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*UPDATE* EPA’s About-Face in Parker County

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UPDATE (Mar. 31, 2012; 7:55 a.m. ET): Lots of solid news reports generated overnight following up on the news of EPA’s reversal yesterday. But one piece in particular — by Daniel Gilbert and Russell Gold of WSJ — really ties it all together and explains why it matters. From the story: “In addition to dropping the case in Texas, the EPA has agreed to substantial retesting of water in Wyoming after its methods were questioned. And in Pennsylvania, it has angered state officials by conducting its own analysis of well water—only to confirm the state’s finding that water once tainted by gas was safe. Taken together, some experts say, these misfires could hurt the agency’s credibility … ” Full story here.

Fifteen months removed from EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz’s email to local anti-shale activists imploring them to “Tivo channel 8” so they didn’t miss his big announcement targeting Range Resources in Texas, EPA’s statement this afternoon that it has withdrawn its “imminent and substantial endangerment” order is certainly good news for the company — and even better news for residents in and around Parker Co. who had been (mis)led to believe by their government that local natural gas development had put their water at risk.

The whole trove of documents from EPA and the U.S. Dept. of Justice is available here and here – along with a must-read statement from the Texas Railroad Commission, and another one here from the Chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. But while today’s filing finally puts an end to a case whose scientific foundation had cracked, then crumbled, then outright disintegrated many months before, it reignites the conversation about what’s become a troubling trend for EPA: Every time EPA intervenes in a high-profile case – generating scads of maligning headlines about shale and hydraulic fracturing in the process – the agency ends up getting it wrong.

Are we the only ones to notice that, having been to the plate now three separate times, EPA is currently batting .000 on these cases?

By now, of course, the list of places in which EPA has decided to intercede over the past two years – each time under “emergency” orders necessary to prevent “imminent danger” – needs no introduction. In Pavillion, Wyo., EPA’s intervention came at the request of two local activists who appeared in Gasland, helping produce a draft report that attempted to link hydraulic fracturing to the contamination of groundwater.

Later, the agency was forced to admit its testing and data gathering procedures were flawed — a pretty safe assumption, given that benzene had been detected in distilled water samples that had never even left the lab. Earlier this month, EPA finally came to terms with the implications of its rush to judgment, announcing its plan to suspend the already-in-progress comment period and go back into the field to sample more wells and collect more data. In other words, to go back and do in earnest the work it previously insisted it had already done.

And then there’s the case of Dimock, a town many anti-shale folks still can’t pronounce (dim-ick; not di-MOCK), but one that has nonetheless become a sort of Mecca for those committed to preventing the development of natural gas – not just there, but everywhere.

As it did in Pavillion, EPA invoked its bank-shot authority under Superfund to push aside Pennsylvania regulators in favor of conducting its own investigation, pronouncing the town’s water safe at first only to reverse that position five weeks later despite not having seen, asked for or reviewed a single shred of new data. Thankfully, EPA reversed its reversal earlier this month, sending an email to Dimock residents indicating that nothing in their water posed a serious risk to human health. More interested in protecting the media hook of Dimock than the actual water, most activists have simply chosen to pretend the new EPA test results don’t exist.

Which finally leads us back to Parker County – another EPA case doomed from the start by bad science (it took most experts about two hours to finger the Strawn Formation as the actual culprit), but one that got a lot more interesting once hundreds of pages of deposition transcripts and FOIA’d emails made their way onto the scene. The picture that emerges from those missives and epistles is, to put it mildly, a troubling one – including clear collusion on the part of activists and regulators to target a company and threaten it with millions of dollars in fines purely for the purpose of manufacturing a talking point against hydraulic fracturing. Think we’re overstating the case? Take a look at the emails yourself, and be sure to read through Alisa Rich’s transcript while you’re at it.

It’s often said in Washington (and elsewhere) that the best way to minimize the impact of a bad story is to let it fly on a Friday afternoon. Today’s announcement by EPA, notwithstanding the timing of its release, is actually the opposite of bad news: it’s good news (or at least it should be), and indeed, tremendous news for residents who had been left to wonder over the past 15 months whether local oil and gas development was having a deleterious impact on their water.

As a spokesman for Range put it to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram today: “It’s important for people to know that their environment, health and safety is protected and hopefully this provides them with that comfort.” Here’s something that might provide even more comfort: Confidence that EPA will conduct itself and its investigations in a manner in which science — and not politics — informs, directs and renders uncompromisable each and every step of its research and decision-making process. We’re not quite there yet, unfortunately. But hopefully with today’s announcement and others like it, we’re closer now than we were before.

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