"As a result of the ... lawsuit on hydraulic fracturing of coalbed methane wells, the EPA recognizes this issue raises concerns and is conducting an investigation to evaluate the potential risks to ... drinking water." The proposed language described the ongoing EPA study of fracturing and water quality, and noted that it could culminate in "a regulatory determination."
On May 3, EPA employees said, they received a final pre-publication draft of the report. Agency staff members met into the evening to discuss the lack of responsiveness from Cheney's office on fracturing and several other issues. They decided to ask then-EPA Administrator Christie Whitman to write to the vice president personally to request modifications.
The following day, Whitman initialed a memo to Cheney asking him to reconsider parts of the final draft, including the section on fracturing. Her note pressed Cheney to scale back the recommendation exempting hydraulic fracturing from regulation.
Whitman warned that the administration could be "walking into a trap" by taking a public position against any regulation before the EPA completed its study of drinking-water pollution.
Whitman, who resigned last year, declined to be interviewed. Through a spokesman, she said, "EPA offered its expertise and input on relevant issues whenever possible," but she said she didn't recall details concerning the task force's handling of hydraulic fracturing.
"From my perspective, the vice president's office was driving the issue of hydraulic fracturing," said Jeremy Symons, a former EPA staffer assigned to the task force, who now works for a wildlife conservation organization.
When the task force report was released on May 16, 2001, the reference to an exemption from regulation was gone. But the report described the benefits of fracturing in detail without any mention of the EPA study.
"In certain formations, it has been demonstrated that the gas flow rate may be increased by as much as twenty-fold by hydraulic fracturing," the report said, noting that "most new gas wells drilled in the United States will require hydraulic fracturing."
Although Cheney declined to answer questions about his office's role in the fracturing discussions, his spokesman, Kellems, said the task force encouraged "environmentally sound production" of energy.
During the next three years, the administration supported a regulatory exemption for the practice on Capitol Hill and at the EPA.
Cheney participated in House-Senate conference committee negotiations last year that produced a sweeping national energy bill with a provision that would exempt fracturing from EPA drinking water regulation. Bush and Cheney immediately endorsed the energy bill. Some of those involved in the meetings said they could not recall or did not know whether Cheney intervened on behalf of fracturing.
Halliburton spokeswoman Wendy Hall said the company "did not contact Vice President Cheney or his office about hydraulic fracturing or the [provision in] the energy bill."
The bill has passed the House, but has languished in the Senate under the threat of a filibuster.
EPA Study Attacked
Although stymied in Congress, the gas and oil industry won an important victory within the administration.
In June, the EPA released its long-awaited study initiated in response to the Alabama lawsuit. The report focused on the use of fracturing to recover methane gas from coal beds, which often lie close to the surface and near groundwater used for drinking.
The report concluded that "injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into coal bed methane wells poses little or no threat" to drinking water supplies and "does not justify additional study at this time."
Hall said the study confirmed Halliburton's "long-standing belief that hydraulic fracturing poses little or no threat to drinking water sources."
But the EPA study has come under sharp attack within the agency. An EPA water expert, who reviewed drafts of the report before its release, said he complained internally about several flaws. The water expert, who did not want his name used because he was speaking without authorization, said his concerns were largely ignored.
Wilson, the EPA environmental engineer, and two other specialists from the EPA Denver regional headquarters told The Times they were not consulted, even though their territory included the country's richest coal bed methane fields and some of the nation's most vulnerable water supplies.
In his statement to the EPA inspector general and members of Congress, Wilson said the study did not follow approved methodology, relied on a panel of experts with conflicts of interest and failed to include any field investigation.
The report was based largely on a review of fracturing studies, reports of water contamination and consultations with state regulatory officials. The EPA decided against proceeding with a second phase of independent fieldwork.