One day, Steve Lipsky of Fort Worth noticed that his home's well water was bubbling–like champagne, as he described it. It turned out to be chock full of methane, so full that he could light a running hose on fire. The EPA stepped in, worried that the contamination was the result of an oil company's fracking activities in the area. The agency commissioned an independent study, which appeared to show that the gas in Lipsky's well was indeed released by the drilling company. But according to a damning report from the AP, when that company, Range Resources, balked, the EPA shut the study down.
The EPA was initially involved because it said that state regulators, which normally would deal with ground water pollution, wouldn't investigate. EPA scientists, worried that the Lipskys and another family were endangered by having faucets that leak methane, ordered Range Resources to clean their wells and provide those families with potable water. Range quit that after state regulators said in March 2011 that the firm wasn't responsible.
According to the AP's investigation, the EPA initially played hardball, but then gave it all up:
Believing the case was headed for a lengthy legal battle, the EPA asked an independent scientist named Geoffrey Thyne to analyze water samples taken from 32 water wells. In the report obtained by the AP, Thyne concluded from chemical testing that the gas in the drinking water could have originated from Range Resources' nearby drilling operation.
Meanwhile, the EPA was seeking industry leaders to participate in a national study into hydraulic fracturing. Range Resources told EPA officials in Washington that so long as the agency continued to pursue a "scientifically baseless" action against the company in Weatherford, it would not take part in the study and would not allow government scientists onto its drilling sites, said company attorney David Poole.
In March 2012, the EPA retracted its emergency order, halted the court battle and set aside Thyne's report showing that the gas in Lipsky's water was nearly identical to the gases the Plano, Texas-based company was producing.
The EPA never gave justification for dropping the report, and independent researchers who looked at Thyne's report and data set, which showed that the gases from the Lipsky's well were similar in composition to those released by Range, should have prompted further investigation. That's absolutely true. Lipsky's water is no longer safe to drink, and living in a house that burps methane isn't safe. To bury a study that showed Range may have been responsible because the company complained is pig-headed, and runs counter to the entire point of the EPA's existence.
It's hard to overstate how big of an impact fracking is having on the energy industry. The US is poised to become a net energy exporter, which will shake up geopolitics, and an abundance of natural gas will changed how we manufacture goods. But as we race ahead to crush rock, there's still the matter of whether or not injecting millions of gallons of chemically-laced water into the ground is a good idea. And while frackers say it's totally safe, people continue to find their home's water supply suddenly full of methane, benzene, and other harmful chemicals. Yet as the industry booms, our own regulators are altogether too willing to kowtow to energy firms that have a problem with science that isn't self-funded.