When the federal 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, Wyo. – 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.
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.
Over the past 15 months, they point out, the EPA has:
· Closed an investigation into groundwater pollution in Dimock, Pa., saying the level of contamination was below federal safety triggers.
· Abandoned its claim that a driller in Parker County, Texas, was responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents' faucets, even though a geologist hired by the agency confirmed this finding.
· Sharply revised downward a 2010 estimate showing that leaking gas from wells and pipelines was contributing to climate change, crediting better pollution controls by the drilling industry even as other reports indicate the leaks may be larger than previously thought.
· Failed to enforce a statutory ban on using diesel fuel in fracking.
"We're seeing a pattern that is of great concern," said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. "They need to make sure that scientific investigations are thorough enough to ensure that the public is getting a full scientific explanation."
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.
Last year, the agency's budget was sliced 17 percent, to below 1998 levels. Sequestration forced further cuts, making research initiatives like the one in Pavillion harder to fund.
One reflection of the intense political spotlight on the agency: In May, Senate Republicans boycotted a vote on President Obama's nominee to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy, after asking her to answer more than 1,000 questions on regulatory and policy concerns, including energy.
The Pavillion study touched a particular nerve for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the former ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee.
According to correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Inhofe demanded repeated briefings from EPA officials on fracking initiatives and barraged the agency with questions on its expenditures in Pavillion, down to how many dollars it paid a lab to check water samples for a particular contaminant.
He also wrote a letter to the EPA's top administrator calling a draft report that concluded fracking likely helped pollute Pavillion's drinking water "unsubstantiated" and pillorying it as part of an "Administration-wide effort to hinder and unnecessarily regulate hydraulic fracturing on the federal level." He called for the EPA's inspector general to open an investigation into the agency's actions related to fracking.
When the EPA announced it would end its research in Pavillion, Inhofe -- whose office did not respond to questions from ProPublica -- was quick to applaud.
"EPA thought it had a rock solid case linking groundwater contamination to hydraulic fracturing in Pavillion, WY, but we knew all along that the science was not there," Inhofe said in a press release issued the day of the announcement.
Others, however, wonder whether a gun-shy EPA is capable of answering the pressing question of whether the nation's natural gas boom will also bring a wave of environmental harm.
"The EPA has just put a ‘kick me' sign on it," John Hanger, a Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania and the former secretary of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, wrote on his blog in response to the EPA news about Pavillion. "Its critics from all quarters will now oblige."