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Bush EPA Official Admits Politics Dictated Fracking Exemption

As I’ve written here, Propublica must be recognized for their superb “Buried Secrets” investigative work on the fracking issue. They put the story on the radar screen.

But, now that the paper of record – the New York Times – has weighed into the debate with a massive three part investigative series, the rats are scurying to cover their asses.

The Times reporting documented lax regulation, irresponsible gas industry behaviors, and disclosed internal EPA documents and inteviews with scientists that showed politicization of the science.

The Times showed that everything from EPA reviews of  NY State’s Environmental Impact Statement to EPA’s regulation, scientitific investigations, and reports to Congress were deeply impacted by political interference by powerful special interests.

For example, the Times reported that EPA had planned to call for a moratorium on fracking in the New York City watershed. The Times disclosed internal EPA documents that indicated that EPA scientists recommendations were removed from the publicly released letter to NYS DEC. The Times quoted EPA scientists saying the EPA decision could be explained with one word: “politics“.

In an obvious damage control effort, just days afer the Times series ran, EPA cracked down on Pennsylvania.

In a March 7, 2011 letter to Pennsylvania DNR, EPA raised concerns with federal oversight of Clean Water Act permits, requesting the state to perform additional tests within 30 days on water at treatment plants.

Not to be denied their day in the sun, in an exclusive interview, Propublica followed the Times with another revealing episode - a revealing admission by a former Bush EPA Assistant Administrator for Water, Benjamin Grumbles.

Grumbles was directly involved with the Bush/Cheney Energy Task Force – the industry dominated group that drove the EPA study that led Congress – in the 2005 Energy Policy Act – to exempt fracking from federal environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Now that the NY Times has disclosed how corrupt EPA fracking decisions were, Propublica gave Grumbles a chance to seek some form of professional salvation, if not redemption.

In an interview with Propublica, Grumbles tried to downplay how he looked the other way as corrupt Bush White House politics over-rode EPA science.

In amazingly contradictory spin, despite the NY Times disclosures, Grumbles still tried to deny it all:

Q: You’re referring to the exemption passed by Congress as part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which prohibited the regulation of fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act. What did you think about the idea of an exemption?

The career staff and I felt that when Congress provides a permanent exemption in an environmental statute, they need to be very careful about that and they need to have some built-in review process or safeguards so that if there is a risk presented, either the states or the EPA can then revisit it.

Q: Why, then, did you relinquish authority to both regulate the process and to revisit the issue?

I was disappointed, and I think others at EPA were disappointed, that the language [of the exemption] did not include the type of safety net language that I suggested.

It is not for one office and one agency to announce a position of the executive branch. And our view was, we had concerns about the scope of the language, we provided technical assistance and information, and ultimately Congress decided not to include the language that we had suggested. I was disappointed by that, but there is always tomorrow, and there is always the opportunity for additional facts to get Congress to revisit the exemption.

Q: So, were you overruled?

No, I felt that the commission’s report [the 2004 EPA study] was an important piece that indicated that this was not presenting a significant threat to groundwater. I did feel as a matter of policy that the exemption was broader than it should have been at the time.

We certainly did not ask Congress to exempt hydraulic fracturing. We opposed the language, and we did provide information to executive committees.

Q: How did politics influence the EPA’s oversight of this issue?

What came across clearly to the EPA was that the [Bush] administration did not want us to take a formal position of opposition to the exemption. It wasn’t so much a pressure. It was just very clear, here is the situation: EPA officials or career staff are not to take a position of opposition or support for the legislation.

I’m not saying that there was political pressure in some sense of being told not to say certain things. This is the case in all high-profile legislative and congressional issues over my six years at EPA.

When it comes to working with Congress, the EPA is one important voice in where the executive branch is coming from, but it is not the only voice. So, as is always the case with any administration, there was coordination of the process with the Department of Energy, Office of Management and Budget, the White House. I know the office of the vice president [Dick Cheney] was involved, but I honestly did not see much involvement at all.

Q: How did you get the message that the EPA shouldn’t take a formal position on the exemption?

They would say, ‘continue to monitor this issue, work with congressional offices, explore the language, but don’t take a formal position either for or against the language that was being developed in Chairman Barton’s committee.’ [Joe Barton, House Energy and Commerce Committee]

Q: Were you or the EPA ever instructed on what, specifically, to conclude in your research?

I never received any political pressure to do anything, or to take any particular view other than to not have an official position of opposition to the legislation that Chairman Barton and others were working on in the House and the Senate.

As we wrote, the Times’ series had an impact in Trenton on Monday, and likely will be brought up tomorrow in Senate hearings.

Fracking is a national issue, so the battle in Congess may heat up as well, as a result of the Times‘ series. According to E&E Reporter:

Three House Democrats from New York are urging U.S. EPA to review its decision not to seek a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in the New York City watershed.

“We ask that you also look into contamination concerns in New York and look into the withdrawal of the planned call for a drilling moratorium in the New York City watershed,” said the letter, signed by Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Maurice Hinchey and Jerrold Nadler.

The letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson pointed to “disturbing” reports in a recent New York Times article about fracturing indicating that politics played a role in an EPA decision not to support calls for a moratorium on use of the high-volume process in the upstate area where the city gets its water

Let this be a lesson – hit the links and read the Propublica and NY Times stories. There is a massive amount of good information there.

More to follow.

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