Can Wyoming's investigation into Pavillion's groundwater contamination be called unbiased? A reasonable person could be forgiven for wondering.
Last week, a former Wyoming regulator recanted his comment that industry had polluted the Pavillion area's water. The reason for his change in tune? A conversation with one of two Wyoming officials leading the state investigation.
Grant Black, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission supervisor, "set me straight and told me I was wrong," Robert Johnson told me Wednesday.
An email arrived in my inbox from the Powder River Basin Resource Council, an environmental group, a few days later. The group was incensed by Johnson's comments.
"This is unbelievable and unacceptable," exclaimed John Fenton, a member of the resource council, Pavillion area landowner and outspoken fracking critic. "It appears that the state has already reached conclusions about the investigation of Pavillion area groundwater contamination before they’ve released findings or even hired experts to review their analysis."
State officials have, often unfairly, been labeled pro-industry in the Pavillion boondoggle. When the Environmental Protection Agency initially concluded that Pavillion's groundwater had been contaminated by fracking, Wyoming officials questioned the agency's testing methods.
They were right to do so, as some of EPA's methods were indeed questionable. The nuance of the state position was largely lost on the public, however. The pro-industry types cheered, and the anti-fracking crowd groaned when the EPA turned over the investigation to Wyoming last summer.
But some of the perception that Wyoming's leaders are in the can for industry is warranted.
Wyoming accepted a $1.5 million "grant" from Encana to help finance the investigation into whether the Canadian company's wells had polluted the groundwater east of Pavillion.
State officials have argued that the money presents no conflict of interest. Wyoming is still in charge of the investigation, and Encana cannot influence the results, they say.
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Company representatives say they are trying to help. The state had not appropriated money for the study, after all.
All this may be true. And it may well turn out that Wyoming produces a sterling report, hailed by scientists for its conclusions -- no matter how they turn out.
But taking money from Encana just looks bad. And in politics, sadly, how things are perceived is often more important than what is true.
Johnson's comments last week demonstrate the dangers of this. I spoke to Black after receiving the resource council's email and asked him about his conversation with Johnson, who now manages Idaho's oil and gas program.
Black told me the pair spoke after an environmental blog first reported Johnson's initial comments two weeks ago. But their conversation was largely about other matters, Black said. As for Pavillion?
"I simply told him this was an ongoing investigation," Black told me. "No conclusions have been made."
I brought up the issue of perception with the conservation commission supervisor and asked him how he would respond to those who worry that a conclusion has already been made.
"I’m a scientist. I’m a geologist by education. I came into this investigation with an open mind, and I continue that way," Black said. "This is a very important study. It has worldwide consequences. I think we have to do it right. That’s our goal."
I agree. A community's health is on the line. The way we produce energy and protect the environment is at stake.
The danger here is that no one will take the Wyoming study seriously. It will be followed by the tag line "paid for by Encana" wherever it goes.
That's why Gov. Matt Mead needs to explore if there is any feasible way Wyoming can give the Canadian firm its money back. Maybe it's too late. Maybe the perception Wyoming is in the bag for industry has already hardened.
But Mead needs to try. The stakes are too high.
Reach energy reporter Benjamin Storrow at 307-266-0535 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bstorrow