Inhofe questions EPA study of contaminated well water near gas drilling in Wyoming

U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., dubbing himself “the leading advocate for hydraulic fracturing in the United States Senate,” sent a letter this week to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson accusing her of “contradictory” statements about the common but controversial oil and gas drilling practice.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okila.
Inhofe, according to the Associated Press, was referring to recent statements Jackson made about the EPA’s ongoing investigation of natural gas drilling in the Pavillion, Wyo., area. Jackson says hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could have impacted nearby groundwater supplies.

“This statement appears to contradict statements by you and other members of the federal government about hydraulic fracturing and drinking water contamination,” Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wrote to Jackson.

In fact, the EPA recently released a report finding a solvent called 2-Butoxyethanol (2-BE) in domestic well water in the Pavillion area, and 2-BE is a common constituent of fracking mixtures. The EPA did not conclude definitively that the 2-BE in local well water came from EnCana fracking operations, but is expected to release a more conclusive report soon.

“Because of these contradictory statements, I am concerned that EPA has pre-determined that hydraulic fracturing is the cause of contamination in their Pavillion investigation and the agency is trying to make the data conform to that conclusion, instead of engaging in an open scientific inquiry,” Inhofe wrote.

The EPA has been investigating the Pavillion case since 2008 and has been engaged in extensive well water sampling in the area since 2009. Area residents have been instructed not to drink their well water because of elevated levels of benzene, and EnCana’s deal to sell its drilling operations in the Pavillion area recently fell through, in part because of the EPA findings.

Colorado citizen activists have pointed to the Pavillion case and EnCana’s well blowout in the West Divide Creek area of western Colorado as compelling evidence in favor of full public disclosure of fracking chemicals during an ongoing Colorado rulemaking on the topic.

Jackson, speaking at a recent event in Denver, stopped short of saying hydraulic fracturing – which involves the high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals into wells to free up more oil and gas – can lead to direct groundwater contamination. But she did echo widespread citizen concern.

“Natural gas is key to moving to a ‘Clean Air, Clean Jobs’ agenda, but we want it to be extracted in an environmentally sound way,” Jackson said in Denver, referring to landmark legislation switching coal-fired power plants over to cleaner burning gas. “With fracking, it’s a water issue, too. How we store the water that comes up carrying heavy metals, how the [fracking solutions] shot into the ground may be affecting groundwater.”

An Inhofe spokesman told the AP that the senator “is the leading advocate for hydraulic fracturing in the United States Senate and has had concerns about the Obama administration’s war on natural gas. And so he therefore takes his oversight responsibility seriously, and that’s why he’s been looking closely at the actions of the EPA in Wyoming.”

Besides its Pavillion probe, the EPA is also conducting a more comprehensive study of the impacts of fracking on drinking water, including a retrospective examination of fracking in southern Colorado.

An older EPA study of fracking has been sharply criticized for failing to comprehensively examine all of the potential impacts of the process before it was granted an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act in the 2005 Energy Policy Act that was passed during the Bush administration. Colorado Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis have been working to reverse that exemption, dubbed the “Halliburton Loophole” by its many critics.

Inhofe has drawn criticism in recent years for deeming widely accepted climate change science a hoax. During the 2010 U.S. Senate race in Colorado, Republican Ken Buck stirred heated public debate by embracing Inhofe’s beliefs.