Is the EPA Just Sloppy, or Cooking the Books?

After issuing a hastily compiled report last year claiming a direct link between groundwater contamination and hydraulic fracturing at Pavillion, Wyoming, the EPA now admits that it may be wrong.  Or, it may be, it was intentionally cooking the books.  The only question now is whether the findings in the draft report were purposefully falsified so as to form the basis for national regulation of fracking, or whether they were just incredibly sloppy.  Either way, the EPA needs to be held to account.

Admitting that there are grounds for doubt concerning its earlier report, EPA director Lisa Jackson has agreed to retest groundwater around Pavillion, Wyoming.  The agency had planned to rush the report through the peer review stage, apparently as part of an effort to justify national regulation of hydraulic fracking.  Now, that peer review has been stalled by assertions that the EPA's own test drilling was the source of the contamination.

Regardless of how the EPA's retesting pans out, the agency's admission of doubts concerning its initial report should ring alarm bells.  Consider that the EPA is now admitting that its initial report, which formed the basis of a nationwide media indictment of hydraulic fracturing, was based on inconclusive data.  The agency itself deployed and continues to deploy the findings as the basis for extending its regulatory grasp.  Yet it appears that the suggestion of a definite cause-and-effect relationship between natural gas drilling and well-water pollution at Pavillion is based on nothing more substantial than wishful thinking.

This is a truly astounding admission.  An agency that seeks to regulate an entire industry, if not the entire national economy, can't get it right even when analyzing a single natural gas well.  And yet it rushes out to publicize the results of its initial testing -- an action that biases public opinion against drilling.

This is not the kind of behavior that one expects of a scientific agency in a democracy.  It is closer to Stalin's Lysenkoism or the "science" behind Hitler's delusional thinking on eugenics.  In both cases, political ends were allowed to pervert scientific findings, with horrific results.  The EPA's crusade to regulate and restrict fossil fuel development in America will have disastrous results as well.  In a nation without reliable fuel sources, how many persons will be reduced to poverty of Weimar-like proportions?  And how many will starve to death, as they did under Lysenko's false science -- or freeze to death without affordable heat?

Significantly, it is oil and gas companies that are calling for more rigorous and thorough testing at Pavillion and other fracking sites, while it is the EPA that has resisted a thoroughly objective scientific review.  Incredibly, EPA's draft report on Pavillion claiming that fracking was the "likely" source of contamination of nearby water wells also admitted that no definitive link exists between drilling and groundwater pollution.  Nor, it seems, was there a match between chemical constituents used in fracking and groundwater pollution.  State authorities have charged that the EPA is withholding important information that would potentially rule out contamination as a result of drilling.

Yet when the EPA issued its draft report in December 2011, it was the finding of a "likely" connection between fracking and groundwater pollution that garnered all the media attention, and it appears that EPA director Jackson did little if anything to correct this false impression.  Indeed, by including in its report the charge of a "likely" connection, unproven in its findings, the EPA knowingly stoked a media frenzy in the case.  Speculative charges, unproven allegations issued by an unelected agency head -- is this the way the nation's energy policy should be shaped?

Congress has begun to investigate the seemingly irresponsible, unscientific, and arguably criminal activities of the EPA in regard to fossil fuel regulation.  Since November 2010, Congress has specifically requested information or audits concerning the activities of the EPA no fewer than eight times.  These congressional inquiries include a demand for information concerning the EPA's  response to Freedom of Information Act requests, a procedural review of EPA's greenhouse gases endangerment finding, and a request for information on the status and length of review of Appalachian surface mining.

Yet there is sense among many that Jackson has not been entirely forthcoming in responding to these requests.  In response to his sense of an "out of control EPA," Congressman John Duncan, Jr. stated on the floor of the House that he had "heard and read more complaints about the EPA in the last couple of years than about all other Federal agencies combined."  And John Duncan is certainly not the only member of Congress who believes the EPA is out of control.

Given the EPA's questionable actions in the Pavillion case and a string of similar failures at the agency, Congress must demand appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate claims of falsification, suppression of evidence, intimidation, and other illegalities.  The Pavillion scandal would be a logical starting point, but the investigation would include a great deal more, including the illegal actions of the agency in connection with the Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia, which, in her ruling against the agency, were sharply criticized by federal judge Amy Berman Jackson.

An investigation of the agency would also include the EPA's unsubstantiated findings of groundwater contamination in Ft. Worth, Texas (findings that led to an "emergency order" to halt drilling).  These findings were later repudiated by the EPA's own further study and by a broader study by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, which found no evidence of a connection between fracking and groundwater contamination anywhere in the U.S.

Again in this case, the EPA's hasty action in issuing an emergency order generated ungrounded opposition to fracking in the media and among the public.  Their subsequent "study" -- apparently their emergency order was based on something less -- received practically no media attention.  If this was their intention, and if it is part of a pattern of conspiracy to generate misinformation, that would seem to be grounds for removal of Ms. Jackson as agency director and prosecution of all involved in the conspiracy.

There are many who believe that the EPA is out of control and that its unaccountable actions are subverting democracy.  That is the point of Jonah Goldberg's astute discussion of radical environmentalism in his book Liberal Fascism.  Goldberg is surely correct in his assertion that environmentalism "offers a number of eerie parallels to fascist practices."

The most dangerous of these practices is the perversion of science in the service of a "higher" political end.  The EPA is a dangerously out-of-control federal agency that needs to be reined in, if not eliminated, before it does further damage to our economy and future security.  A series of hasty and unreliable if not falsified findings coming out of the EPA have already damaged a vital sector of American industry, costing jobs and threatening overall economic growth.  The EPA should be held to account, and those who are guilty of deliberate falsification or cover-up should be prosecuted.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and article on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

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