AP Exclusive: Wyo. got EPA to delay frack finding

Associated Press Modified: May 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm •  Published: May 3, 2012
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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming's governor persuaded the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to postpone an announcement linking hydraulic fracturing to groundwater contamination, giving state officials — whom the EPA had privately briefed on the study — time to attempt to debunk the finding before it rocked the oil and gas industry more than a month later, an investigation by The Associated Press has found.

During the delay, state officials raised dozens of questions about the finding that the controversial procedure that has become essential to unlocking oil and gas deposits in Wyoming and beyond may have tainted groundwater near the gas patch community of Pavillion.

Gov. Matt Mead contacted EPA Director Lisa Jackson and persuaded her to hold off any announcement, according to state emails and an interview with the governor. The more than 11,000 emails made available to AP in response to a state records request show that Wyoming officials took advantage of the postponement to "take a hard line" and coordinate an "all-out press" against the EPA in the weeks leading up to the announcement Dec. 8.

Meanwhile, the chief state regulator of oil and gas development fretted over how the finding would affect state revenue.

And even as the state questioned the EPA's science, there were internal doubts about how effective those objections would be.

"It's already too late. The White House has already seen the report with conclusions," wrote Gary Strong, an engineer with the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, following a presentation by EPA deputy assistant regional administrator Martin Hestmark. The emails indicate that, at least in the minds of Wyoming officials, the federal agency was being pressed by the White House to release its report.

"Once local folks received data and it showed what it did they had the responsibility to take it to HQ and in fact it ended up with them in front of the White House. HQ and White House decided that now that data is released EPA must release conclusions quickly," wrote Tom Kropatsch, a natural resource analyst for the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, who also took the notes at a Nov. 16 EPA-state meeting.

But the state's questions did set the stage for additional groundwater and household well water sampling in the Pavillion area that began a couple weeks ago.

The struggle by both Wyoming officials and the EPA for message control shows the extent to which they fretted about the findings. Wyoming depends on oil and gas for its economic well-being while environmentalists have pushed the Obama administration to crack down on a process responsible for increasing U.S. onshore production.

The worry wasn't misplaced: Though the findings were unique to Pavillion, they ricocheted amid heightened scrutiny of fracking in other drilling regions including the Marcellus Shale states of New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The emails also suggest an uneasy partnership now that the EPA and Wyoming, as well as U.S. Geological Survey and two American Indian tribes, say they are working together on further study of the Pavillion groundwater.

However, some recent re-sampling by the EPA of household well water in the Pavillion area took Mead and other state officials by surprise. They had presumed that only two monitoring wells the EPA had drilled to test for groundwater pollution would be retested this spring.

"I won't tell anybody not to test. But if you're going to test, you need to bring everyone in the process," Mead said in an interview Monday.

The EPA did not make Jackson available for an interview. EPA Region 8 Director Jim Martin said in a statement through spokesman Richard Mylott that the EPA "has been transparent and has relied on the best science" to inform Pavillion-area residents about their water.

Environmentalists including the Natural Resource Defense Council and Sierra Club have looked to the Obama administration EPA to get tougher on fracking, the practice of cracking open oil and gas deposits by pumping pressurized water, fine sand and chemicals down well holes. They maintain that fracking is a threat to clean groundwater.

The EPA study in the Pavillion area followed years of complaints from homeowners that their well water took on a chemical stink around the time that fracking picked up in their neighborhood about eight years ago. Environmentalists welcomed the draft report as validation of their concerns.

Wyoming is the third-ranked state for onshore gas production and ninth for onshore oil production. Nearly every new oil and gas well in Wyoming that isn't a coal-bed methane well is fracked.

In internal emails that followed the Nov. 4 briefing, state officials expressed support for fracking as critical to oil and gas extraction, a $7.7 billion a year industry in Wyoming that accounts for 20 percent of the state's gross domestic product.

"The limiting of the hydraulic fracturing process will result in negative impacts to the oil and gas revenues to the state of Wyoming. A further outcome will be the questioning of the economic viability of all unconventional and tight oil and gas reservoirs in Wyoming, across the United States, and ultimately in the world," wrote Tom Doll, supervisor of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, in a long email that circulated among top state officials.