Two Huge Stories on Fracking You Probably Missed This Week

03/05/2015 12:15 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2015
Shutterstock / Calin Tatu

It seems that the fracking industry's biggest concern is keeping their operations secret. Whether they're talking about the chemicals in their frac fluid, how they pay (or don't pay) royalties to landowners, or even whether doctors can tell their patients what they're treating, industry representatives have pushed to keep their secrets. The industry has been pretty good at keeping people in the dark.

But two recent disclosures have shed some light on how the industry manages to obscure the details of its operations. On Tuesday, Mike Soraghan at EnergyWire broke the news that scientists in Oklahoma knew five years ago that the state's recent unprecedented swarms of earthquakes were probably due to oil and gas operations. (We confirmed with Mike that he had uncovered these emails after pursuing an Open Records Act request in Oklahoma. Previously, he had analyzed federal earthquake data to break the news that Oklahoma had more earthquakes than California in 2014.)

According to EnergyWire, when Austin Holland, a seismologist from the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) based at the University of Oklahoma, raised the issue, he was asked to meet with the president of the university and "concerned" oil and gas industry officials (including with Mitt Romney's campaign advisor on energy issues, Harold Hamm, who has donated over $30 million to the school.)

Since that meeting, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and OGS have butted heads over the link between oil and gas activities and earthquakes, with OGS pushing back against the idea that Big Oil and Gas is to blame. Bob Jackman, a petroleum geologist, says that when he asked Holland about the earthquakes, Holland replied, "You don't understand - Harold Hamm and others will not allow me to say certain things." Holland disputed this, but did not offer a corrected statement to EnergyWire.

Industry influence with national implications

In related news, through an open records request, Greenpeace received thousands of pages of correspondence between the EPA and industry participants in its fracking study. Sharon Kelley at DeSmogBlog and Neela Banerjee at Inside Climate News combed through the documents and pulled hundreds of pages of the more revealing finds.

Significantly, the documents include comments by Chesapeake Energy on the EPA's study plans in which the company asks it to narrow its focus to only the specific step in which fracking fluids are injected, without allowing it to test conditions during the drilling and cementing of the well before those frac fluid injections. The EPA agreed to only install monitoring wells after Chesapeake's wells were drilled.

Chesapeake also asked to be involved in reviewing contractors and field data and tried to influence testing methods. The records also include a list of Range Resources' demands in order to cooperate with the agency, including access to documents, copies of recordings and photos and a stipulation that EPA employees be "identified in advance" and accompanied by a Range escort at all times.

These revelations go along with what we already knew happened in Parker County, Texas, where the EPA abruptly closed an investigation into groundwater contamination, despite evidence that nearby fracking operations were to blame. As it turns out, Range, the company accused of contaminating water supplies, threatened to pull out of the agency's national study if it kept investigating.

Our report The Urgent Case for a Ban on Fracking raises questions about the EPA's ongoing study of the potential impacts of fracking on water resources. Rather than require participation, the agency has done nothing but bend over backwards, pleading with industry to share its information. Not surprisingly, this hasn't worked.

A constant refrain from the oil and gas industry and supporters is that state regulation of fracking is adequate and federal regulations are unnecessary. In reality, they're trying to undermine regulation at every level of government. Industry has risen to the challenge of shaping the science in the EPA's study.

The importance of media watchdogs

The industry's pressure on scientists has long-term and wide-ranging effects: it hampers public understanding, gives cover to fracking-friendly politicians, and inhibits further scientific study, both at universities reliant on industry funding and at government agencies reliant on industry participation for data. Public Accountability Initiative's recent report shows that the industry is using flawed research to promote fracking as safe--research that PAI says is "industry-tied and lacking in scientific rigor."

EnergyWire, a subscription-based news wire geared at the energy policy community, DeSmogBlog and Inside Climate News have done a great job of breaking or reporting news around the dangers of fracking. Here's hoping that more mainstream news organizations will conduct investigative reporting on these conflicts of interest to clear the fog created by industry misinformation. With the oil and gas industry spending tens of millions every year in public relations and advertising, media watchdogs are more important than ever.

This post originally appeared at Food & Water Watch's blog.