The Obama administration is seeking to reassure the environmental community that U.S. EPA is on top of the shale drilling boom, even though it has bailed out on three major enforcement cases.
In letters being sent to the leaders of national environmental groups, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is stressing its efforts to raise standards industrywide.
McCarthy says her agency is developing model regulations for hydraulic fracturing in the form of guidance, is assisting the Bureau of Land Management with rules for fracking and drilling on public land, and is working closely with state agencies.
"We are continuing to look at further opportunities for the EPA to support implementation by states and industry of hydraulic fracturing best practices," McCarthy wrote to Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke, in a letter dated Friday and obtained by EnergyWire.
It was sent in response to a Sept. 13 letter from Beinecke asking about the three dropped enforcement cases concerning drilling and water contamination in Dimock, Pa.; Parker County, Texas; and Pavillion, Wyo. Beinecke's letter was not made public.
But the agency's policy pronouncements didn't assuage Beinecke's concerns about the stymied investigations. She said the agency is offering "baseless" justifications for dropping the cases.
"It is stunning that EPA has not only refused to complete its investigations, but continues to defend its actions with baseless arguments," the NRDC chief said in a statement to EnergyWire. "This is a troubling trend that has to change so that the American public can have confidence in the agency's dedication to truly understanding the risks of fracking, and protecting our drinking water."
The letter says that guidance on fracking with diesel, anticipated in "coming weeks," will incorporate best practices and guidelines that will be useful "wherever hydraulic fracturing occurs."
EPA officials in the past have disputed the idea that the diesel fracking proposal was intended to set any sort of national standard for fracking or production well construction. But industry has said it is concerned by the prospect (Greenwire, June 14, 2011).
McCarthy's letter also discloses that EPA is working with the Interior Department on proposed regulations for drilling and fracking on public land and guidelines on how much natural gas drillers can burn off or release into the air. The regulations are commonly referred to as the "BLM fracking rule," and the proposed flaring guidelines are called "Onshore Order No. 9."
In addition, the letter notes that EPA is working on a multiyear study of the safety of hydraulic fracturing for drinking water, will issue a notice next month on the prospect of requiring fracking chemicals to be disclosed under the Toxic Substances Control Act, and is continuing work on regulations for the millions of gallons of wastewater created by shale gas production.
The letter defends EPA's actions in the three enforcement cases. McCarthy stresses that the cases were handed back to the states.
The state agencies, the letter says, "have key capacity and regulatory authority relevant to unconventional oil and natural gas extraction."
The oil and gas industry prefers regulation by state agencies, which often have a competing mandate to promote oil and gas development. Environmentalists, who have little influence with state oil and gas regulators, generally favor federal regulation or at least federal standards.
The letter also noted that in each of the three cases, the affected homeowners found alternative sources of water or got treatment systems to remove contaminants.
But NRDC has said regulators still have an obligation to search out the cause of contamination even if the people affected find safer sources of water.
NRDC and other environmental groups have called for EPA to reopen all three enforcement cases.
Environmental groups and others have voiced suspicion that the Obama administration might have stymied investigations into drilling pollution cases to placate the powerful oil and gas industry as the 2012 general election approached.
On Christmas Eve last year, EPA's inspector general issued a report saying the agency was justified in bringing the Texas case and didn't exceed its discretion in dismissing it. But the report was criticized by both supporters and critics of shale drilling (EnergyWire, Jan. 14).