For EPA, a Troubling (Email) Chain of Events
If you thought you knew everything there was to know about EPA’s fracking follies last year, a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by E&E News (sub's reqd.) provides valuable insight into the agency’s deliberations on these matters. Namely, in a series of high-profile backtracks on natural gas EPA appears to be placing the unfounded claims of natural gas activists over the expertise of state regulators.
As has been pretty well and widely documented by now, EPA’s ongoing effort aimed at inserting itself into state investigations broadly focused on shale and hydraulic fracturing issues has not, heretofore, gone especially well. First, there was Parker Co., Texas; then came Pavillion, Wyo. And who can forget Dimock, Pennsylvania? In each case, EPA came, saw, and eventually retreated. Not because of some grand conspiracy or back-room dealing – but because in the end, after all the data was collected and all the numbers were run, the science simply wasn’t on its side.
But if you thought you knew everything there was to know about EPA’s fracking follies last year, a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by E&E News (sub’s reqd.) provides valuable insight into the agency’s deliberations on these matters. Time and again reading through the emails, it appears the agency assigns greater weight to claims made by anti-shale activists rather than the testimonials and direction imparted by the professionals who regulate oil and gas activities on the state level. The same regulators, by the way, whose proven record led former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to declare “states are stepping up and doing a good job” in regulating natural gas development.
Let’s examine these cases again, with the benefit of additional context from these newly recently internal EPA emails.
Parker County, Tex.
EPA’s troubled history in pursuing alleged claims of contamination first became publicly apparent following the agency’s fits and starts in Parker County, Texas. As we reported previously, the agency’s enforcement actions in Texas were pursued only after close coordination and prodding from local activists.
The collusion was epitomized in an infamous email from former EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz, who gleefully alerted anti-shale activists of a forthcoming endangerment order again Range Resources:
“We’re about to make a lot of news…there’ll be an official press release in a few minutes … time to Tivo channel 8.”
Fifteen months later, EPA withdrew its order — no doubt due to the begrudging acknowledgment that its case was scientifically baseless. But the story doesn’t end there.
According to emails sent on January 4, 2011, former EPA communications officer Betsaida Alcantara and Associate EPA Administrator Seth Oster were corresponding with Josh Fox, the producer of the widely discredited 2010 documentary ‘Gasland.’
Following that exchange, Alcantra remarks to Armendariz that “Josh spoke very highly of you fyi!” Armendariz response was even more concerning as he noted “it was good working with [Fox] for Gasland, we try to keep in touch every so often.” (emphasis added)
The regional administrator not only happily accepts the interview, but then shifts into the film-maker’s production assistant, asking his colleagues to arrange an outdoor interview where Fox “can get good background shots.” Helping Josh Fox get the best scenery for one of his hyperbolic films is hardly indicative of an administrator — or an agency — interested in being a neutral arbiter.
Now, compare that exchange to communications between senior EPA officials and the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), the state regulatory body that oversees oil and gas development in Texas. The Commission tried to warn the EPA that the agency’s findings were “premature” due to RRC’s ongoing investigation and a lack of data supporting EPA’s assertions. Armendariz’s response to those repeated warnings consisted of one single word, that word being “stunning.”
In separate correspondence, Steven Chester, Deputy Assistant Administrator at EPA for enforcement and compliance, and Bob Sussman, then Senior Policy Counsel to Administrator Jackson, attempted to console the regional administrator after RRC Commissioner David Porter calls for Armendariz to be terminated over the flap (the regional administrator would later resign only to later gain employment with the Sierra Club).
Wait, what? On the one hand, senior EPA officials are giddy to receive praise from a known and discredited activist filmmaker; on the other, they reject the pragmatic advice of state regulators and then chastise those regulators for expecting the EPA to base its actions based on sound science.
A similar situation can be seen in correspondence unearthed by a Scranton Times Tribune FOIA request that yielded more than 3,000 emails relating to EPA’s actions in the small town of Dimock, Pa. Like the FOIA request in Texas, that correspondence shows an agency quick to respond to dubious claims from activists that, in this case, were rejected by state regulators. Here again, senior level EPA officials seemed to provide more credence to activists’ claims than the findings of state enforcement agencies who actually have expertise in the field.
To wit: In original correspondence EPA’s Chief of Groundwater and Enforcement in Region 3, Karen Johnson, sent Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) official Scott Perry an email confirming that the water in Dimock did not pose a threat to human health. In fact, Johnson even sought to assuage Perry’s concerns that EPA’s involvement would inflame the situation; a real concern given sensitivities with the topic at the time. From the email (page 284):
From: KarenDJohnson/R3/USEPA/US 11/07/2011 07:43 AM
To: “Perry, Scott (DEP)”
Subject RE: Dimock visit
Believe me we aren’t going to do anything to do that…the guy from ATSDR hopefully can alley fears about health effects…I’ve been going through the data , even the “outside” analytical services agree with range of sampling already done just fine…can’t figure out what is going on..
I’ll let you know how it goes…
Karen D. Johnson, Chief
Ground Water & Enforcement Branch
That sentiment would later be solidified when EPA sent an email to Dimock residents on December 2, 2011, stating “the data does not indicate that the well water presents an immediate health threat to users.”
But four days later, Josh Fox sent an open letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson calling for her agency to intervene in Dimock because state regulators had allegedly “failed.” No evidence, no facts, just a classic attempt to garner headlines. Within two days of receipt of that letter, EPA staff in Washington, D.C. organized a conference call between Jackson and officials from Region 3 to discuss the agency’s ongoing efforts in Dimock. From the emails (page 496):
From: Ann Campbell /DC/USEPA/US
Sent: 12/08/2011 06:17 AM
To: Cynthia Dougherty, Ann Codrington, Fred Hauchman, Jeanne Briskin, Linda Boornazian, KarenD Johnson, Victoria Binetti, Carrie Wehling, Jon Capacasa
Subject: An Open Letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to Intervene in Dimock, PA because the State of Pennsylvania has Failed
Folks – below is the letter from Josh Fox to the Administrator that was discussed during yesterday’s call. A briefing has been scheduled for Friday, Dec 16 to provide the Administrator with background on the situation in Dimock, any analysis or conclusions that have been drawn from the review of the state’s data, and options, if appropriate, for dealing with the situation. Bob will be setting up a prebrief to prep for the Administrator’s meeting early next week so I’d like to spend some time on this during the Tuesday workgroup call.
Seemingly in response to Fox’s baseless claims, EPA announced a few weeks later that they would “perform water sampling at approximately 60 homes in the area of Dimock, Pa.,” based on what the EPA termed potential “health concerns.”
In other words, the EPA – based on hard data that had also been reviewed by state regulators – agreed that Dimock’s water was safe. But shortly after receiving Josh Fox’s open letter, they abandoned their evidence-based conclusion. As Al Armendariz might say, stunning.
In each of these examples, EPA either ignored efforts by state regulators or placed a higher emphasis on the unsupported claims of known – and discredited – anti-natural gas activists. And remember, these are the same activists who tried to instill fear in the public by promoting breast cancer claims in Texas — which, predictably, were later rebuffed by actual health experts in an Associated Press review titled “Some Fracking Critics Use Bad Science,” where even the AP explained the lack of basis for anti-shale activism.
In the end, EPA’s actions against oil and gas operators in at least two high profile cases were directly related to pleadings from known and discredited anti-natural gas activists, and directly against the findings of actual regulators. Little wonder, then, why the EPA has been consistently forced to back track in each of these cases, as scientific investigations yielded different results than what activists’ talking points would suggest. It happened in Texas, it happened in Dimock, and — barring an internal EPA shift away from giving primacy to opponents’ claims over regulatory judgments — chances are it will happen again.
Actual Data Tell Very Different (and Very Good) Story on Worker Safety
Opponents of natural gas have settled on a strategy of trying to build a new and pathos-driven narrative around the oil and gas industry – namely, that the work it does is exceedingly dangerous, and no amount of oversight can make it safe. However, the oil and gas industry’s number one priority is safety, for both its workers and the environment in which it operates. This commitment comes across in pretty vivid detail for those who take just a second to look at the actual facts.
Unable to pick-up traction on their standard set of claims and accusations, opponents of natural gas have settled on a strategy of trying to build a new and pathos-driven narrative around the oil and gas industry – namely, that the work it does is exceedingly dangerous, and no amount of effort, technology or oversight can make it safe (notwithstanding the fact that over nine million people in the U.S. work in the oil and gas business).
Part and parcel of this strategy is to get folks to believe that oil and gas companies don’t care about their workers, and that they routinely put their employees’ lives in danger just to make a quick buck. Josh Fox’s new short film, which he calls “CJ’s Law,” attempts to advance this narrative.
Unfortunately for Josh – and fortunately for our workforce – a review of available state and federal data suggests the narrative is completely unmoored from reality.
Now, make no mistake: not a single death or a serious injury that happens at an industrial worksite is acceptable to anyone. But in rare cases, accidents and incidents do occur, even with the most stringent regulatory system in place anywhere in the world, and the combined investment of literally billions of dollars each year into new processes, systems and technologies designed and proven to make the workplace even safer.
But Fox isn’t just saying that oil and gas companies don’t care about their employees, as scurrilous a charge as that may be. He’s also saying that the industry’s track-record on safety is bad, a contention echoed by a reporter at E&E News in a piece filed the week after Josh’s new video hit (and featuring the same interview subjects as Josh used).
First-off, let’s acknowledge right at the top that some element of risk is present in just about any job anyone would have in America. Whether you’re a flight attendant, a crossing guard, a bartender, a foreman at a construction site, a technician at a water treatment facility, or a contractor on a drilling rig – there’s always going to be some risk associated with doing what you do, even as that risk is continously lessened and properly and closely managed.
But hey: working on a rig HAS to be more dangerous than working behind a bar, right? Well, actually — not according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
According to BLS statistics, the fatality rate for “mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction” is lower than a lot of other industries you might be surprised to see on this list. Here are just a few:
- aircraft pilot or flight engineer
- steel workers
- farming and ranching
- truck drivers
- taxi or limousine drivers
- waste management
Again, this isn’t to say there is no risk involved in developing oil and gas resources. But this information does suggest the claim that wellpads are “among the most dangerous workplaces in the country” might be a little hyperbolic.
The 2011 National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries also lists the total number of fatalities, and notes that the number of fatalities from oil and natural gas development is exceeded by many other industries. Those include, but are not limited to:
Motor vehicle operators (851 deaths); Transportation and warehousing (733 deaths); Construction (721 deaths); Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (557 deaths); Construction trade workers (511 deaths); Government (495 deaths); Truck transportation (474 deaths); Professional and business services (424 deaths); Installation, maintenance and repair occupations (362); Manufacturing (322 deaths); Local government (294 deaths); Retail trade (266 deaths); Building and grounds cleaning maintenance occupations (265); farming, fishing and forestry (262); Crop production (238 deaths); Leisure and hospitality (224 deaths); Sales and related occupations as a sector (228 deaths).
A review of additional federal statistics highlights the industry’s commitment to safety, and also the progress that continues to be made. In fact, the number of injuries in the sector has been declining even as the industry has significantly increased its operations, which of course has resulted in U.S. oil and natural gas production reaching production levels that are exceeding or nearing historic highs.
Such an achievement doesn’t come without a very targeted focus on ensuring the safety of worksites. Eric Esswein, a Senior Industrial Hygienist at the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), made this very observation last year when he visited several areas undergoing shale development, concluding that the oil and natural gas industry “runs very, very safe work practices and sites.”
Esswein’s experience is backed by federal statistics. According to data released by BLS late last year, injuries in the oil and natural gas industry declined in 2011 by an amazing 33 percent. The injury rate – 0.8 cases per 100 workers – is well below the national incidence rate of 3.5 cases per 100 workers. Having an incident rate so far below the national average doesn’t happen by accident.
The oil and gas industry’s number one priority is safety, for both its workers and the environment in which it operates. And it’s a commitment that comes across in pretty vivid detail for those who take just a second to look at the actual facts.
Looking for facts on air quality in Pa.? Read the (whole) report
E&E News featured a story (subs. req’d) this week that paints an alarming picture with respect to air emissions in Pennsylvania. The article uses data from the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and a recent study by the RAND Corporation to suggest shale development is emitting compounds linked to respiratory problems and even premature death. It’s an interesting tale. And an inaccurate one, thankfully -- disproven by the same data that’s cited in the story.
E&E News featured a story (subs. req’d) this week that paints an alarming picture with respect to air emissions in Pennsylvania. The article uses data from the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and a recent study by the RAND Corporation to suggest shale development is emitting compounds linked to respiratory problems and even premature death. It’s an interesting tale. And an inaccurate one, thankfully — disproven by the same data that’s cited in the story.
Truth is, according to the report, emissions from oil and gas development account for less than one percent of most emissions statewide. Also important: increased natural gas use has actually lowered emissions in the Commonwealth, including in counties where shale development is taking place. Perhaps that’s why the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported the same story under the headline “State, private data say gas industry creates only fraction of state’s air pollution.”
Unfortunately, E&E News overlooked all of that data, focusing (exclusively) instead on making the case that even the mere presence of any compound that might be emitted during shale development must imply a causal link to health problems. Luckily, the picture is a lot clearer when the information is presented in a more objective light — good news for a state where natural gas development ushered in over $11.2 billion in economic activity in 2010 alone and has helped support over 200,000 jobs – many of which had an annual wage that exceeds the state’s average by $41,000.
Of course, these reports don’t exactly represent the first time the issue of air quality has been studied in Pennsylvania. Previous reviews were conducted by DEP in 2011, for instance, under then Democratic governor Ed Rendell. As part of that research, DEP conducted ambient air quality testing in each corner of the state where Marcellus operations were taking place, with the agency reporting in the end that it “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” In addition, the reviews “did not detect concentrations above the National Ambient Air Quality Standards at any of the sampling sites.”
But E&E News doesn’t cite any of that. Nor does it include any mention of a key passage from page seven of the “leaked” emissions inventory document from DEP cited in the story. Here’s what that had to say:
“Emissions from point sources have decreased since the last complete emissions inventory was developed for 2008. The following table shows the emissions have decreased as a result of the installations of control equipment on the electric generating units as well as the conversion to natural gas.” (emphasis added)
How big was that decline in emissions? This chart – also ignored by E&E – is included in DEP’s report:
So, in other words, natural gas helped reduce the level of air pollutants over the past four years, including carbon monoxide (CO) by 8,400 tons, nitrogen oxide (NOx) by over 43,000 tons, particulate matter by 8,000 tons, sulfur oxides by over 511,000 tons and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by over 4,000 tons. All of this represents a great success for Pennsylvania’s air quality – and it hinged on the increased use of natural gas in the state, which was of course made possibly by responsible shale development.
The good news doesn’t end there. A review of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s “2008 Ambient Air Quality Monitoring and Emissions Trends Reports” notes this downward trend is even deeper for VOCs and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Specifically, the report notes that many of the counties where shale development took place – including Bradford and Washington counties – saw significant declines in emissions from 2004-2008. Over this time period, VOCs and SO2 in Bradford County decreased by 162 tons and 130 tons respectively, while Washington County saw a decrease of 11 tons and 1,340 tons.
What’s also worth noting – and again, something that is carefully avoided in any detail by E&E News – is that just last week, PA DEP announced new permitting requirements that will further reduce emissions from natural gas distribution systems and wellpads. When implemented, DEP’s tightened regulations governing compressor station emissions are expected to reduce emissions levels even further, including: an expected 90 percent reduction in NOx; an 87.5 percent reduction in CO and a 90 percent reduction in VOCs (see chart below).
So, in the end, it turns out the documents reveal a success story worth highlighting. Namely that natural gas development accounts for less than 1% of most sources of air pollution in Pennsylvania and has reduced the state’s harmful emissions by over 574,400 tons while providing significant economic benefits for residents from McKeesport to Montrose. That’s good news for the Keystone State that’s only been made possible thanks to the safe and responsible development of the Marcellus Shale.
Errors in Myers’ Groundwater Paper from Start to Finish
Last month, the journal of the National Ground Water Association published a paper suggesting that the vertical transport of contaminants from deep shale formations to near-surface aquifers is not only plausible, but likely – all because of hydraulic fracturing. It’s an explosive thesis, to be sure – but one that’s also fatally flawed; very good news for those of us who actually live here in upstate New York.
Last month, the journal of the National Ground Water Association published a paper by an environmental consultant in Nevada in which the proposition is put forth that the vertical transport of contaminants from the Marcellus Shale formation of southern New York to potable, near-surface aquifers is not only plausible, but likely – brought to us in as few as “three years,” he argues, and all because of hydraulic fracturing.
It’s an explosive thesis, to be sure – but one that’s also fatally flawed; very good news for those of us who actually live here in upstate New York. Predictably, and perhaps as designed, the paper generated a great deal of attention in the press after ProPublica first reported its conclusions on May 1. But as I attempt to explain below, the physical realities governing the hydrodynamic flow of fluids underground can’t be as Dr. Tom Myers, the report’s author, suggests. I say this as someone who has studied the specific hydrogeology of New York for over 30 years.
I found a number of fundamental errors in Myers’s model when I gave it a first, cursory review. Some of the most obvious:
Problem 1: Mistaken assumptions on rocks above the Marcellus Shale.
Among the most significant errors made by Myers was his assuming most of the deep rocks overlying the Marcellus Shale do not consist of dry, dense shale. As explained in E&E News (subs. req’d) earlier this month by my colleague Terry Engelder, that’s just not true; most of the rock above the Marcellus consists of shale. And since shale can’t pass much water, particularly if it is dry and solid, Myers’ computer model cannot calculate proper water flow conditions.
As Engelder explained, instead of being predominantly sandstone, as in Myers’ model, the overburden contains 90 percent shale and only 10 percent sandstone. If the sandstone were replaced by shale within Myers’ model, the time frame required for water movement to shallow aquifers thousands of feet above the Marcellus would increase to 100,000 years, similar in time to what I found two decades ago when I did my own computer model of deep ground water flow in southwestern NY and northwestern PA.
Because the shale is dense, dry, non-porous rock, companies need to fracture it to begin with; otherwise, there is no way to get the gas out. Myers also fails to recognize that the brine produced from the Marcellus comes from immediately overlying brine-filled aquifers (also a mile or more deep) into which some of the induced fractures penetrate. This fact is clear from micro-seismicity studies and even more so from the ratios of dissolved elements such as chloride and bromide in the produced fluids. But, there is no local communication of these dense salty water to the surface, because of thick intervening dense and dry rock.
Problem #2: Mistaken assumptions with respect to movement of groundwater.
It appears Myers does not understand some basic concepts and science behind groundwater movement through sedimentary basins. Water in the Marcellus under the Appalachian Plateau (southern New York and northern Pennsylvania) does not naturally move upward by means of artesian pressure toward the land surface, as Myers assumes. And because of only this error, his model fails on first principles.
For more than 60 years, hydrogeologists (if not engineers) have understood that groundwater moves in nested flow systems; regional, intermediate, and local in size. The Appalachian Plateau topographically constitutes the regional replenishment area for long flow paths of deep brines all the way to Lake Ontario, but only along a few focused and rare deep fault systems. It takes hundreds of thousands of years for water to make this journey, if not much longer. The shallow groundwater system from which people get their drinking water on the Appalachian Plateau occurs within the upper 1000 feet (usually far shallower), ubiquitously separated by thousands of feet of dense dry rock, mostly shale, from the deep basin salt waters at the depth of the Marcellus. This understanding of groundwater moving in sedimentary basins has been so well established that every modern hydrogeology textbook produced over the past five decades contains it.
I know of no instance of deep groundwater on the Appalachian Plateau moving upward under artesian pressure toward the land surface, except in glacial cut valleys that penetrate through this thickness. Period. And I’ve see a lot of water level measurement on the Plateau over the years, both in New York and in Pennsylvania.
Problem #3: Assumed fracture-lengths wildly exaggerated.
Myers suggests that faults or fissures opened by hydraulic fracturing can and will move dense formation water (flowback and produced waters) upward for 1 to 2 miles into shallow, potable waters. It’s an assertion that’s not grounded in either science or experience.
Indeed, there are fractures at shallow depths (generally no deeper than 600 feet) that produce modest groundwater volumes for individual homes and farms. But these fractures pinch off at depths greater than a few thousand feet. If they did not, natural gas in the Marcellus Shale would have escaped naturally long before now. Because the shale compacts under the weight of all the overlying rocks, oil and gas firms need to use sand to prop fractures open to create the conduits necessary for the hydrocarbon to flow to the wellbore. Despite this basic fact, Myers appears to be arguing that new fractures in the Marcellus can be opened naturally by the very low energies created from hydraulic fracturing, and then stay open through more than a mile or more of rock that largely consists of shale, even without the introduction of proppant to keep them open. The suggestion is absurd.
Myers also fails to recognize that dense produced waters cannot move upward easily into fresh water because they are, well, dense. For decades, hydrologists using MODFLOW (the model Myers used) have incorporated a mathematical correction called “effective freshwater head” in their modeling when large salinity differences occur. Myers assumes the brines in the Marcellus have all the same density as the dilute freshwater at the top. This makes no sense for what he was trying to test. Indeed, it is extraordinarily implausible (bordering on impossible) to imagine brines moving locally upward into fresh water aquifers owing to the density differences. In contrast, it is easy to move brines downward into fresh water because they weigh more than the fresh water.
More than anything else, the public needs to know that a mathematical model of groundwater flow, such as the one prepared by Myers, constitutes only a representation of reality—it is not reality itself. Before any math model can be built, a scientifically plausible conceptual model needs to be developed.
As it relates to this particular paper, Myers has developed an implausible model that predictably leads to implausible, and in my judgment, completely wrong results — from simple first principles of geologic and hydrologic understanding, let alone acceptable model development.