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Media acts like eco Chicken Littles

Has any media outlet bothered to ask if the EPA’s theory on groundwater contamination in Wyoming and hydraulic fracturing is even right?

The Independence Institute’s Energy Policy Blog can’t be accused (at least not accurately) of being in the tank for the oil and gas industry. We’ve been on opposite sides of several of the industry’s key issues in Colorado. We opposed HB 1365, the fuel-switching bill, and HB 1291, the State Implementation Plan. We favored a repeal of Colorado’s carbon tax, while the oil and gas industry argued for the language to remain in statute.

Now, however, these pages are defending the oil and gas industry against attacks on the decades-old, proven process of hydraulic fracturing, which pumps a blended liquid into the ground (far below water tables) to increase the flow of natural gas and oil. Already heavily regulated, hydraulic fracturing is a safe, cost-effective way to expand production, lower the price of liquid fossil fuels, ensure an abundant domestic supply, create high paying jobs, and provide revenue to local and state governments.

The latest EPA announcement is just another battle in the war on fracking, which is an attempt by anti-fossil fuel activists to shut down domestic production and force consumers to use more expensive, less reliable wind and solar energy sources. And the media serves as a willing accomplice.

Today’s Denver Post jumped on the freaked out over hydraulic fracturing bandwagon following yesterday’s sensational EPA release that a “draft finding” MAY link hydraulic fracturing to groundwater contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming.

The front page, top of the fold print edition reads, “HYDRAULIC FRACTURING: Wells tied to fouled water. The Wyoming study could affect Colorado’s oil and gas industry.”

The online edition warns: “Hydraulic fracking linked for first time to groundwater pollution.”

With the exception of the last line in the first example, neither headline is accurate. Media around the world has reacted more like Chicken Little environmentalists rather than reporters of news, disseminators of information.

Energy In Depth (EID), a public outreach campaign supporting the development of America’s oil and gas resources, issued its own press release this morning about the media response:

Call it a sign of the ‘Times,’ let’s say, that less than 24 hours removed from the release of EPA Region 8’s report on groundwater sampling near Pavillion, Wyo., nearly a thousand different news stories have been generated — in 12 different countries, and best we can tell, four different languages. But set aside the breathless headlines for a moment and the triumphant quotes from a small segment of folks committed to ending the responsible development of natural gas, and one’s left with a pretty straightforward question: Is EPA right? And if so, what exactly does that mean moving forward?

It’s impossible to answer the second question without an answer to the first, but that hasn’t stopped the media from trying. In fact, they haven’t even considered whether or not the EPA is right.

The Denver Post’s first paragraph from both the online and print editions reads:

Hydraulic fracturing, a controversial oil-and-gas production technique used in Colorado and across the country, has been linked for the first time to groundwater pollution in a case near Pavillion, Wyo.

First, fracking isn’t “controversial.” The process of hydraulic fracturing has been used successfully since 1949 and is not “linked” to groundwater contamination. Colorado is proof that it can be done in an eco-friendly way. More than 90 percent of our nearly 40,000 wells produce using hydraulic fracturing, and not a single case of groundwater contamination. It is a highly regulated process within a highly regulated industry. The only reason it is “controversial” is because anti-fossil fuel activists say it is.

Second, it hasn’t been linked this time either. The EPA’s press release calls it a “draft finding,” meaning it hasn’t been through any kind of peer review process. Furthermore, even the EPA says fracking “may” be the cause, not “has been linked” to groundwater contamination.

The Denver Post continues to advance the story by assuming the EPA has correctly found a “link” and that this “link” is a game changer. Reporter Mark Jaffe quotes Wyoming Governor Matt Mead’s press release about how this could have a “critical impact” on the oil and gas industry and that more research must be done. But the paper leaves out the most important part of Mead’s release – the first line: “the Environmental Protection Agency’s draft study on Pavillion wells is scientifically questionable and more testing is needed.”

Mead is trying to answer the most important question first. Is the EPA right? Yet the Post and many other news organizations have jumped to the second question, of what does this mean, without any validation or curiosity about the first.

Anti-fossil fuel activists certainly won’t challenge the EPA’s theory. The Associated Press reported, “Environmentalists welcomed the news of the EPA report, calling it an important turning point in the fracking debate.”

EID actually provides several questions that should be answered first, but the mainstream media isn’t even bothering to ask:

  • Why the huge difference between what EPA found in its monitoring wells and what was detected in private wells from which people actually get their water?
  • After reviewing the data collected by Region 8, why did EPA administrator Lisa Jackson tell a reporter that, specific to Pavillion, “we have absolutely no indication now that drinking water is at risk”? (video available here)
  • Did all those chemicals that EPA used to drill its monitoring wells affect the results?

At least one member of Congress is calling for an answer to the most important question, “Is the EPA right?” Is its theory accurate? Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, made the following comments after speaking with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson about her agency’s “irresponsible” announcement on fracking:

EPA’s conclusions are not based on sound science but rather on political science.  Its findings are premature, given that the Agency has not gone through the necessary peer-review process, and there are still serious outstanding questions regarding EPA’s data and methodology.

This announcement is part of President Obama’s war on fossil fuels and his determination to shut down natural gas production.   Unfortunately for Americans, his agenda destroys good paying jobs in one of the few industries that is thriving, and increases our dependence on foreign oil.

As recently as November 9, 2011 EPA Regional Administrator James Martin said that the results of the latest round of testing in Pavillion were not significantly different from the first two rounds of testing, which showed no link between hydraulic fracturing and contamination.  Yet only a few weeks later, EPA has decided the opposite.  EPA is clearly not prepared to be making conclusions.

There is a pattern emerging here.  Just a few months ago, the EPA Inspector General found that EPA cut corners on the endangerment finding to come to what appears to be a predetermined conclusion to regulate greenhouse gases.  This most recent study on hydraulic fracturing is apparently more of the same in the Obama Administration’s ongoing war on affordable energy.

It is irresponsible for EPA to release such an explosive announcement without objective peer review. Given the serious flaws in EPA’s process, I have asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to release all the data, methodologies and protocols that have been used, and she has made a commitment to do so.

Even with the most stringent regulations, no energy source is completely without risk. But the EPA’s premature release of its theory on groundwater contamination, along with the anti-fossil fuel crowd’s cheers, and the media’s lack of critical reporting indicates more of an agenda to damage the oil and gas industry rather than assure safety in hydraulic fracturing.