Thom Hartmann: For tonight's Green Report, we stay right here in Washington, DC - where the Environmental Protection Agency - you know, the EPA - has reversed course on fracking. Initially, the agency had concluded in a draft report released last year that fracking had no "widespread, systemic impact" on drinking water. That conclusion outraged environmentalists as well factions of scientists within the EPA itself.
In a final report released last Tuesday, however, the EPA has reached a very different conclusion. They now say that fracking DOES contaminate drinking water, although they still say that a lack of data makes a 100 percent definitive answer impossible.
Like President Obama's announcement yesterday of a permanent ban on drilling in the Arctic and along the Atlantic Seaboard, the EPA's new report might be the last piece of good environmental news for a long, long time.
Donald Trump's choice of EPA director - Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt - is a close ally of the fossil fuel industry and has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from big oil.
But with things looking as dire as they do - could the EPA have taken an even bolder stance on fracking?
Joining me now is Emily Wurth - Program Director of Food and Water Watch.
Hey, Emily, welcome.
Emily Wurth: Hi, thank you so much for having me on the show.
Thom Hartmann: Glad to have you with us. So fracking contaminates drinking water. You know, didn't Josh Fox make a movie about this? I mean, isn't this common knowledge? Why did it take the EPA so long to figure this out?
Emily Wurth: Yes, well, the report last Tuesday that was released is a real victory for science because this has been a long time coming. This report's taken over five years and as you indicated last summer, when the EPA released their draft version of the report - draft is the key word, there - they used a misleading top-line finding to say that fracking does not cause widespread systemic contamination to drinking water.
The problem with that was that the information within the report actually showed instances of where fracking did contaminate water both by spills and leaks as well as well integrity issues something that we've all known since Gasland, essentially.
Thom Hartmann: Was the key word or even weasel word there, 'widespread'?
Emily Wurth: 'Widespread' and 'systemic', yes. And so what we found out recently from a Marketplace report is that this was a late addition to the study and the press release which predominated the news cycle around this draft report that came from somewhere within either the EPA or the Obama administration to really downplay what this study had found which was: yes, fracking can contaminate water, something we've all known, but that was a very big deal to have the EPA say this.
You know, for years in Congress, members of Congress, top agency officials said, 'there's never been a single instance where fracking has contaminated water'. So clearly this was an effort to downplay the findings of this five-year study that, you know, had been undergoing scrutiny and also spent a lot of money, the agency spent a lot of money conducting, and that's why it's such a victory that the final report does not include that language. And it's really, it really was the public participation, especially from the people across the country who've experienced firsthand this water contamination.
You know, I came, I've talked to you before about the three case studies in Pavillion, Wyoming, Parker County, Texas, and Dimock, Pennsylvania. In the draft study, none of those case studies where the EPA had investigated in the past were mentioned in the report at all.
And so it's one of our, as, you know, at Food and Water Watch we've been scrutinizing this whole process and with all of our allies in the movement we said, 'look this top line finding is misleading and you didn't even include the information from these key three case studies'. And so it was really amazing to see these people who I consider heroes, people that were brave enough to speak up about what happened despite the oil and gas industry's best efforts to silence them, and they participated in the entire process of the science advisory board that peer reviewed the study and made the conclusion that EPA should not make that top line finding without the supporting data and that they should include the case studies. And the EPA listened to the people and listened to the Science Advisory Board.
Thom Hartmann: How widespread is the contamination of drinking water by fracking?
Emily Wurth: Well, you know, the issue is, what EPA said, that there are data limitations and uncertainties, that's actually true. But there are very insidious reasons for that. It's because the industry has done everything they can to not cooperate with the EPA and other state agencies. You know, the EPA was supposed to include prospective case studies where they looked at the full cycle of a well, but they needed the industry to cooperate to be able to do that, and they failed to get the industry to cooperate at all, to give them access to any sites that they could monitor from start to finish. That just frankly wasn't included in the report at all.
The other issue that we know of is that, you know, there have been settlements and these court documents are sealed and as part of the settlements that the industry makes with families who have been harmed, so the oil and gas industry settles with families whose waters been contaminated, they have what they call non-disclosure agreements or gag orders and so people are not allowed to talk about what's happened. And so we have no idea. There are countless sealed court documents and none of that information is brought to bear.
And then many of the state regulations, are voluntary, are very weak, and so there's a lack of data because the states frankly haven't been keeping the data, you know, collecting the data that scientists could use to understand this problem.
Thom Hartmann: The, this report has come out basically at the end of the Obama administration. President Obama's been president for eight years, he and the EPA under him have had plenty of time to put this thing together and, you know, fracking was running full tilt boogie when he came into office, so...
Emily Wurth: And he promoted it.
Thom Hartmann:Yeah, so is that why it took this long? I mean, did finally somebody woke up? And does this have to do with, you know, politics in as much as Democrats as well as Republicans take money from the gas industry?
Emily Wurth: Yes. The oil and gas industry has undue influence over our political system and they've effectively captured both political parties and we've seen a number of Democrats across the country support the rapid expansion of drilling and fracking which was something, you know, we didn't know. It's basically subjecting Americans to a major experiment because we didn't know much about this new high-volume horizontal fracking, you know, before about 2 thou, you know, it wasn't happening before about 2006.
And so there now over 300,000 fracked wells. 17 million Americans now live within one mile of one of these wells. We've just seen a dramatic proliferation of this under the Obama administration and, you know, his track record in abandoning these three key drinking water investigations and, you know, he's put in place a few regulations but it's been very limited and one of my personal disappointments is that he never met with the people who have been harmed across the country who had been asking him for meetings, you know, for all these years. And again, these are the people on the front lines whose, you know, water has been contaminated, their homes have no value, many of them are falling sick now and it's horrible, you know, what's happened to them as a result of these policies.
Thom Hartmann: When we talk contamination, I mean, we're talking chemicals that cause cancer, that cause serious neurological diseases, that cause birth defects, that, just serious, serious stuff. This is not like, hey, your water smells funny.
Emily Wurth: Yes, and what's scary and Yale just put out a study on this, there are many known carcinogens used by the fracking industry but what's even more concerning is that for many of the chemicals they use, they haven't done chemical testing, so we don't we don't really know what the impacts of those chemicals are on human health.
Thom Hartmann: In fact a lot of this because of Dick Cheney's, you know, ...
Emily Wurth: Yes.
Thom Hartmann: ...Playing in this arena is still "proprietary", right?
Emily Wurth: That's right.
Thom Hartmann: So here we have, I mean, it took eight years for the Obama administration to get to the point of saying, 'oh, yeah, okay, people are being poisoned by this'. In about a month, Donald Trump and his administration are going to be taking over and he's putting Scott Pruitt in charge of the EPA. Scott Pruitt, you know, is not exactly a pro science guy. At least, it seems, I mean, this is a guy who still says, you know, 'climate change? We don't know if there's climate change'.
Emily Wurth: And he sued the agency.
Thom Hartmann: Yes. He has sued the EPA, you're right. So what, you know, is there going to be any lasting impact from this report? I mean, it's good to get stuff on the record but is there any legislative or regulatory, I mean, what comes out of it?
Emily Wurth: Well, I think the key thing and why it's so critical that, you know, that the people and that science prevailed in this is that there will be, you know, fracking is regulated at the state level and now state and local officials can use this report - which EPA always said it was intended to be used for policymakers across the country - and so, you know, I know those of us in the movement fighting to stop fracking will be using this at the state and local level to educate people, because now we can say that the Environmental Protection Agency has found that fracking does contaminate water.
Thom Hartmann: Right.
Emily Wurth: And in the past the oil and gas industry was trying to discount that, and now they won't be able to. And so, you know, right now I know I'm, we're working in Maryland, in Florida, in California, Pennsylvania, all across the country to either keep fracking from coming, or to push it back in the places that it already exists.
Thom Hartmann: Right. And what happens if the Trump administration, I mean, will they have the power to simply say, 'you know, sorry, you can't regulate fracking, that we're going to stop regulating it'? Or are there regulations in place that can't be undone that easily?
Emily Wurth: You know, I think they'll try to roll back some regulations. I've heard they have a lot of interest in drilling and fracking on public lands across the country, which I think, you know, will be a big fight in the future administration. But yeah, I think it's unclear what the priorities of this administration will be, but from the nominations put forward, many of them have clear ties to the oil and gas industry including, of course, Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State.
Thom Hartmann: He is the oil industry.
Emily Wurth: He is the oil and gas industry, yes, and the biggest fracker.
Thom Hartmann: So, in the final minute we have here, Emily Wurth, what can or should people be doing about this? We now know this, what we do?
Emily Wurth: Well, I think we have to take this information and use it in our local communities and in our states to pass measures to prevent fracking from coming into our communities. And we have to spread the word, you know, and spread the truth about the science and really hold up the science and all the work that we do.
Thom Hartmann: Are you expecting to see states, you know, basically ban their local communities from banning fracking? We've seen efforts to this effect.
Emily Wurth: Yeah, I hope not, you know, I mean, in Maryland we're trying to pass a statewide ban on fracking next, starting in January, and so that's going to be the next big fight. But I think it's going to end up good, well for the people.
Thom Hartmann: Good. Good. Emily Wurth, it's great to have you with us.
Emily Wurth: Oh, thank you so much.
Thom Hartmann: Thanks so much for coming back on the program.
Transcribed by Sue Nethercott.