For Natural Gas in the Northeast, First You Need the Pipe
Northeastern states are suffering from a “natural gas trap,” The New York Times reported last week -- one in which residents are forced to weather not only the winter chills, but also the wildly unpredictable market for natural gas supplies. Electricity prices are rising, and to The Times, the blame for that rests squarely on the region’s “extreme reliance on natural gas.” But if we dig a little deeper into the Times’ report, we find a pretty important fact: the need for additional infrastructure, including “the inadequacy of existing pipelines,” is actually the biggest problem.
Northeastern states are suffering from a “natural gas trap,” The New York Times reported last week — one in which residents are forced to weather not only the winter chills, but also the wildly unpredictable market for natural gas supplies. Electricity prices are rising, and to The Times, the blame for that rests squarely on the region’s “extreme reliance on natural gas.”
Of course, we know low natural gas prices have allowed folks across the country to spend less of their hard earned money (billions of dollars, in fact) on heating and electricity. Heck, even President Obama, in his recent State of the Union address, said that we’re producing abundant supplies of clean natural gas, and “nearly everyone’s energy bill is lower because of it.”
Why is the Northeast so different, then?
If we dig a little deeper into the Times’ report, we find a pretty important fact: the need for additional infrastructure, including “the inadequacy of existing pipelines,” is actually the bigger problem. The much bigger problem.
It sounds so darn simple, but it’s worth explaining: To get natural gas to market, we have to build pipelines. And in order to build those pipelines, companies must gain approval from several different regulatory authorities. The most notable of these is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which requires a very public process that solicits comments from all interested parties. During these comment periods, the commission considers a range of issues, including potential environmental impacts.
It’s also worth noting that the industry is proposing – right now – to build pipelines with literally billions of cubic feet per day of new natural gas capacity. Some of these have gained FERC approval, but others have fallen victim to delays, which in turn postpone construction of the infrastructure necessary to deliver natural gas to consumers.
What causes these delays is really a variety of factors, ranging from all-too-common bureaucracy and institutional stasis within regulatory agencies, to the always challenging task of raising the capital required to finance the projects. But pipeline companies are also met with opposition, typically led by well-funded environmental groups, to literally every project they propose.
Often times, this opposition goes beyond simple NIMBYism and manifests itself in courtrooms, with groups like Earthjustice bringing lawsuits on behalf of a coterie of activists to stop construction. Part of the FERC approval process also includes public comment periods, during which environmental groups flood submission boxes with form letters and assertions of future impacts, regardless of whether those theoretical damages are even plausible.
Indeed, the same groups that have led the charge to stop shale development are also trying to block the pipelines necessary to get that fuel to Northeast families. Their reasoning? If they can’t stop companies from producing natural gas, maybe they can at least prevent them from actually selling it to consumers who want to buy it.
For example, the Northeast Supply Link, proposed by Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Co., would bring natural gas to Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. It has a capacity of 250 million cubic feet (MMCF) per day. But in 2011, as reported by a local newspaper, the Sierra Club did its level best to stop the project:
“Many area residents in attendance as well as a representative from the Sierra Club’s New Jersey Chapter said they are skeptical that there is sufficient demand for natural gas, especially in a weak economy, to warrant construction of the proposed pipeline.” (emphasis added)
Although the project was eventually approved by FERC, this example is instructive. A major environmental organization suggested there was not sufficient natural gas demand in the region to warrant construction of a pipeline. But we know demand has been increasing in the Northeast; in fact, increasing demand is what prompted the latest New York Times report. Right?
Here are some more:
- The MARC I Pipeline, which would be built by the Central New York Oil and Gas Company, has a stated capacity of 550 MMCF per day. It was also approved by FERC, but not before being challenged by Earthjustice and other environmental groups.
- The Northeast Upgrade Project, with approximately 630 MMCF per day of capacity, is facing efforts by environmental groups to get a federal court to halt construction. Perhaps bowing to those special interests, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) is also trying to force a reroute.
- During a hearing last fall about the Constitution Pipeline (capacity: approximately 640 MMCF per day), one local opponent went so far as to suggest the project would destroy the United States:
“Kristina Turechek of Oneonta, N.Y., told the panel approval would consign portions of America to a ‘third-world nation’ and turn the nation backward. Other opponents yelled, cursed or called for the arrest of gas industry executives.”
- Spectra Energy is also in the process right now of constructing a $1.2 billion pipeline (capacity: 800 MMCF/d) that, once finished (Nov. 2013 is the current target), will help feed growing demand in New York City and elsewhere across the metro region. Estimates suggest the pipeline would help save customers more than $650 million per year in energy costs. Amazingly, the project has even earned the full-throated support of the League of Conservation Voters, in addition to picking up Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement and the support of a dozens of other local civic and labor leaders. Playing to type, and right on cue, the Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch and others of that ilk continue to file lawsuits (all to this point have failed) aimed at stopping construction from moving forward.
These are, of course, only a snapshot of projects and the efforts to oppose their construction. Once in operation (if they are not tangled up in lawsuits), these pipelines alone would increase the region’s capacity by nearly 2.9 billion cubic feet (BCF) per day. To put that in perspective, in 2009, the two large natural gas distribution companies that serve New York City delivered a combined average of about 1.3 BCF per day to the city’s customers.
FERC also maintains a list of major pipelines awaiting approval, and demand is large enough in the Northeast that companies are constantly making new plans to grow regional infrastructure.
This is not to say that environmental groups are necessarily the biggest contributor to the region’s energy woes. To be sure, a diverse energy mix is important, much like the wisdom we gained from our parents that we should not “put all of our eggs in one basket.” The Times report indicates that the same mentality should be adopted by the Northeast.
Nor is it the case that utilities are uninterested in having a diversity of supply, either. Remember, New York has been delaying a decision about whether to allow responsible shale development for four years. A report for New York City, meanwhile, found that “Marcellus Shale gas production will have a significant effect on pipeline flows across the United States and in the Northeast.” Delaying shale development, by extension, places even more unnecessary constraints on the supplies of energy that consumers demand.
Who’s also leading the fight against diverse energy supplies? The same folks who have avoided culpability in delaying, opposing, or even blocking progress throughout the region.
To wit: Riverkeeper, an environmental organization in New York, wrote in the New York Times in 2010 that the state should shut down the Indian Point nuclear plant and replace it with a natural gas-fired plant. Ironically, Riverkeeper is also leading the charge to oppose responsible natural gas development in New York, and has even dispatched people across the country to try to undermine the safety record of hydraulic fracturing. As you probably could have guessed, Riverkeeper has also voiced opposition to natural gas pipelines.
Nationwide, natural gas and nuclear power generate approximately 50 percent of our electricity. But with environmental groups trying to take both of those off the table (along with coal, which generates the bulk of the remaining electricity), how can we possibly expect to meet growing energy demand?
Regardless of the source of the delay, areas such as the Northeast that need new pipelines are not getting them. That’s not because natural gas is a flawed energy option, and it’s certainly not due to a lack of interest in building pipelines. Companies are continuing to explore options for additional capacity – all the while dealing with irrational activist opposition. And given the fluctuating regulatory framework in New York, the barrier of uncertainty also casts an enormous shadow over future investment.
To understand the effect, we need to understand the causes. Unfortunately, The Times chose not to examine the latter, even though that story is clearly worth telling.
Texas Monthly Could Sure Use an Ombudsman
Nate Blakeslee at Texas Monthly has decided to take the Ian Urbina route to reporting about hydraulic fracturing: just keep throwing stuff up on the wall and see what sticks. That’s too bad. Ian Urbina, of course, is the New York Times reporter who, throughout 2010 and 2011, filed a series of inflammatory, Gasland-style pieces that took about 30 minutes to fully debunk. His reports were so poorly sourced and inaccurate that the public editor for the Times felt it necessary to file not one but two separate pieces of his own apologizing to the Times’ readership for Mr. Urbina’s serial misreporting...
Field Director, Texas
Nate Blakeslee at Texas Monthly has decided to take the Ian Urbina route to reporting about hydraulic fracturing: just keep throwing stuff on the wall and see what sticks. That’s too bad.
Ian Urbina, of course, is the New York Times reporter who, throughout 2010 and 2011, filed a series of inflammatory, Gasland-style pieces that took about 30 seconds to fully debunk. His reports were so poorly sourced and inaccurate that the public editor for the Times felt it necessary to file not one but two separate pieces of his own apologizing to the Times’ readership for Mr. Urbina’s serial misreporting.
Such embarrassment must have had an effect on the Times’ editorial staff, since it’s been quite awhile since we have heard from Mr. Urbina on the subject of shale gas or hydraulic fracturing.
Filling the void appears to be Mr. Blakeslee, who filed an “Urbina-style report” in the October issue of Texas Monthly, making many of the same half-true claims upon which The Times was fond of expounding. For instance: the claim that hydraulic fracturing benefits from some sort of loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act (not true). And like the claim that hydraulic fracturing has been proven to contaminate drinking water (not true), in which he relies on a single disputed case in West Virginia that occurred in 1982. On this, Mr. Blakeslee hangs his hat on an inconclusive event that took place three full decades ago, in another state, under a completely different regulatory regime than we have here in Texas.
When my colleague Steve Everley responded to the Texas Monthly piece with a letter pointing out the facts about hydraulic fracturing, the publication did print it – albeit an edited version. But for some reason, the publication also gave Mr. Blakeslee a second opportunity to repeat his debunked claims.
To be sure, no one is afraid of or opposed to healthy debate, and we’re pleased that Texas Monthly posted the response. But it’s interesting that a magazine would publish the functional equivalent of a letter to the editor, then give the author of the offending article more space than was allowed for the letter itself to respond to it.
Fact is, hydraulic fracturing has never been regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act since its passage in 1974 — for the simple fact that scientists and policymakers in seven different administrations spanning both parties and 38 years have determined the process does not present a threat to ground water. Mr. Blakeslee, however, chose to insinuate that the 2005 Congress did something nefarious, picking up on a tack that’s popular among anti-shale bloggers, but isn’t considered credible by most responsible journalists.
As for the West Virginia case, EID has actually done a little work on that one. Here are the facts:
- In 1982, a well was drilled into and through the Pittsburg sandstone in West Virginia.
- Some time later, residents near the well site noticed contaminants in their drinking water, and reported this to state regulators.
- West Virginia regulations at the time required operators to set casing 20 feet below known drinking water zones. However, at the time the well was drilled, no one in the state government knew that anyone was obtaining drinking water from the Pittsburg sand, which had long been known also to contain productive amounts of oil and gas.
- Thus, it is unlikely that well casing was set and cemented below this water-containing zone, making it possible that fracturing fluids could have escaped into the Pittsburg sand. (Another possibility, however, is that the “contaminants” in residents’ drinking water were simply naturally occurring oil and gas that the Pittsburg sand formation is known to contain.)
- West Virginia state regulators at the time made no determinative finding as to the source of the contamination. However, after finding out that the Pittsburg sand actually was a source of drinking water for some West Virginia residents, the state began requiring casing to be set below that formation in order to prevent any oil and gas well fluids from escaping into it.
- Urbina and Blakeslee claim that the “EPA” determined this 30 year old incident was without any question at all the result of hydraulic fracturing. However, that claim is based not on any real-time formal EPA finding, but a report issued five years later, in 1987, by Carla Greathouse, a well-known, long-time opponent of the oil and gas industry, who was working on contract for the EPA. No agenda-free reporter would think of claiming Ms. Greathouse as an authoritative, unbiased source.
Now, there is a reason why EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has repeatedly and unambiguously gone on the record dismissing the accusations of the other side: she understands that a 30 year-old incident in which no real determination of any kind was made is not the sort of thing a credible person would hang his or her hat on.
Texas Monthly wants Texans to believe otherwise, advancing the same discredited talking points that we were forced to endure from The New York Times last year. But hey, at least The Times had an ombudsman on hand over there to set the record straight when it was needed. If there’s one of those on staff over at the Texas Monthly, now might be a good time to dust him off and hear what he has to say.
Saving Precious Land Thanks to Natural Gas
Last week I sent a letter to the New York Times following their publication of an op-ed by Sean Lennon. It’s unfortunate that they wouldn’t run my letter – especially given our experience as real organic farmers and how that experience contrasts the assertions made by Mr. Lennon.
Last week I sent a letter to the New York Times following their publication of an op-ed by Sean Lennon. It’s unfortunate that they wouldn’t run my letter – especially given our experience as real organic farmers and how that experience contrasts the assertions made by Mr. Lennon. With that, my letter is below.
Saving Precious Land Thanks to Natural Gas, in response to: “Destroying Precious Land for Gas”
Sean Lennon recalls a cow he milked when he was young, then attempts to speak on behalf of all organic farmers to declare natural gas development will render the land unlivable.
What Sean describes isn’t true. I am an actual, organic farmer in upstate New York, and while Sean has milked one cow, I have milked dozens. The hobby he enjoyed briefly supports my livelihood.
Natural gas production doesn’t conflict with organic farming. A natural gas well takes up six acres of land, which sees activity for a few weeks. This modest requirement helps keep in production hundreds of acres that might otherwise be lost due to high taxes and costs.
My husband and I love our land as only farmers can, and we know farmers aren’t going to compromise their land for a fast profit. It’s time to move past the rhetoric and take advantage of this opportunity together.
Credit Card Pitchman Shouldn’t Quit His Day Job
Alec Baldwin – yes, that Alec Baldwin – recently took to the Huffington Post to explain what he deems to be “The Truth” about hydraulic fracturing. There was only one problem: Mr. Baldwin’s claims, like most of his movies and his persona as Jack Donaghy in “30 Rock,” are not exactly based on or in reality.
Alec Baldwin – yes, that Alec Baldwin – recently took to the Huffington Post to explain what he deems to be “The Truth” about hydraulic fracturing. There was only one problem: Mr. Baldwin’s claims, like most of his movies and his persona as Jack Donaghy in “30 Rock,” are not exactly based on or in reality.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in his decision to uncritically reprint what Gasland star Josh Fox emailed him to say – which unfortunately didn’t include any mention of what state regulators have said about hydraulic fracturing, or what U.S. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has said on multiple occasions. Heck, even President Obama – for whom Mr. Baldwin has a strong political affinity – has given high praise to developing natural gas from shale.
Nonetheless, we decided to highlight and debunk (yet again) the items Josh Fox suggested he repeat:
BALDWIN: “This 2009 piece from ProPublica that refers to a Garfield County, Colorado, study that contradicts certain gas industry assertions about methane in drinking water.”
FACT: The first summary conclusion listed in that study (which can be found here) states quite clearly: “Impacts from petroleum activity are not currently present at levels that exceed regulatory limits.” Why is this line important? Because it is indicative of what opponents routinely try to hide from the public: Namely, that the presence of a particular substance does not necessarily indicate a threat.
As any expert or regulator would acknowledge, it’s the exposure or concentration that determines whether something is toxic or unsafe. For just one example, hydrochloric acid would burn someone’s skin if applied directly, yet it’s one of the most common chemicals added to swimming pools – and we’re pretty sure Alec Baldwin is doing fine.
BALDWIN: “This 2011 report from Scientific American that describes significant aquifer contamination from fracking fluids in Wyoming.”
FACT: The report listed here is actually a reference to EPA’s testing in Pavillion, Wyoming, the same testing that produced a shoddy “draft report” for which peer review had to be suspended so EPA could re-test its wells, a decision made after experts identified significant flaws with EPA’s sampling procedures. And just weeks after releasing that draft report, EPA’s Region 8 administrator Jim Martin told a Congressional panel:
“We make clear that the causal link [of water contamination] to hydraulic fracturing has not been demonstrated conclusively, and that our analysis is limited to the particular geologic conditions in the Pavillion gas field and should not be assumed to apply to fracturing in other geologic settings.”
So, even if the EPA had somehow linked contamination to hydraulic fracturing (which it didn’t, but Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Fox want us to believe it did), extrapolating its findings to other parts of the country would be inappropriate – precisely what Mr. Baldwin was attempting to do by mentioning it in his column!
Also, as a point of fact, this “report” was actually just a cross-posting of an article on ProPublica. Anyone who reads through the entire piece would see this italicized disclaimer at the bottom: “From ProPublica.org (find the original story here); reprinted with permission.” Mr. Baldwin apparently didn’t want to use the same source twice, so he pretended that another source (which has a more official sounding name, Scientific American) reported those details.
BALDWIN: “A 2011 New York Times article that refers to the potential “first crack in the armor” of Rex Tillerson’s claims about fracking-related contamination.”
FACT: The Times’ piece was at one point heralded by opponents of hydraulic fracturing as a sort of silver bullet, as it supposedly provided an example of the process contaminating ground water. To reach this conclusion, the New York Times teamed up with the Environmental Working Group to highlight a well drilled in Jackson Co., W.V., in 1982 that was linked to water contamination. But the West Virginia-based laboratory commissioned to investigate the well said that it “did not conclude that hydraulic fracturing caused the contamination…” Even EWG admitted “it is possible that another stage of the drilling process [other than hydraulic fracturing] caused the problem.”
It’s also worth noting that the report of the incident was written by an EPA contractor in the 1980s, several years after the alleged incident occurred. Why is that important? Just a few months ago, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson stated publicly: “In no case have we made a definitive determination that [hydraulic fracturing] has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” If the EPA’s report actually said what Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Fox think it says, then why would Lisa Jackson state that her agency has never made such a conclusion? Perhaps that’s why the example is barely mentioned anymore – except by those like Mr. Baldwin who are ideologically committed to The Cause.
BALDWIN: “This article from Food and Water Watch in April of 2012.”
FACT: First of all, it’s interesting that Mr. Baldwin would italicize “Food and Water Watch” as if it’s a news outlet. F&WW is an activist organization, funded by the Park Foundation, and wholly committed not to safe natural gas development, but to an outright ban on hydraulic fracturing.
Second, and more importantly, the “article” referenced is document where FWW claims that developing natural gas from shale isn’t really creating that many jobs, and the economic growth associated with development is a fantasy. While it’s odd that an organization would attack hard-working men and women in a particular industry by pretending they don’t simply exist, it’s also completely false. A report from IHS-CERA noted that, in 2010, natural gas development from shale supported one million jobs throughout the economy. In the Barnett Shale in north Texas, natural gas development has generated nearly $6 billion in tax receipts for the state. In 2011, the Eagle Ford Shale in south Texas supported 47,000 jobs and generated more than $3 billion in salaries and benefits to Texas workers and their families. Realtors admit that shale development is strengthening the housing market, and state data from Pennsylvania shows that Marcellus Shale development supports more than 238,000 jobs across the Commonwealth.
BALDWIN: “And this article from a March, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.”
FACT: This is the same Rolling Stone article that not only regurgitated debunked talking points from opponents, but also used others’ content without citing them. The author, Jeff Goodell, even misattributed quotes from “experts” in order to advance a convenient narrative.
But the most significant problem with the Rolling Stone piece was its willingness to ignore or even deliberately contradict clear and well-understood scientific facts. Goodell claimed a 2011 study from researchers at Duke University provided “the first clear evidence that [hydraulic fracturing] was contaminating drinking water” – even though the researchers stated clearly that “we found no evidence for contamination of the shallow wells near active drilling sites from deep brines and/or fracturing fluids” (emphasis added).
Goodell even went so far as to claim, based on a New York Times story, that operators were “dumping millions of gallons” of radioactive wastewater into rivers and streams, “largely without regulatory oversight.” But former Pennsylvania DEP secretary John Hanger said that “testing of drinking water at the tap and in stream totally debunked the main radiation narrative of the New York Times article.” Hanger later wrote that there is “no radionuclide pollution of drinking water in Pennsylvania. Zero. None…But that truth will never catch up to the lie cleverly spread and repeated.” (You can read Hanger’s full dismantling of the Rolling Stone article here.) Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (D) suggested the purpose of the original New York Times piece was nothing more than to “gratuitously frighten Pennsylvanians,” and on the facts it was “a mighty swing and a miss.”
BALDWIN: I’ve got more if you want it.
EID: Please, humor us!
Mr. Baldwin’s article was not intended to form a scientific basis for future study, or even to use available science to prove a point. To his credit, Mr. Baldwin actually admitted as much, stating: “I am quite certain that not many minds will be changed here.” Instead, the article was – like so much written by activists who oppose hydraulic fracturing – designed to spread fear and foment doubt in the public’s mind about what most would consider settled science. Creating that kind of uncertainty doesn’t require a factual or even a scientific basis; it only requires appeals to emotion, some targeted headlines, and a manufactured assumption of guilt for the industry.
In short, what Mr. Baldwin presented in his short column is nothing new, and the information he presented has been and remains debunked. That Mr. Baldwin, as a Hollywood actor, has a major megaphone to repeat those claims does not make them true. But, repeating those claims does have the unfortunate effect of shifting the public debate away from facts and science – exactly the opposite of what you’d expect of someone claiming to state “the truth” about anything.
But then again, if your goal is to undermine the clear safety record of hydraulic fracturing, facts and science must be absent by necessity, because relying on them would contradict your preconceived narrative.
And by the way: Isn’t there a photographer somewhere Mr. Baldwin can be assaulting rather than writing ridiculous columns like this?
If your goal is to shut down oil and gas development, but your arguments have been consistently debunked and rebutted by scientific facts and empirical evidence, there are two paths you can take: The first is to acknowledge that your goals are unsupported by the facts, and move on to another issue about which you feel passionate. The second path is to pretend that science and facts actually don’t matter, and that evidence contradicting what you desperately want to believe is actually somehow a personal attack.
If your goal is to shut down oil and gas development, but your arguments have been consistently debunked and rebutted by scientific facts and empirical evidence, there are two paths you can take: The first is to acknowledge that your goals are unsupported by the facts, and move on to another issue about which you feel passionate. The second, more aggressive path is to pretend that science and facts actually don’t matter (as activists in Michigan recently admitted), and that evidence contradicting what you desperately want to believe is somehow a personal attack.
Unfortunately for their credibility, opponents all too often take the latter path. This was on full display in a recent piece for the Huffington Post by Brendan DeMelle, managing editor of DeSmogBlog. Mr. DeMelle’s thesis is that news reports attacking the responsible development of oil and natural gas from shale are not only 100 percent grounded in fact, but that suggesting any flaws in that reporting is nothing more than ad hominem. In other words, critical thinking and questioning the accuracy of what’s printed in the news are simply unacceptable.
Most folks would strongly disagree with that notion. But we also have to remember that virtually every accusation made against hydraulic fracturing – from water contamination claims to air emissions to public health – has been swatted down by the facts. Waking up every day and having your talking points debunked would no doubt be exhausting, and the only way to deny the truth is to establish a different set of rules by which your claims can be judged – something other than science and verifiable evidence.
Here is a sampling of just some of Mr. DeMelle’s claims, but this time with a little more context:
DeMelle: “Reporters who write for publications ranging from Rolling Stone to Reuters to the New York Times have had their professional bona fides called into question after unearthing documents and facts that challenge claims that fracked shale gas is cheap, abundant, and clean.”
EID: Notice the rhetorical skill here. Mr. DeMelle is suggesting that folks at the New York Times and Rolling Stone are only guilty of reporting facts, and thus any criticism of these publications must by extension be a rejection of those facts.
In any event, let’s take a look at some of the “facts” that Mr. DeMelle is blindly defending.
The New York Times series (“Drilling Down”) was actually riddled with factual errors. Among them was the erroneous claim that coal mine operators disposing their wastewater into injection wells are bound by federal rules, but waste water from natural gas development is not. The reality is that both processes are regulated by the U.S. EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Times also claimed drillers in Pennsylvania were allowed to dump “mystery liquids” into public waterways, which is also false. Under the Clean Water Act (by which producers are bound, contrary to what the New York Times suggested) operators aren’t allowed to dump a single drop of wastewater into surface waters. As for the water that is treated and released, here’s what former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection secretary John Hanger said: “Every drop of tap water that was publicly treated is required to meet the safe drinking water standard.”
Criticism of the New York Times for its reporting on this issue is actually far and wide, including most notably from the Times’ own public editor, Arthur Brisbane, on multiple occasions. Among the reasons for the paper’s flawed reporting (as pointed out by Mr. Brisbane) was its use of an intern at the Energy Information Administration (EIA) as both an “energy analyst” and an “official” in the same article.
Recall also that Rolling Stone cited the infamous study from Robert Howarth at Cornell University suggesting shale gas is worse than coal for global warming – a claim that’s been rebutted by the U.S. Department of Energy, universities across the country, Howarth’s own colleagues, and even a study funded by the Sierra Club. Rolling Stone also stated as fact that hydraulic fracturing caused the infamous flaming faucet in Gasland, a claim so divorced from reality that even Colorado regulators stated publicly that it was “not related to oil and gas activity.” And Rolling Stone also claimed last year’s study from researchers at Duke University represented the “first clear evidence that [hydraulic fracturing] was contaminating water” – even though the study says explicitly the opposite: “Based on our data (Table 2), we found no evidence for contamination of the shallow wells near active drilling sites from deep brines and/or fracturing fluids” (emphasis added).
This all begs a question: does Mr. DeMelle believe reporters have sole possession of the truth by virtue of their being reporters, or does the public have a responsibility to do its own critical thinking about what reporters may try to present as the truth?
DeMelle: “Quite often, rather than responding to the issues raised in a responsible fashion, industry PR shops have questioned the motives and qualifications of journalists who investigate the problems with shale gas development, and especially those who delve into the industry’s economic prospects. The attacks against reporters are noteworthy in part because they are so personal.”
EID: The term “glass houses” comes to mind here; how many times have activist groups and other anti-development organizations attacked the qualifications of University professors, state regulators, or even White House appointed councils for supposedly being in the pocket of “Big Oil”? Whenever research does not align with what opponents want to believe, they simply dismiss it as “industry funded” or “inadequate” – even when those facts are presented by none other than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Opponents even smeared New York’s state geologist after he told the truth about Marcellus Shale development.
Moreover, opponents of natural gas development have no problem attacking journalists with whom they disagree. For example, a recent Associated Press article exposing the shoddy science used by anti-shale groups was received with predictable anger by those same groups. Josh Fox said of the story: “From the outset, the premise of this article was biased.” Sharon Wilson, a well-known activist in north Texas who also works for Earthworks, wrote: “I’m just going to say this out loud: Whose water is this AP reporter carrying?”
Somehow, those comments (which represent only a small sample of a broader response) didn’t make it into Mr. DeMelle’s scientific analysis. How convenient.
As for accusations of personal attacks, Mr. DeMelle’s website DeSmogBlog is not exactly fit to cast the first stone. Consider just this small sample of items written by folks at that blog:
- In April 2009, DeSmogBlog claimed the oil and gas industry was guilty of spreading “propaganda” about the costs of new energy taxes.
- On July 13, 2010, current DeSmogBlog research fellow Steve Horn said EID was creating a “disinformation freakshow” about the movie Gasland, calling us “industry spinmeisters” and “spin doctors” throughout the piece.
- In May of this year, DeSmogBlog accused university professors of being biased, referring to their product as a “Shill Gas Study,” among other things.
- And on July 29, 2012, DeSmogBlog accused folks who work for the oil and gas industry of “squealing with delight” as consumers paid more and more to fill up their cars and trucks with gasoline.
DeMelle: “One of the first people to raise questions about shale gas’s potential was Arthur Berman, a former Amoco geologist who, at the time, was a long-time contributing editor for an industry magazine called World Oil.”
EID: Those who follow EID know that we’ve talked about Mr. Berman quite a bit. We often disagree with him, but we’ve also noted the collegiality and professionalism he exhibits. That said, what Mr. DeMelle failed to mention about Mr. Berman is that he also sits on the board of directors for the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas. For those unfamiliar, that organization bills itself as “a network of scientists, affiliated with institutions and universities, having an interest in determining the date and impact of the peak and decline of the world’s production of oil and gas, due to resource constraints.” (emphasis added)
Is anyone surprised that someone who sits on the board of an organization committed to finding declining rates of oil and natural gas production is suggesting that – drum roll, please – natural gas will soon be in decline?
DeMelle: “Jim Cramer, the show’s host, also questioned Berman’s and the Times’ credibility, saying: ‘If we’re being duped by the nat gas industry, as this article suggests, then how come Exxon Mobil spent 31 billion to buy nat gas giant XTO? Were they fooled, too?’”
EID: Mr. DeMelle apparently doesn’t understand the difference between “questioning a person’s credibility” and “disagreeing with a person.” Anyone who isn’t working backward from the conclusion that journalists and other experts are victims of a grand conspiracy could recognize that Jim Cramer – though always outspoken – was not challenging Berman’s intellectual capacity. He was merely presenting an example of why Berman’s thesis was probably wrong.
If it’s convenient for Mr. DeMelle to pretend that this is a verbal assault on a journalist, then so be it. But offering an opinion in the public space also means you’re engaging in a public debate – that is, a discussion of differing viewpoints. Inherent in that is the presence of disagreement (it’s a debate, after all).
DeMelle: “It’s worth noting that Art Berman’s analysis is looking highly prescient these days. Official government estimates for shale gas have been slashed significantly.” (DeMelle, 8/2/2012)
EID: Irony of ironies: On the same day that Mr. DeMelle’s post appeared in Huffington Post, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its latest summary of America’s proved reserves of oil and natural gas for 2010. Here’s what EIA concluded: “Proved reserves of both oil and natural gas in 2010 rose by the highest amounts ever recorded in the 35 years EIA has been publishing proved reserves estimates.” EIA went on to say that natural gas proved reserves increased for the twelfth consecutive year.
Moreover, since Mr. DeMelle clearly believes Art Berman is a credible source, then why didn’t he include Mr. Berman’s outing of Rolling Stone author Jeff Goodell for falsely attributing statements to Mr. Berman? Is that also an “ad hominem” response, since it points out a critical flaw in reporting?
In any event, folks from DeSmogBlog might want to be wary about discussing energy markets and investments. Here’s an excerpt from a DeSmogBlog post dated April 2009:
Like carbon reduction plans, ramping up to renewable energy costs a lot in the beginning, but the costs decline as technology advances. In the U.S. this threshold effect is already beginning to reduce the costs of solar and wind. In fact, thin-film solar company Solyndra, which recently won a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy under the 2005 Energy Policy Act (but only after a nearly four-year hiatus, and with the help of a $6-billion allocation from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), expects to hit grid parity with coal in 2-3 years.
DeMelle: “Ultimately, industry proponents may find that these sorts of unsubstantiated allegations of animus are subject to the law of diminishing returns. The field is increasingly crowded with reporters and columnists who have had their professional credentials questioned, had their coverage labeled a ‘hit piece,’ or been accused of waging a ‘war’ against shale gas. And the investigative reporting that prompts howls from the shale gas industry increasingly earns respect and accolades from fellow journalists.”
EID: Does winning awards automatically establish accuracy? Josh Fox’s movie Gasland was riddled with errors, yet it won awards and was even nominated for an Oscar. The Society of Environmental Journalists, meanwhile, is giving a reporter who is suing the same industry that she’s covering an award for “outstanding in-depth reporting.”
The point here is that an award is less important than the accuracy of the news itself, and when the news frequently misstates the facts or omits important information (either deliberately or carelessly), the fact that it may earn “respect” from like-minded colleagues doesn’t change the facts – or lack thereof.
What Mr. DeMelle wants is an admission of guilt by the oil and gas industry about everything ever alleged against it, even if the problems don’t actually exist or the claims are more nuanced than what opponents like Mr. DeMelle want us to believe. And if the industry dare use novel things like “facts” and “science” to reveal the truth, then they’re apparently guilty of using personal attacks to advance an agenda. It’s an attempt to create a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose public debate that would establish credibility for opponents and guilt for the industry, both by arbitrary decree.
In short, Mr. DeMelle’s post is not a call for an informed public debate about complex issues; it’s an attempt to insulate opponents’ claims about oil and gas development from any scrutiny, and to stop publishing evidence that contradicts established dogmas. Ironically, that’s also a prescription for ending investigative journalism – exactly what Mr. DeMelle thought he was defending.
UB Marcellus Study: The Numbers Don’t Lie
A large, multimillion dollar organization co-headquartered in New York and California is funneling money to a thumb-on-the-scale "research" campaign aimed at trying to shut down hydraulic fracturing. But the New York Times ignored all of that in a story purportedly about how money is influencing shale research.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that a deep-pocketed organization was financially underwriting the bulk of activities associated with a campaign to stop oil and gas development in America, including organizing and orchestrating research projects designed to attack 65 years of history, science and experience with respect to the safe use of hydraulic fracturing.
Now let’s stop pretending and recognize that everything we’ve described above is, in fact, happening, and the organization so-described is the Ithaca-based Park Foundation. Would that classify as news fit to print?
Not according to the New York Times, it isn’t.
What the Gray Lady does view as a story, however, is a fresh round of grumbling from opposition groups charging that a recently released paper on Marcellus regulation in Pennsylvania from the University at Buffalo is “biased” – and that, because of this paper, the entire university’s reputation is now at risk. You know, the same way Cornell’s reputation was reduced to a smoldering husk following the release of the now widely debunked Howarth and Ingraffea GHG papers.
Wait, what? Cornell’s doing just fine? Right, that’s what we thought.
Anyway, the report about which activists are screaming “bias!” (more on that later) was released last month by the University at Buffalo’s Shale Resources and Society Institute. It found that even as natural gas development from the Marcellus Shale has increased in Pennsylvania in recent years, the number of environmental incidents has actually fallen on a per-well basis, and that New York’s proposed regulations would have prevented many if not all of those incidents from occurring in the Empire State.
But opponents say the opposite is the case, citing the increase in total violations in Pennsylvania as evidence that things are getting worse, not better.
The reality, though, is that the term “violation,” especially as it relates to oil and gas operations, suggests (at least through implication) an environmental problem. But most violations are actually administrative in nature and relate to the mountain of paperwork that must be filled out before, during, and after a well is drilled. These are logged as “violations,” but there’s obviously no environmental damage resulting from an unfilled box on a piece of paper submitted to the Pa. Dept. of Environmental Protection.
According to the UB study, 62 percent of all violations were for “administrative or preventative reasons.” The study also points out that the number of violations constituting the remaining 38 percent is itself a bit misleading, as multiple violations often referred to the same incident. And as the folks at EID-Marcellus have previously observed, the number of violations per well has actually been decreasing in recent years.
But what activists claim — and for which the Times provided a lopsided forum — is that the types of violations don’t matter. To them, a misspelled word on a piece of paper is apparently an environmental catastrophe.
Of course, this isn’t the first time opponents have tried to skew violation data in their favor. But unfortunately for them, the whole truth continues to be a better barometer than the half truth they got the New York Times to promote.
What else did the Times leave out of its skewed attempt to connect the dots between funding and advocacy in shale development? Why, only the most obvious and blatant example: The Park Foundation.
- It was the Park Foundation that helped fund the thoroughly discredited movie Gasland, as well as multiple anti-shale efforts across the country.
- It was the Park Foundation that funded the “study” from Duke University that tried to link Marcellus development with methane in private water wells. Both the former and current Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have raised considerable questions about the validity of the paper.
- It was the Park Foundation that funded the infamous Howarth “study” that suggested shale development was worse for the climate than coal. Independent experts, the U.S. Department of Energy, a study funded by the Sierra Club, and even the authors’ colleague at Cornell have all debunked Howarth’s conclusions.
- It was the Park Foundation that funded the “study” about how Marcellus development will, someday, eventually, theoretically contaminate water supplies. Predictably, the study’s thesis is completely bogus.
- It was the Park Foundation that funded the “study” concluding EPA’s draft report on Pavillion, Wyo., water quality was sound — even though the EPA itself has suspended peer review of that report in order to gather and analyze more data.
- It was the Park Foundation that created an entirely new “research” organization dedicated to undermining shale development: Physicians, Scientists, & Engineers for Healthy Energy.
All of these efforts continue to draw media attention, despite each of them being thoroughly debunked by scientists, regulators, and independent experts. Yet all of this was also overlooked in a story purporting to examine how money can drive research. Of course, the Times likely doesn’t want to tell the ugly truth about an organization on which it relies for research, so it’s perhaps only fitting that the story had such a glaring omission.
There’s also something else worth pointing out here: Is it possible that opponents doth protest too much? Hearing “bias!” from anti-shale activists is not news, but rather the natural product of a desperate yet well-funded national campaign to deny science, deny evidence, and deny the truth as it tries to stay relevant. Participants cannot rely on scientific findings to support their claims (because there are none), so, when they’re not funneling money to friendly professors to score headlines, they speak in talking points (“bias,” “industry shill,” “hack,” etc.) and hope the public is too stupid to see what’s really going on.
A few notable examples:
- The most recent University of Texas study that found there’s “no evidence” of hydraulic fracturing contaminating water? A local activist immediately suggested it was biased and funded by industry, which, of course, it was not, as a University spokesman quickly noted. (NOTE: The study was actually reviewed by the Environmental Defense Fund.)
- What about the Secretary of Energy’s Shale Gas Subcommittee Report, which proposed a series of recommendations to continue safe and responsible shale development? Yep, they said the panel was biased.
- State regulators, who have tightly and effectively regulated hydraulic fracturing for decades, are routinely maligned as “biased” for their supposed coziness with the industry.
- Activists have even criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — the same entity they want to regulate hydraulic fracturing, mind you — for its multiple water tests in Dimock, Pa., each of which concluded the water was safe. The results weren’t what they wanted, so…shenanigans!
So, to recap: A large, multimillion dollar organization co-headquartered in New York and California is funneling money to a thumb-on-the-scale “research” campaign aimed at trying to shut down hydraulic fracturing. But the intrepid reporters at the Times write an 1,100-word story about how opponents of responsible energy production are, for the umpteenth time, accusing those with whom they disagree of being biased.
Amazing that no one seems to read newspapers anymore, isn’t it?
*UPDATE II* NYT’s “Drive” to Deprive Readers of Facts
In the latest installment of the New York Times' "Drilling Down" series, reporter Ian Urbina doubles down on his pre-conceived narrative that oil and natural gas development (particularly from shale) is inherently dangerous.
UPDATE II (6:18pm ET, 5/16/2012): Though it’s still unclear if this presentation was the source for Mr. Urbina’s claim about oil field worker fatalities, there’s another important detail that should be called to attention: the data referenced in the presentation comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and includes both onshore and offshore fatalities. Yet the “Drilling Down” series — of which Mr. Urbina’s latest story is a part — is about shale development, which of course is not inclusive of offshore development. Assuming this presentation is the source (and there’s plenty of reason to think that it is) then it appears Mr. Urbina either (a) was a bit careless in his fact checking and data collection, or (b) combined statistics from two separate forms of production in order to inflate the apparent risk associated with shale development.
UPDATE (5:27pm ET, 5/16/2012): In Mr. Urbina’s story, he notes: “Nearly a third of the 648 deaths of oil field workers from 2003 through 2008 were in highway crashes…” He goes on to say those numbers were “analyzed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” But it looks as if the numbers for this claim — as well as the one about oil and gas having a fatality rate “seven times” the national average — may have come from this presentation. The numbers and date ranges are nearly identical to what appears in Mr. Urbina’s story. The only problem: the document says up front (emphasis added): “The information in this presentation has not been reviewed by NIOSH or CDC and does not represent any federal government position or policy.” If Mr. Urbina did in fact use this presentation — which was, to be fair, given by employees at CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — then why did he say it had been reviewed by the CDC when it clearly had not? Was it to make it seem like the data was officially issued by the government, and thus give more credibility to his story? Or was it a simple error on his part?
—Original post, May 16, 2012—
In the latest installment of the New York Times‘ “Drilling Down” series, reporter Ian Urbina doubles down on his pre-conceived narrative that oil and natural gas development (particularly from shale) is inherently dangerous.
Facts and data points do appear in print, but their spatiality and lack of context lead readers down a dangerous – and completely disproven – line of thinking: namely, that oil and gas workers and truck drivers who play such a vital role in the process all have an abnormally high risk of being injured, even fatally. At the very least, readers of Mr. Urbina’s most recent attack would be forgiven for thinking – despite evidence showing otherwise – that the industry is dangerous and poorly regulated.
What follows is a summary of the more egregious errors that Mr. Urbina cleverly slipped past his editor in his latest piece:
NYT: “But the jobs are also hazardous, with fatality rates that are seven times the national average across all industries. Nearly a third of the 648 deaths of oil field workers from 2003 through 2008 were in highway crashes, according to the most recent data analyzed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By contrast, highway crashes caused roughly a fifth of workplace fatalities across all industries in 2010.”
FACT: The source of Mr. Urbina’s “seven times the national average” claim regarding fatality rates is unclear, a detail that is itself unsurprising given his problematic history with sources. Nonetheless, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the oil and gas industry is not even ranked in the top 25 for highest rates of injuries and illnesses across all industries. In fact, the average national injury incidence rate is three times higher than the rate for oil and gas extraction. For fatalities specifically, BLS data show that the fatality rate for oil and gas extraction is lower than that for aircraft pilots, chauffeurs, fishing, and farming, among many others.
And, according to the Centers for Disease Control – the same source Urbina cites in his story – the highway transportation fatality rate for oil and gas extraction is lower than general truck transportation, logging, and waste management. Even limousine services have higher highway fatality rates than those for oil and gas.
It’s also worth noting that the industry has been and still is making incredible progress in reducing truck traffic. For example, a single 18-mile-long water pipeline in Pennsylvania has removed more than 2,000 truck trips from local roadways. And thanks to advancements in recycling – including on-site technologies – the amount of water needed to be hauled to and from the well site has been reduced considerably, which of course translates to substantially less truck traffic.
If the industry were unsafe, the data would surely reflect it. Unless, of course, you’re not using data, in which case you can claim whatever you want.
NYT: “Few workers are unionized, meaning they are less able to complain about safety problems without fear of being fired.”
FACT: Once again, there’s no data to support Mr. Urbina’s claim. Instead, this appears to be a specious talking point that was added merely to advance a pre-conceived narrative about the industry – specifically, that it’s somehow hostile to organized labor (don’t tell that to these guys). And as mentioned: BLS tracks workplace injury statistics. So if the alleged “safety problems” that Mr. Urbina references were real, then it would be reflected in those stats. Unfortunately for The Times, the data simply do not support Mr. Urbina’s opinions.
NYT: “An analysis by The New York Times of more than 50,000 inspection reports indicates that as the number of drilling rigs rose by more than 22 percent in 2011 from the prior year, the number of inspections at such work sites fell by 12 percent.”
FACT: The only way this information would be relevant is if the number of incidents at drilling sites rose by roughly the same rate (12 percent) as the decline in inspections. Having both sets of data would allow the reader to put this information into the proper perspective. But Urbina doesn’t provide it. Instead, he cites two pieces of data that seem to suggest a problem – more rigs and fewer inspections – without providing even basic context to let the reader know if the information is (a) valid, (b) connected in any way, or (c) indicative of an actual issue.
What Mr. Urbina is suggesting is that all drilling sites are exactly the same, and thus there should be a one-to-one connection between drilling rigs and inspections. If the number of rigs increases while inspections decrease, Urbina reasons, then that gap represents some sort of danger quotient that will facilitate higher than normal injuries.
This is laughably absurd.
For example: vertical and horizontal wells typically have different permitting requirements, and thus different types and levels of inspections. In addition, there are different techniques and requirements for each target formation in different states. In Louisiana, for example, there are different fee structures based upon well depth and production levels. In Pennsylvania, there are different fees for vertical and horizontal wells, and New York’s Environmental Assessment Form – which is required for all well owners – requests information about each well’s proximity to other regulated areas, such as wetlands or other bodies of water. This information is not just taken down for fun; it’s used as part of the regulatory process, which includes permitting and inspections.
Needless to say, inspections and compliance can vary considerably between two wells in the same state, not to mention the differences between wells operating in different parts of the country. What Mr. Urbina is suggesting, however, is that these differences are not merely unimportant, but that they don’t even exist.
The irony here is that all of this information could have been gathered by simply navigating a search engine. Of course, knowing what to type into the search box would have required at least a basic understanding of the industry and the regulatory structure under which it falls, something one would think would be a prerequisite for reporting on it.
But on that, specific to this, one would be thinking incorrectly.
Ag Dept. Rebuffs NYT on Shale. Again.
This past weekend, the New York Times continued its ongoing attack on shale development with a story suggesting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was considering a plan to deny mortgages to folks who had signed oil and gas leases. The problem? According to the Agriculture Department itself, none of it is true.
This past weekend, the New York Times continued its ongoing attack on shale development with a story suggesting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was considering a plan to deny mortgages to folks who had signed oil and gas leases. The story, which was based on “internal emails” (where have we heard that before?), sought to advance a narrative (previously laid out by the Times) that lending and leasing don’t go together – notwithstanding a 100-year history of compatibility to the contrary.
The Times’ story reached all the way to Oklahoma, where U.S. Rep. Dan Boren (D) responded with a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stating that such a requirement “will discourage economic development in small communities like those in my district in eastern Oklahoma.” The NPR affiliate in Oklahoma similarly reported on the potential rule change.
The problem? According to the Agriculture Department itself, none of it is true.
In a statement issued earlier this week – one day after the Times’ story hit – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated clearly: “As indicated in previous statements, USDA will not make any policy changes related to rural housing loans.” EID obtained Vilsack’s emailed statement (below, emphasis added):
“As indicated in previous statements, USDA will not make any policy changes related to rural housing loans. The information provided to Congressional offices on March 8, 2012 was premature and does not reflect past, current or future practices of the department.
“Later today, I will authorize an Administrative Notice reaffirming that rural housing loans are categorically excluded under the National Environmental Policy Act.”
What does this mean? In its haste to report something – anything – that would paint shale development in a negative light, the Times once again relied on bad (and in this case “premature”) information. It’s also interesting that, although the Times’ story says it sought comment from USDA about the proposed rule, Secretary Vilsack was able to say definitively within 24 hours that the basis of the Times’ story “does not reflect past, current or future practices” of USDA. He also referenced “previous statements” that indicated no such policy changes would occur.
So the question now is: Were those “previous statements” unavailable, or did the New York Times simply choose to ignore them?
Meanwhile, for his trouble, Secretary Vilsack now finds himself on Josh Fox’s enemies list. That’s because Fox, the New York filmmaker and Gasland producer, seems to think disagreeing with him is an unlawful act:
“A full NEPA review, like the type the agency was talking about affirming, would have been more transparent, more rigorous and comprehensive… This 180-degree turn by Secretary Vilsack contradicts both science and law.”
In his attack on Secretary Vilsack, Fox neglects to mention that subjecting farm mortgages to a “full NEPA review” would be treating them the same as major infrastructure projects, such as highway construction. Those reviews take a very long time to complete — about 79 months, according to the latest information from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration. Apparently, Fox wants hard-working farmers to wait an additional six and a half years before being approved for a mortgage.
It’s little wonder, then, that Secretary Vilsack moved so quickly to debunk the Times report.
Jerry Simmons Executive Director, National Association of Royalty Owners
As the Executive Director of an organization that represents the rights and interests of millions of mineral and royalty owners across this country, you can bet your bacon that I’ve been following closely The New York Times’ ongoing series on natural gas development – and in particular, the stories about leasing, lending and mineral owners in some areas crying foul.
The story posted by NYT reporter Ian Urbina last week fits into this final category. Its basic thesis goes something like this: as shale exploration has continued to ramp-up, land- and mineral owners are increasingly being fooled (or forced) into bad leases – bad because they don’t protect the environment, bad because they don’t protect them in case of an accident; bad because they’re too low on the financial end. I should note here that I actually reached out to Mr. Urbina before he ran this story; none of the information I provided made it into the article. In light of that, I thought I’d take just a few minutes to lay out a few facts, and maybe set straight a few of the things that the Times didn’t quite get right in its story.
For starters, let me say that its clear an awful lot of research went into this piece — Urbina and his crew say they reviewed 110,000 individual leases before putting pen to pad. Yes, critics will point to the fact that more than 100,000 of those leases came from only one county (Tarrant) in one state (Texas), but sorting through them all is still a pretty big project, so at least give them some credit for that. I also appreciate the fact that people like Ron Staments, Jack Richards and Dave McMahon – all friends and/or professional acquaintances of mine – were interviewed for and quoted in the story.
To my eye, the biggest problem with this latest piece is that the Times attempts to manufacture a narrative in which land-owners at every turn are pitted against energy producers. In reality, it’s a partnership – with the lease document representing the statement of terms under which that partnership will be pursued. It’s true that some statements are tilted more toward one party’s interests than the other’s. Should we be surprised by that? Should we be aghast? As was pointed out in the article by Mr. Knapp: “There are bad leases out there, and, as with any industry, there have also been some unscrupulous opportunists.” But is that a basis to shut down an entire industry? Reading the Times’ story, it’s tough not to get the impression that the reporter wouldn’t mind if we did.
As I’ve said many times before, leasing your minerals for development is more of an art than a science. You make the best deal you can with the best information and advice you can find – and if you find out later that your neighbor did better than you, you walk across the lawn, shake his hand, and let him know that lunch next time is on him. Often, in the early days of a play, the discrepancies between lease deals can be significant – a natural function of uncertainty. Higher risks when it comes to the question of commercial viability have to be offset by lower upfront costs.
But as I’ve seen literally thousands of times over the years, as areas are proved up, and resources start flowing, mineral owners find themselves in a much better position to negotiate a better deal — at least for the few who may have been unhappy with the original one. Remember: it often takes years, even decades, for operators to fully tap these reservoirs, and lease and royalty payments often represent only a fraction of the costs they’ll encounter over that time. Used to be drilling a well was a 10-year commitment – now it’s a 40-year one. With the proliferation of electronic media, the incentive to cut-corners on the environment or get away with low-ball lease offers (for very long) is simply no longer there. And even if all of us don’t use Twitter yet, believe me, us mineral owners can be a pretty persuasive bunch.
The article had four bullet-points in the first few paragraphs that I will attempt to address here:
NYT: “Fewer than half the leases require companies to compensate landowners for water contamination after drilling begins. And only about half the documents have language that lawyers suggest should be included to require payment for damages to livestock or crops.”
- The amazing thing about this point is that, if you follow the links embedded in the body of the Times piece, the information provided appears to directly contradict the point made in the text.
- Take a look for yourself: “If a gas company causes property damage or goes beyond what is ‘reasonably necessary’ to drill for oil or gas, the company may be held liable for damages. In many states there are also laws or regulations that govern the extent to which the surface must be returned to its original condition, including rules that require the company to remove unnecessary equipment or repair any damage. Some leases include addenda that specify how and when any wells will be plugged. They also sometimes include language that establishes how the company will handle specifics, like the removal of roads or restoration of the landscape.”
- In other words, all the protections that the Times laments aren’t included in a standard lease are included in a different kind of contract – called the law. No oil and gas lease I’ve ever seen includes a stipulation banning a producer from, let’s say, hitting me in the face with a shovel. According to the Times’ logic, though, I guess that means it would be legal for him to do it — since it wasn’t in my lease. Can you see why this entire premise is flawed?
NYT: “Most leases grant gas companies broad rights to decide where they can cut down trees, store chemicals, build roads and drill. Companies are also permitted to operate generators and spotlights through the night near homes during drilling.”
- Again, in most cases a surface use agreement is required by the state, but if not, we’ve always recommended that the mineral owner (even if not surface owner) include one as part of the deal. In that agreement, you will negotiate compensation for roads, tree removal, crops, livestock, etc. But drilling itself is permitted by the state, and proximity to structures is determined by the appropriate state regulatory agencies. Distances may differ, but the principle does not.
NYT: “In the leases, drilling companies rarely describe to landowners the potential environmental and other risks that federal laws require them to disclose in filings to investors.”
- As stated above, mineral and surface landowners are protected from liability by state and federal regulations. If you believe a lease clause or addendum is needed to spell out potential risks and liabilities, then you should negotiate that into your lease – as most folks have done for years.
NYT: “Most leases are for three or five years, but at least two-thirds of those reviewed by The Times allow extensions without additional approval from landowners. If landowners have second thoughts about drilling on their land or want to negotiate for more money, they may be out of luck.”
- Oil and gas leases for decades (perhaps always) have allowed for the option to extend at the end of a primary term. The reason is that the company may not get to all drilling locations within the primary term and wants the ability to maintain its acreage position in an area.
- If you sign a lease with an option to extend, you have given your approval to extend the lease if certain stipulations are met. Once a well is producing, your acreage is “Held-By-Production” (HBP) for as long as the well is capable of production. As mentioned, this could be decades — so leases are serious contractual instruments that one should not enter into without proper knowledge and professional advice.
- That’s our position as mineral owners – and guess what? It’s industry’s position as well. According to Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition: “The most educated landowner is going to be this industry’s best business partner, and that means legal review.” (Associated Press, 7/23/11)
It is too bad this article did not attempt to emphasize the need for mineral and surface land owners to accept their responsibility and become educated on the process of mineral leasing and mineral/royalty income. If it had, the Times could have done a real service to the citizens facing decisions on leasing instead of trying to generate fear in a process that could pay off a mortgage; send kids or grandkids to college; keep elderly folks off state assistance; keep the family farm in the family; build new fences, barns, houses; supplement retirement; and on and on.
The point is, of the millions of oil and gas leases in effect the vast majority are held by folks who are very happy with the process and benefit greatly from the income that this partnership produces. Too bad the Times doesn’t consider that much of a story.
Sprawling piece on natural gas development in SWPA lands in NYT Sunday Mag; EID sorts through the data that NYT’s Griswold leaves behind
If it’s true that the definition of a good compromise is one in which both sides leave unhappy, it might seem that the 5,700-word piece on Marcellus development in Washington Co., Pa. filed this past weekend in the Sunday magazine of The New York Times comes close to being one heck of a deal.
Writing about the piece on the environmental website Grist – no friend to shale – Sarah Laskow concludes that “anyone who already understands the issue should probably skip it, to avoid getting ticked off.” For what it’s worth, we happen to agree — albeit for different reasons.
On the positive side of the ledger, NYT contributor Eliza Griswold includes about a half-dozen stories from real folks in the Amwell Twp. community whose lives have been made materially better owing to the local development of enormous reserves of clean-burning natural gas from shale. Folks who now can keep their farms, send their kids to college, maybe even retire somewhere someday. Folks who care deeply about the quality and nature of their local environment, and who, despite the hype, have seen no evidence heretofore that Marcellus activity is deleterious to it.
Those are the parts that Grist doesn’t like, preferring instead the ones in which Griswold attempts to paint a picture of natural gas development as scourge to air, water, and land; hoof, hound and equine. But a closer look at the air and water testing data compiled by state regulators and third-party technicians – every bit of it publicly available; very little of it mentioned in this piece — reveals a reality in tiny Amwell Twp. very much at odds with the narrative put forth by the Times.
Below, we take a closer look at some of the claims made in the piece, and see how they stack-up when juxtaposed with the science.
Wrong on the basics
NYT: “’Fracking,’ as it is known, is a process of natural-gas drilling that involves pumping vast quantities of water, sand and chemicals thousands of feet into the earth to crack the deep shale deposits and free bubbles of gas from the ancient, porous rock.”
- “Hydraulic fracturing,” as it’s more accurately known, is not a “natural-gas drilling” process. It’s a post-drilling well stimulation technology that has been deployed more than 1.2 million times over nearly 65 years of commercial use. NYT/E&E News: “The method of drilling is not called ‘hydraulic fracturing.’ … Fracturing has been used by drillers for around 60 years.” (Groundtruthing Gasland, NYT/E&E News, Feb. 24, 2011)
- According to EPA, fracturing technology is used not only in the context of oil and natural gas development, but also to aid in the recovery of geothermal energy and as a means of enhancing the clean-up of Superfund sites. (“A Citizen’s Guide to Fracturing,” EPA fact sheet, May 2001)
NYT: “This summer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York moved to lift the state’s yearlong moratorium on fracking against vocal opposition from environmentalists and many local residents. Following a series of hearings this month, New York will decide whether to allow fracking early next year.”
- Contrary to what’s been reported, fracturing technology is neither banned in New York State nor under temporary moratorium. For evidence of that, click here to view a permit issued by New York’s Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on Oct. 25, 2010. The permit approves the use of hydraulic fracturing – in the Marcellus Shale, no less – in Otsego Co., New York.
- In 2008, DEC announced that it would delay new permits for development projects requiring more than 80,000 gallons of water as part of the fracturing process until the agency’s updated Marcellus regulations were in place. Those regulations were released in draft form this past September, with the final document anticipated in early 2012.
- According to the state’s DEC, fracturing technology has been deployed safely in New York “since at least the 1950s.” All told, more than 75,000 oil, natural gas and salt wells have been drilled in New York over the past 150 years. According to DEC, more than 14,000 remain active today, almost all of them having been fractured.
Wrong on Amwell Township
NYT: “Beth Voyles, 54, a horse trainer and dog breeder … signed the lease with Haney in 2008. She told Haney that her 11 /2-year-old boxer, Cummins, had just died. Voyles thought that he was poisoned. She saw the dog drinking repeatedly from a puddle of road runoff, and she thought that the water the gas company used to wet down the roads probably had antifreeze in it.”
- To her credit, Griswold does include a comment from Range further down in the piece stating that the company does not use glycols as part of its development processes. Unfortunately, she fails to mention DEP’s extensive testing of Ms. Voyles’ water, as well as the agency’s findings that her water is not contaminated.
- DEP letter to Voyles (last month): “Finally, you raised concerns that your water supply might be contaminated by glycols. There is no credible evidence of the contamination of your water supply by ethylene, di-ethylene, or tri-ethylene glycol. … [N]either the sample analyses performed by Summit Environmental Technologies Inc. … nor Test America’s analyses … showed any evidence of glycol in your water supply.” (DEP letter to Ms. Voyles, Oct. 19, 2011)
- More from that letter: “We have concluded our investigation and have determined that there is no evidence to substantiate the complaint. … In summary, DEP has determined that Range has not contaminated your water supply.” (Ibid)
- Voyles’ own veterinarian disputes her statement about her animals: “On November 10, 2010, you voluntarily supplied Range Resources with lab results from both your dog and horse veterinarians. Upon review of these results, Range contacted the canine and equine veterinarians. … [I]t was stated by the veterinarian that the test results were inconclusive for anti-freeze [ethylene glycol] poising. … The veterinarian indicated that the horse had toxicity of the liver, which he felt was not related to [ethylene glycol] poising.” (Range letter to Voyles, Jan. 14, 2011)
- Tests for metals also come up clean: “[F]ollowing conversations with the veterinarians, Range ordered additional testing of your water supplies, including testing for heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead. … Upon review of the information provided [by independent, state-certified Microbac Laboratories], the test results … indicate that both of your water supplies meet all of the EPA minimum primary drinking water standards for all parameters tested.” (Range letter to Voyles, Jan. 14, 2011)
- DEP also tests water of Ms. Voyles’ neighbor, and reaches same conclusions: “The methane gas in your water well was clearly identified through isotopic analysis to be drift gas, not natural gas that would be coming from a gas well. … The three hydrocarbons detected at low levels are common reagents in laboratories, are used as solvents and cleaning agents and can be found in groundwater throughout Pennsylvania where there has been residential or industrial development.” (DEP letter to Mr. Loren Kiskadden, Sept. 9, 2011)
NYT: “Voyles … called the Department of Environmental Protection to register yet another complaint about the stench. The D.E.P. sent out a water specialist, John Carson. … Voyles claims that Carson refused to take her complaint.”
- Pennsylvania DEP lays out very different story in another letter to Voyles: “[O]ver a period of three months, on 24 separate occasions, the Department visited your property and detected no malodors.” (DEP letter to Ms. Voyles, Sept. 22, 2011)
- More context from DEP: “Additionally, last summer, the Department conducted a short-term study of ambient air concentrations of target pollutants near certain Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations in southwestern Pennsylvania [including your property] … Results of the ambient air sampling did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” (Ibid)
NYT: “In Amwell Township, your opinion of fracking tends to correspond with how much money you’re making and with how close you live to the gas wells, chemical ponds, pipelines and compressor stations springing up in the area.”
- The economic benefits of natural gas development extend well beyond a few households in Amwell Township. According to company data, more than $25 million has been returned to landowners in Amwell since 2009 in the form of lease, royalty and bonus payments. With just short of 1,500 households in the township, that translates into more than $16,700 per home.
- It’s worth noting here the writer’s use of the term “chemical pond” to describe temporary impoundments comprised almost entirely of freshwater. Keep that one tucked away; we’ll get back to it in just a bit.
Wrong on disclosure
NYT: “Popular concerns about natural-gas drilling have centered on what chemicals companies are putting into the earth, not least because this list is a proprietary secret.”
- This assertion is directly rebutted by Pennsylvania DEP: “Drilling companies must disclose the names of all chemicals to be stored and used at a drilling site … These plans contain copies of material safety data sheets for all chemicals … This information is on file with DEP and is available to landowners, local governments and emergency responders.” (PA DEP Marcellus FAQ, accessed Nov. 21, 2011)
- Straight from Pa. code: “Within 30 calendar days of cessation of drilling or altering a well, the well operator shall submit a well record to the Department that includes the following information. … A descriptive list of the chemical additives in the stimulation fluid, including any acid, biocide, breaker, brine, corrosion inhibitor, crosslinker, demulsifier, friction reducer, gel, iron control, oxygen scavenger, pH adjusting agent, proppant, scale inhibitor and surfactant.” (25 Pa. code chapter 78.122, accessed Nov. 21, 2011)
- On the federal level, operators are bound by requirements of the Community Right-to-Know Act (passed in 1986), which mandate that detailed product information sheets be drawn up, updated, and made immediately available to first-response and emergency personnel in case of an accident on-site. (OSHA Standards, accessed Nov. 21, 2011)
- More recently, an effort led by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) culminated in the creation of a searchable, nationwide database with specific well-by-well information on the additives used in the fracturing process. Just six months after it was launched in April, GWPC announced in October that information on more than 5,200 wells is now posted on FracFocus.org. (E&E News, Oct. 21, 2011)
- Ironically, the company highlighted in the piece, Range Resources, was among the first major shale operators in the country to actively disclose online the specific materials used in the completion process. (“Natural-Gas Driller to Disclose Chemical Use,” Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2010)
NYT: “In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney spearheaded an amendment to the energy bill, which critics call the Halliburton Loophole. This legislation exempts hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act and protects companies like Halliburton, of which Cheney was once the C.E.O., from disclosing what chemicals are going into the ground.”
- This charge is categorically false. Hydraulic fracturing has never in its nearly 65-year history been regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. It has, however, been aggressively regulated by the states, which have compiled an impressive record of enforcement and oversight over the past six decades – a record that EPA has acknowledged as being sound as recently as … last night on the Rachel Maddow Show.
- EPA administrator Lisa Jackson on Maddow: “States are stepping up and doing a good job. So I always say: It doesn’t have to be EPA that regulates the 10,000 wells that might go in. (Jackson interview with Rachel Maddow, 9:01, aired Nov. 21, 2011) Jackson, this past weekend: “[Y]ou can’t start to talk about a federal role [in regulating fracturing] without acknowledging the very strong state role.” (Jackson interview on EnergyNOW!, aired Nov. 20, 2011)
- Incidentally, SDWA isn’t even a disclosure bill; the word “disclosure” only appears twice in the entire 77,000-word text, and only in sections unrelated to underground injection (search the legislation here for yourself).
- Language adopted in 2005 simply reaffirmed the fact that states have always taken the lead in regulating the fracturing process. And incidentally, the 2005 energy bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support — with 74 “yea” votes in the U.S. Senate, including ones from the top Democrat on the Energy Committee; current Interior secretary Ken Salazar, then a senator from Colorado; and then-Sen. Barack Obama. In the U.S. House, 75 Democrats supported the final bill, including the top Democratic members on both the Energy & Commerce and Resources Committees.
- Fmr. Clinton EPA administrator Carol Browner explains: “EPA does not regulate – and does not believe it is legally required to regulate – the hydraulic fracturing of methane gas production wells under its UIC program [under the Safe Drinking Water Act].” (Browner letter to David Ludder, Esq., May 5, 1995). How could it be a “loophole” if even EPA itself admits it never regulated the process in the first place?
Wrong on the numbers
NYT: “There are more than 4,000 Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania, with projections ranging from 2,500 new wells a year to a total of more than 100,000 over the next few decades.”
- According to DEP, a total of 4,257 Marcellus wells have been developed in Pennsylvania since 2005, an average of 608 new wells per year. Only 1,446 Marcellus wells were drilled in 2010 (DEP’s end-of-year report for 2010 is available here), and the number for 2011 is currently more than 300 short of 2,000 – far below the projections reported in this piece. Not even the most optimistic Marcellus production scenarios for the state even come close to 100,000 future wells.
- For perspective, Pennsylvania was already home to more than 46,000 active natural gas wells before the first Marcellus well was ever spud back in 2005, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Using the latest available data, Marcellus wells account for barely eight percent of all active natural gas wells in Pennsylvania – and only 1.1 percent of all total wells drilled. According to DEP, more than 350,000 oil and natural gas wells have been drilled in the state since 1859 (DEP fact sheet, accessed Nov. 21, 2011)
- Thanks in large part to advances in horizontal drilling technology — which allows producers today to access significantly greater volumes of natural gas from significantly fewer wells — the total number of wells drilled in Pennsylvania over the past six years has dropped 29 percent, even as the volume of natural gas being produced on a daily basis has increased roughly 12-fold. (DEP well reports, 2010)
NYT: “According to a recent study by Pennsylvania State University, the industry has created 23,000 jobs, including employment for roustabouts, construction workers, helicopter pilots, sign makers, Laundromat workers, electricians, caterers, chambermaids, office workers, water haulers and land surveyors.”
- According to a report from the Pennsylvania Dept. of Labor released earlier this month, total employment for industries related to Marcellus development is 214,000 – ten times the number cited by NYT (Pa. Dept. of Labor and Industry, Nov. 4, 2011). According to that same report, more than 48,000 new Marcellus hires were made in just the past year.
- According to a report issued in July 2011 by researchers from Penn State, actual employment in 2010 tied to Marcellus activities translated into nearly 140,000 jobs. That same report estimates that, by 2020, shale development could support more than 256,000 jobs in Pennsylvania. (PSU Marcellus report, July 20, 2011)
NYT: “Currently, companies operating in Pennsylvania pay no tax to extract gas.”
- According to an analysis conducted by the Pennsylvania Dept. of Revenue this past May, “companies engaged in and related to natural gas drilling activities in Pennsylvania have paid more than $1.1 billion in state taxes since 2006.” (Dept. of Revenue release, May 2, 2011)
- And much more to come, say Penn State researchers: “Our estimates suggest that in 2020 the Marcellus industry in Pennsylvania could be creating more than $20 billion in value added, generating $2 billion in state and local tax revenues, and supporting more than 250,000 jobs.” (“Penn State report even more bullish on Marcellus Shale,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 20, 2011)
NYT: “Banks have expressed reluctance to back home mortgages within up to three miles of a well. Whole towns could become brown fields, and home values would drop precipitously.”
- These are very serious (and specific) charges, and ones for which the writer provides not a single shred of evidence, data or even a stray anecdote.
- Here’s an informed view on lending and leasing, offered by long-time, Pa.-based mortgage lender and real estate attorney: “My experience is that gas lease bonus payment enabled a lot of our customers to resolve mortgage issues and pay off many of them. … Lenders see the value in the additional collateral and recognize the potential future income opportunities a gas lease offers both landowner and lender.” (John F. Spall, director of The Dime Bank, Honesdale, Pa.; Oct. 25, 2011)
- EID’s Marcellus team runs the numbers on charges of diminished property values, comparing counties in Pa. with shale activity to those without it: “[F]armland values in Bradford County averaged $6,984 per acre for properties of 10 acres or more. Fourteen sales in Susquehanna County (1,182 acres) averaged $4,993 per acre. Sullivan and Wyoming County properties averaged $5,579 and $7,215 per acre, respectively. … Now, compare this to similarly rural Wayne County, which is still waiting on the DRBC to allow gas exploration, where the average was $2,921 per acre; or Pike County, where it was $3,168 per acre, despite both counties being much closer the New York City, that factor having traditionally driven property values in those areas. … Lackawanna County, despite being a much more urban area, likewise only produced an average value of $3,889 per acre.”
Wrong on water management
NYT: “Disposing of the chemical water has meant trucking it to another state or paying local treatment facilities to process it. The facilities, which are not equipped to remove salts, have often sent the frack water back into local rivers.”
- The disposition of wastewater associated with the natural gas development process is and has always been regulated by EPA under the Clean Water Act; surface discharges of treated water require a permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (also known as an NPDES permit); and treated water must meet stringent safety standards under federal law.
- Fmr. DEP secretary John Hanger: “The water that’s coming out of the tap in Pennsylvania is meeting the safe water drinking standards when it comes to total dissolved solids. Every single drop that is coming out of the tap in Pennsylvania today meets the safe drinking water standard.” (KDKA, Jan. 4, 2011) According to current DEP secretary Michael Krancer, the notion that wastewater is being discharged into the state’s waterways untreated, as implied by NYT, is “a total fiction.” (Associated Press, Nov. 16, 2011)
- Most troubling here, the writer fails to include even a passing mention of wastewater recycling, which is how the vast majority of water is currently being managed in Pennsylvania today: “State environmental regulators say that nearly 70 percent of the wastewater produced by Marcellus Shale wells is being reused or recycled. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, puts the number higher, saying that on average 90 percent of the water that returns to the surface is recycled.” (Scranton Times-Tribune, Feb. 27, 2011)
- And advances in technology continues to push those recycling percentages even higher: “Range Resources is evidence to how fast this transition can happen. It first used a mixture of fracturing flowback in the Marcellus Shale water and fresh water in August 2009. [By] 2010, it said it reused 96 percent of its produced water in Pennsylvania.” (Stephen Rassenfoss, Journal of Petroleum Technology, July 2011)
NYT: “Thanks to the money [Ray] received from allowing Range Resources to drill, build a compressor station and dig a chemical pond on his land, he has been able to reroof two barns, buy a new hay baler and construct an addition to his house for his 94-year-old mother.”
- Although Griswold graciously takes time here to cite the myriad ways in which the royalties and rents from natural gas development are improving the lives of Amwell resident Ray Day and his family, her insistence on referring to temporary water impoundments as “chemical ponds” here (flashback to a previous section) is again noteworthy – and curious.
- All told, Griswold uses the term “chemical pond” or “chemical impoundment” seven separate times in her story, perhaps unaware that many of these units actually hold freshwater. Even where flowback is temporarily stored near the development site, this water is treated at the wellhead; salt is by far the most prominent non-water component of these units.
- Interestingly, “chemical pond” appears to be a term used particularly frequently by John Smith, a plaintiff’s attorney who collaborated with Griswold on this piece and currently represents the people in Amwell Twp. suing DEP. Mr. Smith is also active in an ongoing campaign to spur passage of local ordinances in the region seeking to subvert the state’s oil and gas law by zoning responsible development off the map. In an article this past September in the Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator, Mr. Smith again uses the term “chemical ponds,” telling an audience at a community center that the units are completely unregulated.
- But that’s not true at all. Pa. code on impoundments: “[T]he operator may not use a pit for the control, handling or storage of brine and other fluids produced during operation, service or plugging of a well unless the pit is authorized by a permit under The Clean Streams Law (Pa. code, chapter 78, section 78.57, accessed Nov. 21, 2011)
Wrong on “The Mon”
NYT: “In 2008 … [f]or several months, the Monongahela River, which provides most people in the Pittsburgh area with drinking water, no longer met state and federal standards. Following a request from the State of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found it would require five times the amount of water in their reservoirs to dilute the river. It took five months to clean it up.”
- Independent study released in 2009 debunks notion that natural gas producers adversely affected the Mon River: “Analysis of samples taken over the October through December time period  indicate that the percent of chlorides in [total dissolved solids] did not change significantly after the exploration and production companies had stopped or significantly reduced disposal of flow back and produced water at the municipal treatment plants.” (“Evaluation of High TDS Concentrations in the Monongahela River, Tetra Tech NUS, Inc., Jan. 2009)
- More from Tetra Tech study: “[T]he results of this study clearly indicate that discharges from natural gas exploration and production operations contributed only minimally to the total TDS concentrations and mass loadings in the Monongahela River during the time period the study was conducted. The main chemical component detected in the TDS concentrations and mass loadings was sulfate, which mostly likely is the result of mine drainage.” (Ibid)
- Still more: “TDS and sulfate concentrations in the Monongahela River were near the maximum allowable levels upon entering Pennsylvania from West Virginia in October and November 2008; therefore, there was little to no assimilative capacity for TDS or sulfates in the river during that time period.” (Ibid)
Another day, another misrepresentation of natural gas in the New York Times.
As you know, we’ve spent considerable time debunking articles in the New York Times that question the benefits and safety of natural gas production, particularly as it relates to hydraulic fracturing. Unfortunately, the folks at the Times still haven’t gotten the message.
This week, Paul Krugman used one of his weekly columns to extol the future of solar power, but not before baselessly demonizing shale gas development.
Speaking of propaganda: Before I get to solar, let’s talk briefly about hydraulic fracturing, a k a fracking.
Fracking — injecting high-pressure fluid into rocks deep underground, inducing the release of fossil fuels — is an impressive technology. But it’s also a technology that imposes large costs on the public. We know that it produces toxic (and radioactive) wastewater that contaminates drinking water; there is reason to suspect, despite industry denials, that it also contaminates groundwater; and the heavy trucking required for fracking inflicts major damage on roads.
First and foremost, let’s give Mr. Krugman some credit. He does refer to hydraulic fracturing as an “impressive technology,” which it most certainly is. Unfortunately for Mr. Krugman and his readers, though, it’s all downhill from there.
Regarding the “toxic (and radioactive) wastewater that contaminates drinking water,” Krugman is blatantly misstating the facts or, at best, ignoring a key feature of areas where shale gas production is taking place: naturally occurring radioactive material, or NORM, which can be found on the surface or deep underground.
Claims about radiation have been made before (by, naturally, the New York Times), but both the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the U.S. Geological Survey have found that this is largely a natural phenomenon, not the result of some nefarious gas industry activity, and any radiation is at or below background levels that are no threat to human health. An examination by a water utility in western Pennsylvania also found no radioactive contaminants in the local water supply.
In fact, earlier this year the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) made the following conclusion about NORM in its assessment of future hydraulic fracturing in the state: “Based upon currently available information it is anticipated that flowback water would not contain levels of NORM of significance,” adding that this “does not present a risk to workers because the external radiation levels are very low.”
Krugman then asserts, notwithstanding the facts, that there is “reason to suspect” that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated groundwater. The reality, though, is that hydraulic fracturing has been used more than 1.2 million times and there has not been a single confirmed case of groundwater contamination. If Krugman thinks otherwise, then his argument is not only with state regulators from across the country, but also with President Obama’s own administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, who has testified that she is “not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.”
As for the “major damage” that Krugman cites, this claim is, like all the others in this op-ed, misstating reality. Again, the situation in Pennsylvania is instructive, as companies in that state over the past three years have invested more than $400 million in local and state roads. This type of commitment not only guarantees that impacts are minimized, but also that problems can be fixed with paid-for repairs.
And what does Krugman believe is the best alternative to clean, affordable, and reliable natural gas? Solar power, which is currently far more expensive (and significantly less reliable) than natural gas. Krugman says that its price is declining, but his argument that “we’re just a few years from the point” when electricity from solar becomes cost competitive contradicts well-regarded data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The EIA’s levelized cost of electricity generation shows that solar is between $211 and $312 per megawatt hour. Combined cycle natural gas generation, however, is between $62 and $65 per megawatt hour, while conventional coal generation is listed at $95 per megawatt hour.
Krugman argues that the current price disparity is due to fossil fuels not being “priced” correctly, which is another way of lamenting the fact that there is no price on carbon. If we had a carbon tax or cap and trade regime, Krugman believes, “it’s likely that we would already have passed [the] tipping point” of price parity between solar and conventional power sources.
But here’s the kicker: EIA’s data actually incorporates a de facto price on carbon by artificially inflating the costs of GHG-intensive technologies (as a carbon tax or cap and trade regime would do). The assumptions in EIA’s data include this important nugget:
Although currently there is no Federal legislation in place that restricts greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, regulators and the investment community have continued to push energy companies to invest in technologies that are less GHG-intensive. The trend is captured in the AEO2011 Reference case through a 3-percentage-point increase in the cost of capital when evaluating investments in new coal-fired power plants, new coal-to-liquids (CTL), and coal and biomass-to-liquids (CBTL) plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Natural gas is easily the most affordable electricity option, but even Krugman’s attempt to suggest that solar would be cost competitive with coal if we “priced coal-fired power right” doesn’t come close to representing what objective data shows. And as Robert Bryce points out in his own debunking of Krugman’s op-ed, carbon pricing may not even be the most effective way of reducing emissions:
According to the International Energy Agency, the U.S. is now cutting emissions faster than Europe, even though the EU has instituted an elaborate carbon-reduction scheme. Why is this happening? It’s not due to increased domestic use of wind or solar. Instead, it’s simple economics. Cheap natural gas is displacing higher-carbon coal in the U.S. electricity-generation fleet. That option is not available in Europe, where natural-gas prices are more than two times those of the U.S.
Krugman ends by saying hydraulic fracturing “is not a dream come true,” which is a subjective assessment but one that should nonetheless be scrutinized. Just take a stroll through Pennsylvania and you’ll see that responsible natural gas production in the Marcellus Shale is revitalizing local economies and creating jobs at an incredible pace. Development of the Barnett Shale in Texas has created over 100,000 jobs. And thanks to the affordability of natural gas, residents in the Northeast are enjoying lower monthly utility bills — a testament to hydraulic fracturing and the shale revolution it has helped create.
For those who make a living bashing the benefits of natural gas, hydraulic fracturing is indeed far from a dream come true, as it makes their job of claiming natural gas is too dirty and too expensive that much harder. But for the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people who are reaping countless benefits, shale gas development has indeed been an enormous blessing.
Prior to submitting his column for publication, perhaps Mr. Krugman should have consulted his fellow New York Times columnist David Brooks.
John F. Spall
I have been in private practice as a real estate attorney in Northeastern Pennsylvania for more years that I’d like to admit. My firm has offices in both Pike and Lackawanna Counties. I also operated a real estate business for a number of years and serve as a Director of The Dime Bank, which is headquartered in Wayne County. I have also served as local counsel to one of the major oil and gas companies operating in our area. I offer you all this in the way of background for what I’m about to say – that Ian Urbina’s article in the New York Times this past week was seriously flawed. I reached out to him when I heard he was doing a story on this subject. Unfortunately, his deadline had already passed by the time I got his reply. I wish we had been able to talk, because he got so much so wrong.
Let’s start with the obvious. Who are these banks outside of Ithaca who aren’t lending to landowners with leases? I don’t know of any lenders who are refusing mortgages in those areas of Pennsylvania where natural gas development is taking place. Perhaps there are some for narrow reasons of special interest but all the banks I deal with, including the one where I serve as a Director, are more than pleased to write a mortgage on a property with the additional collateral a gas lease provides.
My experience is that gas lease bonus payment enabled a lot of our customers to resolve mortgage issues and pay off many of them. What’s not to like about that? Also, I am very puzzled about why some many of the sources cited in Mr. Urbina’s article are from the Ithaca, New York area. Ithaca is hardly representative of the lending environment in those parts of the Marcellus Shale gas region where I’ve done business. It tends to be one of those areas where you find enterprises whose motives are far removed from the mainstream business world where most operate – institutions such as the “Alternatives Federal Credit Union,” which apparently gets at least some of its capital from government grants issued through the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund. That Fund prides itself on providing “loans, investments, financial services and technical assistance to underserved populations and communities” and examples like the ShoreBank, which failed spectacularly. These types of institutions are obviously motivated by factors having little to do with financial risk or the management of it. They often make their decisions on non-financial factors and why Mr. Urbina would use them as examples is beyond me.
Lenders with whom I have been associated do have to evaluate financial risk, however, and that’s why they typically require assignments of gas lease revenues to themselves as a way of improving collateral. A review of mortgages on file in any of our counties here in Northeastern Pennsylvania will reveal many associated with properties having gas leases and, in virtually, all those cases there are corollary assignments of leases to the lenders.
I have drafted such assignment forms. These assignments permit the lender to reduce risk. Title insurance companies typically except the gas leases from their insurance policies. This means lenders, when they review the title insurance policy, are immediately informed of the existence of a gas lease. This is why they require the assignments – to substitute for the lack of insurance on that aspect of the property value. By taking an assignment they essentially self-insure.
All of this, of course, is slightly different than the normal mortgage procedure but it’s not complicated. There is, to be sure, a learning curve for both landowners and lenders but that curve is not particularly steep and my experience suggests we’re well beyond the point in our area where any bank or other lender is hesitant to issue mortgages. It’s just the opposite in fact. Lenders see the value in the additional collateral and recognize the potential future income opportunities a gas lease offers both landowner and lender. Royalty income is what I hear some of my clients refer as “mail money” – pleasant surprises that come each month in the mail and provide the receiver with extra financial security.
Let me add also that, from my experience in representing an oil and gas company and reviewing and assisting with the recording of hundreds of gas leases in Northeastern Pennsylvania, I have not seen what Mr. Urbina alleges – gas companies not bothering to secure the approvals of lenders prior to recording of lease documents. The companies have the strongest possible incentive to secure those approvals – they risk losing all unvested lease rights in the event of a foreclosure because the mortgage takes precedent over the lease.
That’s the rule in Pennsylvania, anyway. Perhaps, Mr. Urbina knows of some arcane rules in New York or elsewhere that work differently. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time they did things differently there to their great disadvantage, but I doubt it. No gas company I know of is going to skirt the rules to get a lease recorded that can be stricken in a foreclosure at the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars. It would be bizarre behavior and I notice Urbina doesn’t say it actually occurs. He simply speculates it might.
Are the rules followed to the nth degree every single instance? Probably not, but that’s true of every legal instrument. The rules are voluminous and complying with all of them is a bit like completing a tax return – no one can be said to get everything correct 100% of the time. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the time the rules ARE followed and as completely as possible, especially among the community and regional banks that serve those areas of Northeastern Pennsylvania where the bulk of the gas leasing has been taking place over the last 3-4 years. If there are technical issues, they are extremely limited in number and not impacting the market. As the Farmer Mac representative told Urbina, they do not represent a significant risk. That’s the long and short of it.
Reflecting on the Urbina piece and considering the obvious incentives that both gas companies and lenders have to do things correctly, the lack of impacts on the market and the fact mortgages are being routinely issued for properties with gas leases, I have to wonder what the article was all about. Is there something I am missing? Is there a party who is damaged here? Does anyone care what some “alternative lender” operating on the fringe of the Marcellus Shale region thinks about the impacts of gas leasing on mortgages? Frankly, I am at a loss to understand what motivated this piece of writing.
WASHINGTON — Coming on the heels of another rebuke this past weekend from the public editor of The New York Times — the second such admonishment issued by the paper’s ombudsman in just the past two weeks — Times reporter Ian Urbina today filed the latest installment in his ongoing and increasingly controversial series attacking natural gas, this time borrowing research from the anti-shale Environmental Working Group (EWG) and a well-known opponent of oil and natural gas in an attempt to blame hydraulic fracturing for contributing to the contamination of a single water well nearly 30 years ago in West Virginia.
Notably, the EWG press release today announcing the results of its year-long, Park Foundation-funded “investigation” of the same exact well was sent two hours before the Times posted its story online – suggesting either that a mistake was made in coordinating the release with the Times, or that EWG wanted to ensure the role it played in influencing the story was properly acknowledged. Either way, the piece itself relies on poor, and at times conflicting, records and accounts to arrive at what appears to be the Times’ firm conclusion that fracturing technology “in fact” caused contamination. The reporter also draws heavily on an after-action report of the “WV-17” well from the mid-1980s written by EPA contractor Carla Greathouse, a long-time opponent of the oil and natural gas industry and a source Urbina has used previously in this series without ever mentioning her prior work and reports targeting the industry.
Lee Fuller, executive director of Energy In Depth and an engineer with more than 30 years’ experience in the industry, issued the following statement:
“We’re talking about a technology that’s been deployed more than 1.2 million times in more than 25 states over the course of more than 60 years. I think it says an awful lot about fracturing’s record of safety that the best these guys could come up with after studying the issue for an entire year is a single, disputed case from 30 years ago that state regulators at the time believe had nothing to do with fracturing. Three decades later, the technology today is better than it’s ever been, the regulations are broader and more stringent, and the imperative of getting this right, so that we can take full advantage of the historic opportunities made possible by shale, has never been more apparent. Despite the Times’ best efforts, this story does not prove that hydraulic fracturing had anything to do with the contamination of a water well 30 years ago.”
Both the EWG paper and the Times story focus on a well drilled in Jackson Co., W.V. in 1982, using old reproductions of completion reports accessed from microfiche to argue that fracturing must have contaminated the well since records indicate it was properly cased and drilled to depths below the water table. But according to a letter sent in 1987 by West Virginia’s Department of Energy specifically referencing the WV-17 well, the actual cause of any alleged issue may have been related to something entirely different.
According to Ted Streit, then the state’s deputy director of inspection and enforcement, neither regulators nor industry had known back then that a formation commonly fractured for its oil and natural gas resources – the Pittsburg sandstone – actually contained potable water resources in some parts of Jackson County. From Mr. Streit’s letter:
I would like to point out that WV Code 22B-1-20 requires an operator to cement a string of casing 20 feet below all fresh water zones. At the time the permit was issued concerning this well, the Division [of Oil and Gas] had no knowledge that the Pittsburg sand was a fresh water source. This is because in certain areas oil and gas is produced from the Pittsburg. With this case however, the division discovered the problem and took the following steps to remedy the situation: 1) We had a geologist map the Pittsburg sand in the Roane and Jackson country area so that our permits group and enforcement group knew where that sand could be found. 2) We required every well drilled in the area to have casing cemented up over the Pittsburg sand.
According to Greg Wrightstone, a geologist with decades of experience completing wells in West Virginia: “My hunch is that the operator had an idea about trying a completion in the Pittsburgh sand. We saw small shows out of it from time to time back then. They may have drilled through it, fractured it, got nothing back, and then just gave up on it and drilled down to do a standard Berea/shale completion. If that was the case and a neighbor was using the Pittsburg sandstone as a water zone, then of course there could be elements of the fracturing fluid in it because that was the zone being fractured.”
EID is currently working with producers in the state to acquire and analyze whatever records might still be available relevant to this issue nearly 30 years after the WV-17 well was drilled.
Although characterizing the WV-17 well as a “clear case of drinking water contamination from fracking” in a quote provided to the Times, EWG lawyer Dusty Horwitt adopts a more measured tone in his actual paper, admitting in one section (page 8) that “it is unclear” how fluids could have accessed the well. In another section (page 13), EWG concedes that the West Virginia-based laboratory commissioned to investigate WV-17 “did not conclude that hydraulic fracturing caused the contamination …” And in its press release, EWG admits that “it is possible that another stage of the drilling process [and not hydraulic fracturing] caused the problem.”
Finally, the Times story pulls extensively from a 1987 report written by well-known oil and gas opponent Carla Greathouse, whom Urbina actually credits with giving this story its start. But according to comments published by the American Petroleum Institute (API) contemporaneous with that report, Ms. Greathouse’s work suffered from a “lack of thoroughness” owing to the contractor’s failure “to find or disclose a substantial number of the administrative and enforcement actions by the state agencies.” API also said at the time that it wasn’t able “to find a single case where EPA’s contractor contacted the operator involved to determine their side of the story.”
According to Ms. Greathouse, one of the goals of her 1987 report was to convince EPA to start regulating things such as drill cuttings, pipe scale and produced water as “hazardous wastes,” with an eye on preventing them from being disposed of in a manner consistent with industrial waste rules under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). After reviewing the Greathouse report, EPA arrived at precisely the opposite conclusion, issuing a report to Congress in 1988 stating that “regulation as hazardous wastes under Subtitle C was not warranted and that these wastes could be controlled under other federal and state regulatory programs.” Ms. Greathouse later told CBS News that the decision was “a very difficult pill to swallow.”
FLASHBACK: Fmr. Dem. Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell on the NYT claims: If the goal of your report about natural gas drilling was to gratuitously frighten Pennsylvanians, then congratulations on a job well done. If it was to deliver an evenhanded examination of the critical balance that must be achieved between job creation, energy independence and environmental protection in regions with large natural gas deposits, then it was a mighty swing and a miss. … [Fmr. PADEP sec. John Hanger and I] strongly disagree that there is lax regulation and oversight of gas drilling there. (New York Times, 3/5/11)
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And reporters too? NYT public editor takes aim once again at questionable reporting at center of natural gas attack series
The New York Times formally established the position of public editor in 2003 in direct response to the fall-out associated with the Jayson Blair scandal. Since then, the office – which serves as the Times’ version of “an internal affairs division,” according to past public editor Clark Hoyt – has commented on and occasionally criticized the paper’s reporting on everything from Israel and Palestine to John McCain and Eliot Spitzer.
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When New York Magazine reported earlier this month that the national editor of The New York Times had sent an internal memo laying out a “surprisingly detailed” defense of reporter Ian Urbina’s latest front-page attack on natural gas, the hope was that the memo would spur an equally detailed response by Arthur Brisbane, the Times’ public editor. That hope was realized when Mr. Brisbane’s 1,100-word piecewas posted on the paper’s website over the weekend, a column in which Brisbane takes square aim at theTimes for going “out on a limb” and “lack[ing] an in-depth dissenting view in the text.”
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In the biggest blow to Russia’s global power since the Italian Stallion landed an epic left-handed haymaker on Ivan Drago’s face, a new study from the Baker Institute [PDF] finds that America’s shale gas resources will play an enormous role in loosening Russia’s grip on global natural gas markets.
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NYT gets three chances to post fair, accurate story about natural gas on its front-page – first two failed bad, EID takes a look at #3
It’s not every industry in the world that could have survived the heavy ordnance that Ian Urbina dropped on the front-page of The New York Times this past week, with the reporter unloading a three-part series targeting natural gas that earned him plenty of praise from the anti-energy crowd, but something less than glowing reviews from independent observers who track the veracity and perspicuity of science and environmental reporting.
A basic evaluation of each of the stories reveals why. In his first piece, Urbina sets the stage by arguing that “there is no way of guaranteeing” the safety of drinking water in Pennsylvania owing to the small (and rapidly declining) percentage of wastewater from the Marcellus that’s treated at and discharged from local treatment facilities. Candidly, his story looked a lot more interesting prior to 11:30 a.m. EST today – that’s when PA’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released the results of a months-long, in-stream survey analysis of water quality across the state finding that “all samples tested” since the program began last fall “showed levels at or below the normal naturally occurring background levels of radioactivity.” So much for that.
As former Pa. governor Ed Rendell put it in a letter to the editor in Sunday’s NYT: “If the goal of your report about natural gas drilling was to gratuitously frighten Pennsylvanians, then congratulations on a job well done.” Other observers criticized the reporter’s decision to outright ignore the role that dilution plays in reducing the potential for hazard. According to MIT’s Charlie Petit, “even if the waste were not treated at all, it would be diluted by a factor of about 3,000 if it were to have been put straight into the pipes to homes. But it was not put in the pipes straight, but put in rivers. So, it was heavily diluted right off the bat and most of it went to the sea. And it was treated before being dumped in. And the water removed for drinking presumably got further treatment.”
The second story, which ran above-the-fold, turned out to be – candidly – a bit of a snoozer. In that one, Urbina quibbles with the industry’s assertion that nearly 70 percent of Marcellus wastewater in Pennsylvania is reused or recycled – basing his argument on numbers compiled long before most major producers in the state had even started their recycling programs. According to the latest figures from PA DEP, a minimum of 65 percent (and likely much more) of wastewater from the Marcellus is currently being recycled. In the months to come, the goal is for that number to hit 100.
Then came story three, which provided a platform for several unnamed EPA career staff to decry the “politics” at play in blocking their ability to steal regulatory authority over hydraulic fracturing away from the states, notwithstanding testimony from the head of EPA’s drinking water protection division that states are already doing a “good job” at the task. Incidentally, most of those EPA quotes appear to come from Region 3, home base for aquatic biologist Amy Bergdale – otherwise known as the EPA staffer who “actually did a presentation when we screened Gasland for the entire environmental wing of the Department of Justice,” according to Gasland director Josh Fox. Maybe she hasn’t heard that that particular film has been debunked.
Speaking of story no. 3, let’s see how the reporter’s third attempt at fracturing fratricide holds up under a thorough fact check from EID:
NYT: “Natural gas drilling companies have major exemptions from parts of at least 7 of the 15 sweeping federal environmental laws that regulate most other heavy industries …”
- Not every section of every environmental statute that’s ever been passed in American history applies to the development of oil and natural gas, that’s true. But it’s also true that each of the seven “sweeping environmental laws” cited by Urbina as ones from which the industry is exempt includes sections and titles explicitly regulating the oil and natural gas industry. In other words, the industry is regulated under each and every one of these laws – under sections of each that are relevant to its operations (for additional information, take a look at this EID fact sheet).
- Let’s take a look at each of these so-called “exemptions”:
o Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA)
§ EPA disagrees: “[O]il and gas extraction facilities are generally responsible for reporting obligations of EPCRA if the facility stores or manages threshold levels of specified chemicals.” Those materials are listed on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), mandated by EPA via its authority under EPCRA. EPA evaluated whether the industry should report under the Toxic Release Inventory in the 1990s, and concluded that it was unwarranted.
o Clean Water Act (CWA)
§ EPA disagrees: “Onshore exploration and production facilities may be subject to four aspects of the CWA: national effluent limitation guidelines, stormwater regulations, and wetlands regulations, and Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) requirements.”
o Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)
§ Subtitle C of RCRA was designed to regulate “low-volume, high-toxicity” hazardous wastes – a category into which most reasonable people (and even EPA itself) agreed drill cuttings, pipe scale and produced water were never intended to fall. But just because rock cuttings aren’t regulated under Section C of RCRA doesn’t mean they aren’t regulated at all.
- According to EPA: “In its report to Congress and in a July 1988 regulatory determination, the Agency stated that regulation as hazardous wastes under Subtitle C was not warranted and that these wastes could be controlled under other federal and state regulatory programs …”
§ Following the 1988 determination, EPA initiated a program to review state regulatory programs to ensure that drilling fluids and produced waters were being effectively regulated. This program – STRONGER – conducts reviews of state programs with teams from state regulatory agencies, environmental groups, industry, EPA and other federal agencies. In 2010, the review scope was expanded to address hydraulic fracturing management.
§ Some of the other industrial materials not regulated under Section C but regulated elsewhere in the statute: Electronics, pesticides, automotive wastes, agricultural wastes, coal extraction wastes, aerosols, fluorescent lighting.
o Clean Air Act (CAA)
§ EPA disagrees: “The oil and gas production industry is subject to … National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants … Additional requirements include the installation of air emission control devices, and adherence to test methods and procedures, monitoring and inspection requirements, and recordkeeping and reporting requirements.” Like other industries, oil and natural gas extraction facilities may be regulated in areas that fail to meet CAA ambient air quality standards if they emit those materials.
o National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA)
§ EPA disagrees: “Federal actions specifically related to oil and gas exploration and production that may require [environmental impact statements] include Federal land management agency approval of plans of operations for exploration or production on Federally-managed lands. All affected media (e.g., air, water, soil, geologic, cultural, economic resources, etc.) must be addressed.”
o Superfund (CERCLA)
§ EPA disagrees: “[S]pecifically listed waste oils (e.g., F010, and K042 through K048) are subject to reporting requirements [under Superfund] if spilled in excess of their established Reportable Quantities.”
§ If Superfund doesn’t apply to oil and gas, how was EPA able to use Superfund authority (and money) to produce this report on the composition of well water in Wyoming? In reality, EPA has broad authority to respond to releases associated with oil and natural gas operations if the agency deems them to be a threat to human health or the environment.
o Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)
§ More on SDWA below, but what’s important to understand here is that hydraulic fracturing has never in its 60-year history been regulated under this Act. So how could something be considered “exempt” from a law that never even covered it in the first place? As described more fully below, produced water that is managed through underground injection is regulated by SDWA.
NYT: “Ms. Browner … helped ensure in 1995 that hydrofracking would not be covered by certain parts of the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
- Actually, Congress itself helped ensure that hydraulic fracturing wouldn’t be regulated under SDWA by writing and passing a bill in 1974 (called SDWA) that had nothing at all to do with hydraulic fracturing, which at that point had already been in existence for 25 years.
- But wait a second: According to Gasland director Josh Fox, “Fracking was made legal by Dick Cheney in 2005 when he pushed the Congress to suspend the …the Safe Drinking Water Acts.” So if that’s true, what role did EPA administrator Carol Browner play 10 years prior to that?
- Believe it or not, Carol Browner is actually the one who called for an agency study of hydraulic fracturing in the first place. And she’s also the one who said the following when asked to assess the relationship between the fracturing of coalbeds (which reside thousands of feet closer to the water table than shale formations) and the contamination of aquifers:
o “There is no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing at issue has resulted in any contamination or endangerment of underground sources of drinking water (USDW). … Moreover, given the horizontal and vertical distance between the drinking water well and the closest methane gas production wells, the possibility of contamination or endangerment of USDWs in the area is extremely remote.”
NYT: “An early draft of the [2004 EPA] study discussed potentially dangerous levels of contamination in hydrofracking fluids and mentioned ‘possible evidence’ of contamination of an aquifer. The report’s final version excluded these points, concluding instead that hydrofracking ‘poses little or no threat to drinking water.’”
- The “early draft” of what would become EPA’s 2004 report on use of hydraulic fracturing in the development of coalbed methane was released for comment in August 2002. Here’s how EPA characterized that early draft in a statement submitted in 2002 in the Federal Register:
o “Based on the information collected, EPA has preliminarily found that the potential threats to public health posed by hydraulic fracturing of CBM wells appear to be small and do not appear to justify additional study.” (EPA notice in the Federal Register, Aug. 28. 2002)
- In contrast to the reporter’s version of events, the core conclusions found in EPA’s 2002 draft were the exact same conclusions found in the agency’s 2004 final report. “I hope you will give full weight to the agency’s conclusions that [coalbed methane] hydraulic fracturing does not pose a risk to drinking water. Additional study, particularly if based on false accusations and misunderstand, has the potential to divert limited resources from real risks and threats to public health and the environment.” (Letter from EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman to Rep. Henry Waxman, Oct. 3, 2002)
NYT: “Shortly after the study was released, an EPA whistle-blower said the agency had been strongly influenced by industry and political pressure. Agency leaders at the time stood by the study’s findings. ‘It was shameful,’ Weston Wilson, the EPA whistle-blower, said in a recent interview about the study.”
- Mr. Wilson, now retired from EPA, was not part of the team of scientists and engineers that spent nearly five years studying hydraulic fracturing in the context of this report. Wilson, to his credit, has confirmed this to be true on several occasions: “I was not involved in either the preparation or review of EPA’s report on the hydraulic fracturing.” Mr. Wilson calls himself a “whistleblower” despite having no direct knowledge or input related to how this particular report came together.
- Had Urbina been interested in providing proper context to his readers, he might have mentioned that Wilson has a long record of using his post at EPA to stop development of oil, gas and minerals throughout the West. According to the Rocky Mountain News, Wilson has personally involved himself in efforts to stop dam construction in Colorado, oil and gas development in Montana, and the mining of gold in Wyoming.
- Wilson also played a starring role in the anti- gas polemic Gasland, telling interviewer Josh Fox – remarkably, while he was still on staff at EPA – that “one can characterize the entire [natural gas] industry as having a hundred year history of purchasing those they contaminate.”
NYT: “Coal mine operators that want to inject toxic wastewater into the ground must get permission from the federal authorities. But when natural gas companies want to inject chemical-laced water and sand into the ground during hydrofracking, they do not have to follow the same rules.”
- Coal mine operators who inject waste fluids underground for permanent disposition live under the same federal rules as natural gas operators who do the same. What the reporter is attempting to do here is put forth an apples-to-orangutans comparison – setting up an imbalanced equation in which the permanent, final-stage disposal of coal wastewater is falsely compared to the productive, first-stage use of water to harvest natural gas.
- For both coal and natural gas underground wastewater disposition, the operable statute is the Safe Drinking Water Act – for coal and mining operators, the relevant underground injection control (UIC) category is Class V; for oil and natural gas producers, it’s Class II.
NYT: “The air pollution from a sprawling steel plant with multiple buildings is added together when regulators decide whether certain strict rules will apply. At a natural gas site, the toxic fumes from various parts of it — a compressor station and a storage tank, for example — are counted separately rather than cumulatively, so many overall gas well operations are subject to looser caps on their emissions.”
- Another wildly misleading comparison. A steel plant, although it may have multiple buildings, is still located on one contiguous block of land. In contrast, a natural gas “facility” can be spread out over hundreds of square miles, spanning several individual counties.
- Of course, those who would like to use the Clean Air Act to restrict natural gas development have even suggested lumping multiple operators — from different companies, potentially spread across large distances — into the same “regulatory unit,” all with an eye on creating an artificial, stationary emissions source for the purpose of imposing new regulations.
NYT: “When Congress considered whether to regulate more closely the handling of wastes from oil and gas drilling in the 1980s, it turned to [EPA] to research the matter. … Some of the recommendations concerning oil and gas waste were eliminated in the final report handed to lawmakers in 1987. ‘It was like the science didn’t matter,’ Carla Greathouse, the author of the study, said in a recent interview. ‘The industry was going to get what it wanted, and we were not supposed to stand in the way.’”
- Here, the reporter implies that Ms. Greathouse actually worked on EPA’s staff. In fact, the author of this study was merely a consultant hired to give her opinion on the matter – not EPA’s (that’s according to Greathouse herself). Even still, Ms. Greathouse testified to being “appalled” that EPA would classify drill cuttings and other wellsite material as industrial wastes. “It’s a very difficult pill to swallow,” Ms. Greathouse told CBS News in 1997.
- For opponents of responsible energy development, re-writing the RCRA law to re-classify wellsite materials as “hazardous waste” instead of “industrial waste” remains a top priority – with groups such as NRDC (which recently petitioned EPA to reverse its 20-year-old ruling) well aware that such a reclassification would prevent drill cuttings from being accepted by landfills.
- Although he provides links to other documents throughout the story, Urbina doesn’t link to 368-page report from EPA that served as the basis for the agency’s recommendations with respect to the classification of wellsite wastes – perhaps fearful that his readers would access that report and find out for themselves whether the science “mattered” or not in putting it together. That report, incidentally, is here.
- Among EPA’s core conclusions: “[RCRA] requires the Administrator to determine whether to promulgate regulations under RCRA Subtitle C for wastes from the exploration, development, and production of crude oil, natural gas, and geothermal energy … The Agency has completed these activities and has decided that regulation under RCRA Subtitle C is not warranted.”
NYT: “[EPA] had planned to call last year for a moratorium on the gas-drilling technique known as hydrofracking in the New York City watershed, according to internal documents, but the advice was removed from the publicly released letter sent to New York. … The EPA has taken strong stands in some places, like Texas, where in December it overrode state regulators and intervened after a local driller was suspected of water contamination. Elsewhere, the agency has pulled its punches, as in New York.”
- Take a look at EPA’s letter to New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) for yourself. As you’ll see, the letter’s cover sheet – presumably prepared by the agency’s political folks – strikes a very different tone from the text found in the document’s technical body, which one assumes was written by EPA’s scientists and engineers. In contrast to the narrative put forth by Urbina, EPA Region 2’s technical staff appear to have been much more sanguine on the prospect of Marcellus development in New York than its political class.
- Notably, in lambasting EPA for not moving immediately to ban development in New York City’s million-acre watershed, Urbina fails to mention that DEC announced nearly a year ago that the watershed would be placed in a “special class” with respect to future Marcellus regulations. According to The New York Times, DEC’s April 2010 watershed rules make “it highly unlikely that any drilling would be done there.”
- The reporter also fails to include mention of Chesapeake’s decision in October 2009 to avoid the watershed entirely, essentially imposing a de facto ban owing to the fact that Chesapeake was the only leaseholder in that area.
NYT: “Some EPA scientists say this pattern may be playing out again in the national study of hydrofracking …Internal documents from early meetings … provided by E.P.A. officials who are frustrated with how research is being handled, show agency field scientists demanding that certain topics be included in the study. … For example, the study was to consider the dangers of toxic fumes released during drilling, the impact of drilling waste on the food chain and the risks of this radioactive waste to workers. … In interviews, several agency scientists and consultants, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, said the study was narrowed because of pressure from industry and its allies in Congress …”
- Much further down in his story, Urbina casually informs his readers that Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), a long-time critic of natural gas, is the one who’s actually responsible for adding language to the FY2010 Interior appropriations bill ordering Congress to “to carry out a study on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water.” In this section, however, Urbina tries to blame this directive on “pressure from industry”; later, the reporter quotes Rep. Hinchey as saying his words to EPA had been “taken out of context” – all 14 of them.
NYT: “The natural gas drilling boom is forcing the EPA to wrestle with questions of jurisdiction over individual states and how to police the industry despite its extensive exemptions from federal law. In Wyoming, for example, the agency is investigating water-well contamination in an area of heavy drilling, even though some EPA officials said in interviews that because of industry exemptions, the agency might not have jurisdiction for such an investigation. In Texas, after an aquifer was contaminated, EPA officials in December ordered a drilling company to provide clean drinking water to residents despite strong resistance from state regulators who said the federal action was premature and unfounded.”
- As demonstrated above, the strength of the reporter’s narrative depends entirely on representing sections in the law without natural applications to oil and gas development as “major exemptions” to the statute. Here, though, Urbina stretches the narrative a bit too far – and puts himself in an awkward situation when forced to explain how EPA was able to intervene in Wyoming and Texas.
- In Wyoming, EPA Region 8 officials engaged in a months-long study focused on accusations of water contamination associated with oil and natural gas development, concluding in an 87-page report issued last August that “EPA has not reached any conclusions about how constituents of concern are occurring in domestic wells.”
- Notably, EPA cited its authority under Superfund in declaring its ability to conduct the study. To the reporter, that fact is inconvenient – since it flies in the face of his assurances that oil and gas development are exempt from that law. Indeed, Urbina’s only way out of that jam is to blame shadow exemptions for forcing EPA to conjure up authority in this area out of whole cloth – citing an unnamed EPA official as suggesting “the agency might not have jurisdiction for such an investigation.”
- Urbina is forced to deal with the same inconvenient truth in Texas. There, EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz used his authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act (of all things!) to issue an “emergency order” targeting a local producer of natural gas. Since Armendariz issued that directive in December 2010, evidence has come to light suggesting that his decisions may have been directed less by the science and more by his desire to get press coverage.
- But that’s irrelevant to this particular conversation. The only thing relevant here is that two federal environmental laws from which Urbina argues the oil and gas industry is exempt have somehow, someway, been used over the past 12 months to do what the reporter argues is impossible: regulate the industry. How do those “exemptions” look to you now?
NYT: “The central question on this issue: Should drillers in Pennsylvania be allowed to dump ‘mystery liquids’ into public waterways? … ‘Treatment plants are not allowed under federal law to process mystery liquids, regardless of what the state tells them,’ explained one EPA lawyer in an internal draft memo obtained by The Times. ‘Mystery liquids is exactly what this drilling waste is, since its ingredient toxins aren’t known.’”
- First of all, neither “drillers in Pennsylvania” nor anywhere else are “allowed to dump ‘mystery liquids’ into public waterways.” In fact, under the Clean Water Act (by which producers are also bound) operators aren’t allowed to dump a single drop of wastewater into surface waters. And among the volumes of water that are treated and released, “here’s the reality,” according to former DEP secretary John Hanger: “Every drop of tap water that was publicly treated is required to meet the safe drinking water standard.” (Allentown Morning Call, Jan. 5, 2011)
- Of course, the other glaring error put forth by the unnamed EPA lawyer and uncritically parroted by Urbina is the notion that produced water is a “mystery liquid” – filled with ingredients that “aren’t known.” But according to DEP, the entire universe of materials that go down into the well are known by state regulators: “Drilling companies must disclose the names of all chemicals to be stored and used at a drilling site in the Pollution Prevention and Contingency Plan that must be submitted to DEP as part of the permit application process. … This information is on file with DEP and is available to landowners, local governments and emergency responders.” (DEP Marcellus fact sheet, accessed Mar. 6, 2011)
- Incidentally, we know what comes back out of the well too (how do you think NYT was able to write this series in the first place?!). To wit: “In an interview with Times-Shamrock newspapers last spring, DEP Oil and Gas Bureau director Scott Perry detailed the three-document process the state uses to track the wastewater from each well: the driller records how much waste is produced and where it is sent; the haulers keep a daily log of how much waste they take and where they bring it; and the treatment facility tracks who brings them waste as well as how much and what it contains.” (Citizens’ Voice, Mar. 4, 2011)
- EID fact check: On Wastewater and The New York Times
- Fmr. DEP Secretary: NYT wastewater article “deliberately false”
- DEP press release: Tests of PA rivers finds water to be safe
- Marcellus Shale Coalition: Drilling Down on NYT Wastewater Story
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Gas Drillers Recycling More Water, Using Fewer Chemicals
- Fact-Check: Debunking GasLand (Fact Sheet)
NY Times – America’s “paper of record” – re-writes history of hydraulic fracturing, uses schoolyard attacks to defend endorsement of DeGette’s FRAC Act
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