and chemicals which are injected into the ground (this is considered proprietary and would have negative impact on the companies intellectual property if revealed.)
- 2009: Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC Act) is submitted to Congress for consideration. This act would effectively repeals the “Halliburton Loophole,” allowing the EPA to once again regulate the process known as hydraulic fracturing. The bill would also force companies to reveal the chemicals used in this process. Backlash from the Oil and Gas companies is immediate and fierce. Those who backed the bill are forced to settle for yet another EPA study, rather than pass legislation which is sorely needed.
- 2010: Another 5+ year study ensues, and without cooperation from the oil & gas companies is doomed to failure. The scope of their study becomes so limited as to make the study worthless. According to Neela Banerjee, of inside climate news, a definitive study would require a baseline to make a confident determination, but would require the cooperation from industry to be successful.
“Scientists consider prospective water studies essential because they provide chemical snapshots of water immediately before and after fracking and then for a year or two afterward. This would be the most reliable way to determine whether oil and gas development contaminates surface water and nearby aquifers, and the findings could highlight industry practices that protect water. In other studies that found toxic chemicals or hydrocarbons in water wells, the industry argued that the substances were present before oil and gas development began.” (Source: Can Fracking Pollute Drinking Water? Don’t Ask the EPA. )
- 2016: EPA releases its final report on the impact of hydraulic fracturing. The EPA, while finally admitting to the potential impact on drinking water resources from fracking, cite relatively few conditions where contamination might be a problem. But the report also admits “Data gaps and uncertainty [have] limited EPA’s ability to fully assess the potential impacts on drinking water resources locally and nationally.” They go on to state that they are neither able to fully characterize severity of impact nor frequency of incidence where contamination of drinking water resources is concerned. ( Source : FDA Final Assessment )
This sad story demonstrates how ineffectual the EPA is, and some might even argue how compromised they’ve become, to carry out its mandate to “protect human health and the environment,” in so far as hydraulic fracturing is concerned. The story also demonstrates how cohesive and powerful the oil and gas lobby has become, in order to sway governmental policy to their favor.
But this is more than just a sad story about the EPA. Lisa Song of InsideClimateNews uncovered another aspect to this story of how the odds for the big Oil and Gas were always slanted in their favor. She introduced another player, the 80-year old Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), which Desmog refers to as The Most Powerful Oil and Gas Lobby You’ve Never Heard Of.
What is IOGCC?
An interstate compact is an agreement between two states or more, but requires, under the US Constitution, the blessing of Congress to be created. Prior to 1935, there was incentive for each land owner to extract as much oil from the ground as they could and as fast as they could. If they extracted it, they owned it, even if the oil was drained from contiguous land not owned by them. And when the East Texas Oil Field and Oklahoma City Oil Field were discovered, this lead to a huge glut of oil on the market, causing prices to plummet and a huge waste of resource, as much of the oil could not be distributed and consumed.
The states tried to self-regulate the amount of oil brought to the market, but this was not effective, in much the same way that states regulating their own fracking activities are not effective today. It was agreed that a compact was needed between states to fix the amount of oil brought to the national market and thus, in 1935, the IOGCC was born by an act of Congress.
The IOGCC is headquartered in Oklahoma City located adjacent to the Governor’s Mansion on land that was granted to them by a land deed. There are a total of 38 member states represented by the IOGCC, 30 of which are oil-and-gas producing states and eight which are associate members which currently don’t produce. International affiliates include 8 Canadian provinces and two other countries (Egypt,Venezuela).
The IOGCC collects funds from member states, and the funding per state varies depending upon the amount of oil and gas produced for each member state. Furthermore, bi-annual meetings, where policy is discussed, is Industry funded. From its 495 members (2015), 1/3rd are regulators and another 1/3rd are from Oil and gas industry. Question: How can IOGCC maintain its objectivity as a regulatory body if a full one third of its members come from the Oil and Gas Industry?
According to Jesse Colemann of Greenpeace.org:
“The Interstate Oil and Gas Commission (IOGCC) has an enviable position.
As a self-proclaimed “government agency,” they pay no taxes, register no lobbyists, and freely converse with elected officials and government regulators. The Oklahoma government pays for their building, which is on the Governor’s mansion property. Yet they also take major contributions from the fracking industry. When asked for information under Freedom of Information rules, they claim not to be an agency. It is truly the best of all worlds: industry funding, government position of authority, and no oversight.”
It turns out that the IOGCC has played an instrumental role in pushing the agenda for the oil and gas industry, particularly as it pertains to hydraulic fracturing. Their activities exceed the roles defined for a state compact under their original charter. According to Lisa Song from InsideClimateNews::
“Congressionally sanctioned as an interstate compact, the IOGCC characterizes itself as a government entity, which allows it to call its lobbying of lawmakers “education.” But in reality, it is led by regulators from industry-friendly oil and gas producing states, and a full third of its members come from the industry itself. The group has worked behind the scenes for decades to prevent federal regulation so stridently that in 1978, the Justice Department argued it should be disbanded because it had evolved into an advocacy organization.”
As a case in point, as early as 1999, the IOGCC had been pushing for the “Halliburton Loophole,” the provision which exempted fracking from federal oversight under the Safe Drinking Water Act. When the provision finally did pass under Dick Cheney’s energy bill in 2005, they boasted in a newsletter that they were the force behind it.
Fast forward to 2009: the FRAC act is submitted to Congress to close the “Halliburton Loophole,” thereby providing federal oversight for the practice of fracking. Concurrently, the IOGCC passed it’s own resolution urging Congress (sounds like advocacy to me) to maintain the “Halliburton Loophole.” Lawmakers from ten states submitted similar resolutions, some nearly word-for-word copies of IOGCC’s proposal.
The IOGCC has had its hand in a number of other policy decisions, and I urge you to read Lisa Song’s article on this subject. The bottom line is that the IOGCC cannot have it both ways. It cannot act like a government agency with all the perks that go with that title (no taxes, no lobbyist registration, free access to state legislators) and at the same time behave like a bunch of lobbyists pressing for Big Oil and Gas Interests. Sorry, but this goes well beyond “education” of lawmakers. While I am not a lawyer, this certainly doesn’t sound legitimate to me, and even if it is legal, it certainly does not sound ethical. In the meantime, all of us are trapped with the huge cost that hydraulic fracturing incurs, both to our environment as well as to our health, and the practice promises to grow over time, without adequate oversight.