Bernard Goldstein, professor and dean emeritus at the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh, says the EPA study illustrates that more research needs to be done in the safety of natural gas drilling. (Chris Kirk/Medill)

WASHINGTON — A Republican-led House committee Wednesday criticized as “unnecessarily alarming” a report from the Environmental Protection Agency that concluded natural gas drilling contaminated groundwater in Wyoming.

The EPA released a draft in December of a four-year study on the effects of natural gas drilling on groundwater in Pavillion, a small, rural town in Wyoming. The agency, which began the investigation after Pavillion residents complained of foul tastes and odors coming from well water, found that the groundwater contained a dangerous level of a carcinogen related to natural gas drilling.

“I am concerned about indications that EPA’s approach in Wyoming has been poorly conducted, unnecessarily alarming and fits within a pattern of an outcome-driven, ‘regulate-for-any-excuse’ philosophy at the agency,” said Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., chairman of the subcommittee on energy and environment.

Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., defended the EPA’s study and accused House Republicans of attacking the agency for political purposes. He said none of the witnesses invited by Republicans to testify had the authority to comment on the study’s validity. “With no disinterested scientists as witnesses, a reasonable question is whether this hearing is really just a big wink and nod to the industry that the majority is on their side no matter what,” Miller said.

The meeting marked another dust-up in the controversy among environmentalists, scientists, businessmen and officials about the safety of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a way of drilling for natural gas that sparked a boom in the natural gas industry.

At one point, congressmen and witnesses debated the specific wording of the study. Harris criticized the EPA for reporting in a press release that fracking “likely” contaminated the groundwater in Pavillion while the actual research concluded that the data merely best supports that hypothesis.

“There is a world of difference between ‘best supports’ and ‘likely,’” Harris said, adding that any legitimate scientist or lawyer would recognize that difference.

The EPA report does, in fact, say, “the data indicates likely impact to groundwater that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing,” but only in its summary section.

Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, a group of oil and gas companies in the West, said the EPA lacked transparency in its data, employed unscientific methods, did not consult with Wyoming before publishing the report and did not verify its results with independent scientists. She said the EPA had “jumped to conclusions.”

EPA official Jim Martin testified  that the EPA did, in fact, consult with Wyoming before publishing the draft and peer review is scheduled after public comment ends March 12.

Miller said Sgamma is an industry lobbyist and has no background is the science behind fracking. Sgamma said in a rebuttal that she represented people who do.

Harris, the subcommittee chairman, said that the report has already damaged the industry, noting that the governor of Delaware announced the day after the EPA released the report that it validated his decision to vote against natural gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin.

Bernard Goldstein, public health expert at the University of Pittsburgh, urged the committee to support further research on the health effects of fracking so that it can be done safely.

“What is the rush?” said Goldstein. “Unless the Canadians can horizontally dig under Lake Erie to get to the Marcellus Shale, that gas is not going to anyone but us.”