Politics Seen to Limit E.P.A. as It Sets Rules for Natural Gas
By IAN URBINA
The New York Times
When Congress considered whether to regulate more closely the handling of wastes from oil and gas drilling in the 1980s, it turned to the Environmental Protection Agency to research the matter. E.P.A. researchers concluded that some of the drillers’ waste was hazardous and should be tightly controlled.
But that is not what Congress heard. Some of the recommendations concerning oil and gas waste were eliminated in the final report handed to lawmakers in 1987.
“It was like the science didn’t matter,” Carla Greathouse, the author of the study, said in a recent interview. “The industry was going to get what it wanted, and we were not supposed to stand in the way.”
E.P.A. officials told her, she said, that her findings were altered because of pressure from the Office of Legal Counsel of the White House under Ronald Reagan. A spokesman for the E.P.A. declined to comment.
Ms. Greathouse’s experience was not an isolated case. More than a quarter century of efforts by some lawmakers and regulators to force the federal government to police the industry better have been thwarted, as E.P.A. studies have been repeatedly narrowed in scope, and important findings have been removed.
For example, the agency had planned to call last year for a moratorium on the gas-drilling technique known as hydrofracking in the New York City watershed, according to internal documents, but the advice was removed from the publicly released letter sent to New York.
Now some scientists and lawyers at the E.P.A. are wondering whether history is about to repeat itself, as the agency undertakes a broad new study of natural gas drilling and its potential risks, with preliminary results scheduled to be delivered next year.
The documents show that the agency dropped some plans to model radioactivity in drilling wastewater being discharged by treatment plants into rivers upstream from drinking water intake plants. And in Congress, members from drilling states like Oklahoma have pressured the agency to keep the focus of the new study narrow.
They have been helped in their lobbying efforts by a compelling storyline: Cutting red tape helps these energy companies reduce the nation’s dependence on other countries for fuel. Natural gas is also a cleaner-burning alternative to coal and plentiful within United States borders, so it can create jobs.
But interviews with E.P.A. scientists, and confidential documents obtained by The New York Times, show long and deep divisions within the agency over whether and how to increase regulation of oil and gas drillers, and over the enforcement of existing laws that some agency officials say are clearly being violated.
Agency lawyers are in a heated debate over whether to intervene in Pennsylvania, where drilling for gas has increased sharply, to stop what some of those lawyers say is a clear violation of federal pollution laws: drilling waste discharged into rivers and streams with minimal treatment. The outcome of that dispute has the potential to halt the breakneck growth of drilling in Pennsylvania.
The E.P.A. has taken strong stands in some places, like Texas, where in December it overrode state regulators and intervened after a local driller was suspected of water contamination. Elsewhere, the agency has pulled its punches, as in New York.
Asked why the letter about hydrofracking in the New York City watershed had been revised, an agency scientist who was involved in writing it offered a one-word explanation: “politics.”
Natural gas drilling companies have major exemptions from parts of at least seven of the 15 sweeping federal environmental laws that regulate most other heavy industries and that were written to protect air and drinking water from radioactive and hazardous chemicals.
Coal mine operators that want to inject toxic wastewater into the ground must get permission from the federal authorities. But when natural gas companies want to inject chemical-laced water and sand into the ground during hydrofracking, they do not have to follow the same rules.
The air pollution from a sprawling steel plant with different buildings is added together when regulators decide whether certain strict rules will apply. At a natural gas site, the toxic fumes from various parts of it — a compressor station and a storage tank, for example — are counted separately rather than cumulatively, so many overall gas well operations are subject to looser caps on their emissions.
An Earlier Reversal
The E.P.A. also studied hydrofracking in 2004, when Congress considered whether the process should be fully regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act.
An early draft of the study discussed potentially dangerous levels of contamination in hydrofracking fluids and mentioned “possible evidence” of contamination of an aquifer. The final version of the report excluded these points, concluding instead that hydrofracking “poses little or no threat to drinking water.”
Shortly after the study was released, an E.P.A. whistleblower said the agency had been strongly influenced by industry and political pressure. Agency leaders at the time stood by the study’s findings.
“It was shameful,” Weston Wilson, the E.P.A. whistleblower, said in a recent interview about the study. He explained that five of the seven members of that study’s peer review panel were current or former employees of the oil and gas industry.
“The study ended up being the basis for this industry getting yet another exemption from federal law when it should have resulted in greater regulation of this industry,” Mr. Wilson added.
Some E.P.A. scientists say this pattern may be playing out again in the national study of hydrofracking that Congress will consider as it decides whether drillers will have to operate under stricter rules.
Internal documents from early meetings, obtained through public-records requests filed by The Times and provided by E.P.A. officials who are frustrated with how research is being handled, show agency field scientists demanding that certain topics be included in the study. And earlier versions of the research plan indicate that many of those topics were to be included.
For example, the study was to consider the dangers of toxic fumes released during drilling, the impact of drilling waste on the food chain and the risks of this radioactive waste to workers.
But many of these concerns, cited by field scientists in earlier documents as high priorities, were cut from the current study plan, according to a version of it made public on Feb. 8.
Earlier planning documents also called for a study of the risks of contaminated runoff from landfills where drilling waste is disposed and included detailed plans to model whether rivers can sufficiently dilute hazardous gas-well wastewater discharged from treatment plants.
These topics were cut from the current study plan, even though E.P.A. officials have acknowledged that sewage treatment plants are not able to treat drilling waste fully before it is discharged into rivers, sometimes just miles upstream from drinking water intake plants. While the current study plan clearly indicates that the agency plans to research various types of radioactivity concerns related to natural gas drilling, this river modeling, which E.P.A. scientists say is important, has been removed.
In interviews, several agency scientists and consultants, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, said the study was narrowed because of pressure from industry and its allies in Congress, as well as budget and time constraints.
Brendan Gilfillan, an agency spokesman, said that the plan remained broad and that the agency had taken additional steps to investigate the impacts of drilling, including recently issuing a subpoena against the energy services company Halliburton to force the company to provide fuller disclosure about its drilling operations.
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