Thursday, August 04, 2011

Fracking: Who Regulates the Regulators?

Fracking: Are the Regulators in Bed with the Oil and Gas Industry?
Thomas Riggins

One of the major concerns about the hydraulic fracturing industry, in which toxic chemicals and water are pumped under high pressure deep down in the earth to fracture and break up rock formations to release natural gas to be captured for commercial purposes, is that this method of fracking also can pollute and make undrinkable the water supplies in the area where it is applied.

A recent New York Times online article ("A Tainted Water Well, and Concern There May Be More" by Ian Urbina, 8-3-11) seems to suggest that some elements of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may be colluding with the oil and gas industry in covering up this threat.

The article reports, for example, that both the industry and those who are charged with regulating it, have told the American people for years that fracking is a safe way to extract natural gas and "has never contaminated underground drinking water": a statement that both know is untrue.

Urbina quotes the CEO of ExxonMobile, Rex W. Tillerson, who told Congress in 2010 that, "There have been over a million wells hydraulically fractured in the history of the industry, and there is not one, not one, reported case of a freshwater aquifer having ever been contaminated from hydraulic fracturing. Not one." And it is not just a dishonest CEO who makes that claim, it is also bandied about by "our" state and federal elected officials and EPA directors ("past and present") all of whom know, or should know, that this is untrue.

There is at least one reported case on record and many other contaminations have occurred but have not been officially "reported " because they have been suppressed and covered up by the industry with the help of high ranking leaders in the EPA. At least that is my conclusion from reading Urbina's article.

The one official report was about an incident in 1984 when Kaiser Exploration and Mining Company did some fracking in West Virginia which resulted in a water well being contaminated. The EPA published its report in 1987. The oil and gas industry knows all about it and was successful in keeping the EPA from investigating other incidents which could have been included in the report. So ExxonMobile and its friendly EPA directors know that "Not one case" is not true and the reason there is only one case is due to industry pressure to cover up others and that the EPA helped them do so.

EPA investigators can't fully document the other cases, back then as well as now, "because their details were sealed from the public when energy companies settled lawsuits with landowners." Urbina talked to Carla Greathouse, the author of the 1987 report, who said "If it's so safe, let the public review all the cases." She also revealed that she still didn't understand "why industry should be allowed to hide problems when public safety is at stake." She should read about how cozy the relationship is between Congress, the regulators, and the regulated not only in oil and gas but in every aspect of the government's dealings with powerful capitalist corporations.

An ExxonMobile spokesman, Alan T. Jeffers, when asked about sealed settlements, which prevent the facts about fracking from getting to the public, replied, according to Urbina, that if regulators actually were interested in this information subpoenas were available to them. But that's the point. The EPA didn't go after the oil and gas giants but just passively accepted that it couldn't investigate because of "sealed settlements." This is kowtowing to the industry, not protecting the public. "Our hands are tied," one anonymous EPA official stated. So the Environmental Protection Agency can't protect the environment because oil companies don't want it to. What the frack is that?

When in 2004 the EPA released a study that fracking for coal-bed methane wells posed almost no danger to drinking water people within the EPA itself complained that the official report was "unscientific and unduly influenced by industry." But who is there to regulate the regulators? Congress is ultimately responsible, but with the tea party at large in the House and industry lobbyists flooding Washington, don't expect much help from that quarter.

The people have to do it themselves by pressuring their elected representatives and demonstrating against the companies at their fracking sites and headquarters. And a rebuff at the polls next year for all those who put profits before people would not hurt.

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