WASHINGTON Jan 5 Federal regulators are
unlikely to step up enforcement of potential water contamination
cases linked to natural gas drilling - despite new concerns
about water safety - given a lack of political will and limited
resources to pursue such cases, analysts said.
A report quietly made public on Christmas Eve by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency's internal watchdog brought back
into the spotlight concerns about the effects on water quality
from the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or
The report said the EPA was justified in issuing an
emergency order in 2011, asking the oil and gas driller Range
Resources to improve monitoring and provide clean water
to a family in Parker County, Texas, whose water supply had been
contaminated with methane as a result of nearby fracking.
The EPA Inspector General also criticized the agency for
backing off enforcement of the complaint in 2012.
At the time, the EPA said that as a compromise for dropping
its lawsuit it would work with Range to examine the effects of
fracking on drinking water in a future national study on
fracking and groundwater.
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency will continue to share
any additional sampling data and relevant information provided
by Range and other parties with the state regulator, the Texas
Railroad Commission. A spokesman for Range said the company has
not heard back from the EPA regarding the study.
Some see the inspector general's report as justification for
the EPA to more aggressively enforce pollution cases related to
fracking, but other analysts and former officials say the agency
lacks both the desire and capacity to do so.
Fracking is regulated on a state-by-state basis. The only
national EPA rule so far, on air emissions from operations,
known as "green completions," will take effect in 2015.
The Texas contamination case was the third instance in which
the EPA backed off of an initial assertive stance and instead
deferred to local regulators.
"As a result of three relatively unflattering outcomes, EPA
may aim before it shoots in the future, but politics has been a
factor, too," said Kevin Book, an energy analyst at Clearview
Energy Partners. Ahead of congressional elections in November,
Book said "similar activism from EPA is fairly unlikely."
GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS
Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources
Defense Council, an environmental group, said she doubts the
agency will reverse what she called the trend of "systematically
pulling back from high-profile investigations" because fracking
is the "third rail" of U.S. energy policy.
Specifically, she said, President Barack Obama may be
hesitant to send any signal that federal regulators will step in
to slow the expansion of natural gas production.
The natural gas boom has been a bright spot for the Obama
administration. Lower gas prices have helped create a domestic
manufacturing renaissance and lower household energy bills while
cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
The administration is also aware of industry groups sounding
the alarm over prospects for a national study of fracking and
groundwater due to be finished in 2015 to open the door to new
federal rules on fracking.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue warned
last month that the study could be used to justify clamping down
on the drilling techniques that have sparked a surge in U.S. oil
and natural gas output.
Steve Everly, a spokesman for pro-fracking group Energy in
Depth, said energy firms worry about EPA overreach.
"There may be a culture of 'shoot first, ask questions
later' that even the Office of the Inspector General sadly
thinks is permissible," Everly said. "I always thought EPA's
mission was to protect the environment, not attack productive
At the same time, fracking draws strong opposition from
environmental groups that constitute part of the political base
for Obama as well as Democrats in general.
"I do hope the agency sees the particular inspector general
report as providing them some additional validation and support
to take future actions when necessary," said Al Armendariz of
the Sierra Club, a former regional EPA official.
Armendariz was head of the EPA's Dallas regional office when
the original order was made against Range Resources. He resigned
in 2012 after Sen. James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma,
released a video of him saying the agency should "crucify" oil
and gas firms that violated environmental laws.
While Armendariz called for a more assertive EPA, he told
Reuters that technical challenges dog the agency's enforcement
efforts. Cases related to energy extraction are more of a
challenge than those related to clean air regulation because
there are more "technical hurdles and challenges in the
subsurface," he said.
The EPA has had a much lower rate of enforcement at energy
extraction sites than it does at power plants or industrial
facilities that have polluted the air, for example.
In 2012, the EPA inspected 870 energy extraction sites and
concluded enforcement actions against just 53. The agency
investigated 836 coal-fired electric units for potential air
pollution incidents and controlled 461 of them.
One former EPA official said investigating energy extraction
sites requires a lot of money and thousands of staff - both in
short supply given tight budgets.
"To do a case where it involves taking significant
environmental samples in the field - it is very expensive," the