EPA headquarters
EPA headquarters.

When Fort Worth resident Steve Lipsky discovered that his tap water was bubbling, the EPA sprang into action. Lipsky lived near natural gas wells being drilled by Range Resources, the likely source of the methane flowing into his water supply. From the Associated Press:

The EPA began investigating complaints about the methane in December 2010, because it said the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas drilling, had not responded quickly enough to the reports of bubbling water.

Government scientists believed two families, including the Lipskys, were in danger from methane and cancer-causing benzene and ordered Range Resources to take steps to clean their water wells and provide affected homeowners with safe water.

The agency issued a 2010 emergency order in an effort to address the problem. And then, without the problem being fixed, it pulled that order. Why?

Believing the case was headed for a lengthy legal battle, the EPA asked an independent scientist named Geoffrey Thyne to analyze water samples taken from 32 water wells. In the report obtained by the AP, Thyne concluded from chemical testing that the gas in the drinking water could have originated from Range Resources’ nearby drilling operation.

Meanwhile, the EPA was seeking industry leaders to participate in a national study into hydraulic fracturing. Range Resources told EPA officials in Washington that so long as the agency continued to pursue a “scientifically baseless” action against the company in Weatherford, it would not take part in the study and would not allow government scientists onto its drilling sites, said company attorney David Poole.

In March 2012, the EPA retracted its emergency order, halted the court battle and set aside Thyne’s report showing that the gas in Lipsky’s water was nearly identical to the gases the Plano, Texas-based company was producing.

The EPA’s efforts to study and possibly regulate fracking have been fraught from the outset. The massive production boom that’s reshaping entire states is lucrative for fossil fuel companies and a boon for politicians. That the U.S. is seeing recent highs in extraction — and recent lows in oil imports — is largely a function of increased hydraulic fracturing. There’s a huge disincentive for those in power to derail that train.

fracking is nasty

There’s even dissension within the government. The EPA and the Department of the Interior disagree on possible water pollution from fracking in Wyoming. Interior is developing its own fracking rules that will apply on federal land, due out later this year.

In this case, the EPA’s move is disconcerting and, on its surface, inappropriate. It’s another example of how an agency designed to be highly independent of political forces increasingly finds itself held hostage to them. Over the long term, everyone who might be affected by incomplete research into fracking suffers. Over the short term, people like Steve Lipsky do.

Lipsky, who is still tied up in a legal battle with Range Resources, now pays about $1,000 a month to haul water to his home. He, his wife and three children become unnerved when their methane detectors go off. Sometime soon, he said, the family will have to decide whether to stay in the large stone house or move.

“This has been total hell,” Lipsky said. “It’s been taking a huge toll on my family and on our life.”

Range Resources’ David Poole disagrees.

“[EPA] said that they would look into it, which I believe is exactly what they did,” Poole said. “I’m proud of them. As an American, I think that’s exactly what they should have done.”