In December 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Fort Worth, Texas-based Range Resources Corporation, a natural gas company, to provide drinking water to residents in Parker County, because EPA tests had concluded that hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”) operations by the company “caused or contributed to the contamination of at least two residential drinking water wells.” EPA rendered this decision over the staunch objection of Texas officials, who argued that water in the Parker County wells had been contaminated by naturally occurring methane. Subsequent lab tests by the state Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas extraction in Texas, exonerated Range Resources.
Last Friday, EPA informed Range Resources that it was dropping its order. Although EPA’s letter to the company did not identify why the Agency was abandoning its case, it would appear that the move is a vindication of the conclusions drawn by the Railroad Commission.
This is the second time in three weeks that EPA has suffered egg on its face for an overreach on fracking regulation. In mid-March, EPA informed residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania that drinking water there has not been contaminating by hydraulic fracturing drilling. That revelation was uncomfortable for the Agency, because it had decided to test the Dimock water over objections from Pennsylvania officials.
In both instances, EPA took care to be discreet. In Dimock, the Agency hand delivered the negative lab results to residents; in Texas, EPA informed Range Resources general counsel with a brief letter. In neither case did EPA issue a press release.
EPA’s tight lipped approach to divulging information in these two cases stands in stark contrast to the Agency’s trumpeting of controversial, preliminary lab results suggesting that hydraulic fracturing “likely” contaminated water in Pavillion, Wyoming. Despite the severe public relations ramifications of the Pavillion press release (it was immediately seized upon by enviros as “evidence” that fracking threatens the nation’s water supplies), EPA issued it: (1) without having peer-reviewed the lab results and (2) in the face of substantial criticism about methodology leveled by Wyoming officials.
EPA thus demonstrates a striking public relations inconsistency regarding hydraulic fracturing. When lab results are good for the gas industry, they are announced to a handful of people. When lab results are bad for the industry, however, they become the subject of a press release that is rushed out the door before it is properly vetted.