It must be a tricky thing being the Environmental Protection Agency, especially when it comes to the political minefield that is fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing -- the process of shooting sand, water and chemicals into an oil well to get the oil and natural gas trapped in the formation flowing -- is a drilling technique that has been around since the 1950s, but it rose to new prominence in recent years as the key to unlocking shale plays.
Since famed oilman George Mitchell figured out how to use fracking and horizontal drilling to unlock the Barnett Shale in North Texas, touching off a drilling boom and an increase in oil and natural gas production it was thought this country would never see again, fracking has become a household word.
However, in the wake of the Barnett, the Marcellus in Pennsylvania, the Eagle Ford in South Texas, the resurgence of the Permian Basic in West Texas and the Bakken in North Dakota, it's been a new world for oil production, but there have also been questions about the fracking process.
We've all seen the footage of the water coming out of the tap and being lit on fire in "Gasland." People living on top of these plays started complaining about their water, that the drilling may have contaminated their water wells.
The EPA came in and started investigating, and the activists in the area who had pushed for just this to happen got all excited. But the federal regulatory agency followed the same pattern each time. In the Barnett, the Marcellus and the Bakken, EPA investigators waded into the investigation, and early reports came out that they had found gas in the water and traced it back to drilling. But then it all got taken back. The EPA has reversed itself in each investigation, claiming the investigators were mistaken and fracking was a safe and harmless practice.
In the Dimock County investigation in Pennsylvania, investigators found there was some "naturally occurring" arsenic, barium and manganese in the tested water wells, but no sign of water contamination due to drilling.
Back in 2012, the EPA was investigating possibly contaminated water wells near the sites where Range Resources was drilling in Parker County, near Dallas, when they suddenly suspended the investigation. The Associated Press reported that the agency had scientific evidence against Range Resources, but backed off the investigation when the company threatened to stop cooperating with their hydraulic fracturing study.
In June 2013, the EPA abruptly ended an investigation of possible contaminated water wells in Pavillion, Wyoming, on top of the Bakken Shale play. The investigators did the same thing in Dimock County in July.
The kicker in all this is that while this version of the findings was being presented to the public, internal communications reveal that the staff at the regional EPA offices didn't agree with these findings, according to a Los Angeles Times story.
An EPA PowerPoint obtained by the L.A. Times points to potential links between fracking and water contamination, despite those final reports. EPA officials stated the PowerPoint didn't reflect the findings of the agency, but it still seems like the kind of thing that would prompt the agency to look closer at the issue and figure it all out for sure, instead of shutting down the investigations.
The reluctance to do just that likely has a lot to do with the fact that the Obama Administration's energy policy relies heavily on the natural gas being pumped out of all these shale plays. President Obama is unlikely to want to hear anything solidly linking fracking and water contamination, so it seems the EPA is choosing to step back from the whole issue.
Fracking could be totally harmless, of course, and there's no arguing that it has altered the energy market in both Texas and the United States, increasing oil production and allowing the United States to export natural gas for the first time in decades. Even Mitchell, the father of fracking, argued that the practice needed to be regulated because it could do a lot of damage in the hands of the wrong driller.
It's hard to see fracking clearly, because everyone who studies it seems to do so with an agenda that could slant the findings. You'd think at least the EPA folks would be able to step back long enough to put aside politics and try to figure out if fracking is contaminating water or not, but it looks like you've got another think coming.
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