Fracking wastewater pond. (Image Credit: Jeremy Buckingham / Flickr)

Fracking wastewater pond. (Image Credit: Jeremy Buckingham / Flickr)

Five years after embarking on an ambitious investigation into fracking’s impact on the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency has drastically reduced the scope and significance of its research. The reason? The oil and gas industry got to participate in the process.

In over 3,000 pages of documents obtained by Greenpeace via an open records request and provided to DeSmogBlog, EPA officials are constantly having their work annotated, edited and revised by fossil fuel industry officials. But why was the industry so heavily involved in the first place? Because the EPA’s initial plan for its investigation required heavy industry support.

The EPA wanted to find out what risks – if any – hydraulic fracturing poses to America’s drinking water. In 2011, the Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development said, “This is about using the best possible science to do what the American people expect the EPA to do – ensure that the health of their communities and families are protected.” To do that, the EPA’s plan included the use of theoretical models, investigations into reported contaminations in five states and assessing pollution levels before and after fracking occurred at two separate well sites.

To accomplish all these goals, however, the EPA needed to obtain permission from companies like Chesapeake Energy (CHK) and Range Resources for their cooperation. CHK and Range, in turn, exploited the EPA’s need by gradually obtaining several concessions, including confidentiality agreements, copies of EPA pictures and video taken at their sites, copies of samples taken at their sites (in order to conduct their own studies), advanced notice of any visitations – and the list goes on.

frackBy the time Range and CHK were done vetting the EPA’s contractors, reviewing its materials and editing its documents, the scope of the initial study was significantly narrowed down. As DeSmog explains, “Company officials imposed demands so infeasible that the EPA ultimately dropped a key goal of the research, their plans to measure pollution levels before and after fracking at two new well sites, the documents show.”

CHK also made the study no easier when it opted to drill at a Haynesville Shale site before the EPA could actually do its baseline testing. One has to wonder, with the industry constantly cutting the agency off at the knees, why the EPA is even planning on releasing its findings later this spring. What could be left?

“We won’t know anything more in terms of real data than we did five years ago,” Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and a member of the group of independent scientists who reviewed the draft plan of the study, told InsideClimateNews. “This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result.”

As ICN reports, the academic field has actually answered several of the questions the EPA initially set out to. In 2013, studies from Duke University and the University of Texas-Arlington showed that drinking wells near fracking sites exhibited significant levels of contamination by chemicals like methane and arsenic, as well as other heavy metals.

ICN also reports that, judging by the words of federal officials and the leaked documents themselves, no one on the regulatory side is satisfied with the forthcoming report. “More than a half-dozen former high-ranking EPA, administration and congressional staff members echoed Thyne’s opinion,” ICN writes, “as did scientists and environmentalists. Nearly all the former government employees asked not to be identified because of ongoing dealings with government and industry.”

If you’d like to know more about fracking, check out any of these articles from Planet Experts:

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