Allow us to re-introduce you to the octogenarian congressman who's currently perched atop the catbird seat in the oversight hearings every fracker in America is watching with bated breath. His name is Ralph Hall. He's the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. One of its subcommittees, on which he is the senior member, is Energy and Environment. That's some big medicine right about now.
He's from Rockwall, where he served as a county judge and practiced law for years. He's the oldest serving member of either House of Congress: Hall turns 89 in May. Until 2004, he was a lifelong Democrat and a founder of the moderate Blue Dogs. This cycle, the oil and gas industry was his second largest campaign contributor. Unfair Park asked for an interview, but was told he didn't have time.
Hall and the Republicans on the subcommittee spent much of the week caning the EPA over a study that sent shock waves through the energy industry: the detection of groundwater contamination in Wyoming they believe is directly linked to hydraulic fracturing. Residents in Pavilion had been griping about hydrocarbon-flavored water for years. EPA was compelled to investigate. What it found was scary as hell. Sampling of deep observation wells found benzene -- that nasty stuff that gives you cancer sure as yer born -- at 50 times the acceptable level for drinking water. They ruled out the surface pits into which Encana dumped its pollutant-laced produced water. To be sure, it had already contaminated ground water that way (the company has been providing residents with safe drinking water for some time now), but not at these depths. There weren't really any other ways to account for the presence of benzene that deep.
The industry and GOP lawmakers sprang into action, blasting the study and its sampling methods. Inexorably, it led to this week's oversight hearing, from which Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox was unceremoniously ejected because he tried to tape it. Just by perusing the witness list on the first day, you could tell it had little to do with science, and everything to do with undermining it.
Present was Tom Doll, state oil and gas supervisor, whose job it is to oversee permitting and serve as an industry cheerleader (full disclosure: I used to cover gas drilling in Wyoming). Also present was Kathleen Sgamma of Western Energy Alliance, who has no scientific training and is essentially a lobbyist. In fact, there were no testifying scientists on that first day.
The order of business was EPA bashing, not bad water, and in that regard, an exchange between Hall and regional EPA administrator James Martin was telling. But first, he tried to pin Doll down regarding his contention that the EPA didn't consult with the state during its investigation. This, despite the fact Doll represents just one arm of state oil and gas regulation, and it's not the one whose expertise the EPA would need. He hedged his answer, saying EPA may have sent an email to the state department of environmental quality.
"They may have sent an email?" Hall replied, aghast. "That's not consulting. That's their own arrogant approach to it. They just sent them an email. They didn't consult with them. You're not testifying that they consulted with them, are you?"
"No, I am not," Doll replied, because he wouldn't really know anyway.
Next, Hall leveled his gaze at Martin, the EPA regional guy, asking why EPA chief Lisa Jackson would say they submitted a sampling plan to the state when they hadn't. But before Martin can answer, Hall wasn't finished.
"You hadn't known when [Chairman Andy Harris] asked you the other questions about that."
"I'm sorry, sir..." Martin began.
"You've not been able to testify ... you wouldn't cross the governor if you had that information in front of you," Hall cut in. "You're under oath now, you know that, don't you?"
"I am, Mr. Chairman. I think we conducted significantly more consultation than Mr. Doll might be aware of. Early in the process, the Department of Environmental Quality was designated as the lead agency in the State of Wyoming as a part of this process. We consulted with Encana."
There was an interminable silence.
Hall asked if the study's peer reviewers will include at least one recommended by the state of Wyoming. "Sure," Martin replied. As long as they have the credentials.
"The case of the Pavilion case we're examining today reflects a troubling effort by the EPA for building a case for regulating and even shutting down unconventional oil and gas production around the country," Hall said. "They're doing it all over the country, even in Wyoming. EPA has had it handed to 'em time after time by this committee and the Committee on Science and Technology. I'm sorry to say the liberal press hasn't printed it properly, but they always say they need more investigation. But we've had people who've had years and years of experience and have been here under oath and testified that there's not any way in the world fracking could have contaminated drinking water in the examples given to them. You understand that?"
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"Yessir," Martin said, looking confused. "Is it a question?"
"In Pennsylvania, for example, the EPA had recently, oh ... I don't want to ask you that. It's important to recognize what EPA is doing in Wyoming, and it's not isolated. They're going after fracking in every way they can. I guess that's what I'm trying to tell you."
That wasn't a question, and there wasn't much Martin could say in reply during a hearing that should have been about the second documented case of groundwater contamination associated with hydraulic fracturing (the first being a long-buried case in West Virginia). The EPA can't say that what happened in Wyoming could happen in the Barnett Shale or anywhere else. But what they found raises troubling questions that require more hard questions from the lawmakers representing the people of the shale and the coal-bed and whatever formation the industry is fracking.
The Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, however, had no further questions.