House Republicans assailed the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday morning for its claims that “fracking” caused water contamination in a small Wyoming town, but the hearing was overshadowed by the arrest of Josh Fox, a controversial HBO filmmaker and natural-gas industry critic.
Mr. Fox, who directed the award-winning documentary “Gasland,” was led away in handcuffs after attempting to film the forum without the proper credentials, and Democrats — many of whom share Mr. Fox’s animosity toward the gas business — quickly held him up as a martyr.
“We have space in this room … to film this hearing. If you claim that the rule does not allow them to film, I move that the rules be suspended,” said Rep. Brad Miller, North Carolina Democrat and ranking member on the House Science, Space and Technology energy and the environment subcommittee.
Mr. Miller also said he wanted to see “all God’s children be allowed to film this hearing.”
Photography and videotaping are generally allowed at open congressional hearings, but advance permission, which Mr. Fox did not have, is sometimes required. Mr. Miller’s motion to suspend that rule was defeated by a 7-to-6 vote, but only after subcommittee Chairman Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland Republican, called a 45-minute recess to gather enough colleagues to form a quorum.
Mr. Harris stressed that he has no objections to the taping of House hearings, and pointed out that most forums are open to the public and many are streamed live on the Internet.
Mr. Fox was apparently seeking to film the event as part of a follow-up to “Gasland,” which paints a highly negative picture of the natural-gas industry and its popular “fracking” method of extraction.
Shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, “fracking” is the use of water, sand and chemical mixtures to crack underground rock and release vast amounts of natural gas. The practice, responsible for economic revivals in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, has become the prime target of environmentalists such as Mr. Fox, who claim it pollutes water supplies.
Late last year, the EPA gave new ammunition to those critics by releasing a draft study claiming the process led directly to the contamination of drinking water in Pavillion, Wyo., a town of about 170 people.
The report stated that 50 times the normal amount of the highly toxic compound benzene was found in test wells near a fracking operation.
But the agency made clear that its findings were specific to Pavillion, where fracking is taking place at shallow levels near water supplies. Most fracking occurs at far greater depths, usually at least 5,000 feet. The agency also relied entirely on only two test wells, and has not yet allowed an independent peer review of its findings, a fact Republicans view as proof the EPA is simply carrying out what they say is the Obama administration’s desire to crush the fossil-fuel industry.
“They’re going after fracking everywhere they can,” said Rep. Ralph Hall, Texas Republican and Science Committee chairman.
While the agency is currently seeking qualified third parties to review the report, many think the damage has already been done. By releasing the study before it’s been confirmed, Mr. Harris and other Republicans charge, the EPA has done irreversible harm to the natural-gas industry in the public arena.
“This agency is substituting outcome-driven science for rigorous, objective science,” Mr. Harris said. “This highlights the power of the EPA’s press-release science to drive public opinion.”
James Martin, an EPA administrator who oversees Wyoming and several adjoining states, told the subcommittee that his agency stands behind the report, and welcomes a second look at its work.
“I believe the EPA acted carefully and thoughtfully and transparently in responding to concerns raised by local residents” about their water, Mr. Martin said.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at email@example.com.
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