Anti-Fracking Group Scrubs Website of Prior Support for Horizontal Drilling

An environmental group that opposes fracking has deleted from its website a page that touted the land use benefits of horizontal drilling, a move that comes as activist groups increasingly focus on surface issues related to development, and as some cities debate whether to ban drilling based on those claims. The attempt to conceal prior support for drilling also reflects a trend among several activist organizations that used to promote natural gas.

The Washington, DC-based Earthworks – an aggressive anti-fracking group that has published or promoted several dubious reports suggesting harm from shale development – used to house a page entitled “Directional Drilling” on its website, which described how directional and horizontal drilling can actually reduce overall surface impacts from oil and gas development. The page read, in part:

“The benefits of directional drilling are numerous. Using these techniques, companies can drill a number of wells in different directions from one well pad (multilateral wells), which can decrease overall surface disturbance by reducing the number of well pads required to drain an oil or gas field.”

The original URL now redirects to the group’s “Hydraulic Fracturing 101” page, which includes a laundry list of alleged harms from fracking and shale development. A search of Earthworks’ website now yields no results for pages entitled “Directional Drilling,” although the now-deleted page can still be viewed here as a static screenshot. An archive search shows that the Directional Drilling page was active on the Earthworks site as recently as August 13, 2014.

A report that Earthworks published in 2005, and for the moment still remains on the group’s website, contains the exact passage cited above.

Earthworks has made news recently for its support of local drilling bans, most notably in Denton, Tex., where the group has been the primary funder of Frack Free Denton, which is the organization leading a campaign to shut down oil and gas development within the city limits. Frack Free Denton’s list of reasons for a ban focuses almost exclusively on land use concerns, and many of the activists in Denton claim multi-well pads and horizontal drilling are “incompatible” with their city.

Indeed, much of the debate in Denton has focused on the alleged surface impacts of development, making Earthworks’ recent decision to scrub its website of references to the benefits of multi-well pads all the more curious. A ballot measure on whether Denton should ban drilling will be decided by voters in November, and Earthworks has a fundraising page that reads in part: “Your donation will be used to help the Frack Free Denton campaign push their ban forward.”

Earthworks has also been actively campaigning in Colorado, where activists have used claims of surface impacts to try to shut down oil and gas development. Gwen Lachelt, the founder of Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP), is co-chair of a task force that Governor John Hickenlooper (D) helped establish earlier this year, which will ultimately make policy recommendations regarding setbacks and other land use issues. Earthworks board member Tony Ingraffea, an anti-fracking activist who has campaigned against development alongside Josh Fox and Yoko Ono, tried to get appointed to the task force, but was not selected.

Last year, an Earthworks organizer called for “an immediate moratorium on fracking in Colorado,” based upon allegations that the historic floods in the state had impacted drilling operations and created an environmental disaster for homeowners. The U.S. EPA and other officials debunked that claim a few months later.

Follow the Money?

The shifting position on oil and gas development is also part of a broader trend among some of the more fringe and activist-oriented environmental groups, many of which used to support natural gas. The Sierra Club, for example, once touted natural gas as a clean fuel, but a few years ago changed its mind and started the “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign.

In 2009, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., wrote in the Financial Times that increased natural gas use was the “first step towards saving our planet and jump-starting our economy.” Last year, he changed course and called natural gas a “catastrophe.”

The shift could be due to the financial resources that have proliferated in recent years to advance anti-fracking advocacy. A recent article in Philanthropy Roundtable highlighted how just one organization – the Park Foundation, whose president has stated that its work is to “oppose fracking” – has distributed millions of dollars to anti-fracking groups. Since 2010, Park has funneled more than $300,000 to Earthworks alone.

Many of the more mainstream and moderate environmentalists, however, have embraced shale gas for its ability to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and cut local air pollution.

  • Mohammed Abdalla
    Posted at 13:41h, 15 October Reply

    Mr. Everley,

    I think it would be worth mentioning that a shift in position may also be due to the growing concern over reports of increasing methane leaks from well sites. Methane is the most potent GHG and only recently have we discovered, from independent calculations performed by the National Oceanic and Atomspheric Administration (NOAA) and others, the severity of this problem.

    Industry and the EPA need to tighten regulations over methane leaks and monitoring them more closely. Only then can we truly embrace “shale gas for its ability to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and cut local air pollution”

    Have a great day.

    • Steve Everley, Energy In Depth
      Posted at 14:20h, 15 October Reply

      Hi Mohammed, thanks for reading the blog.

      We’ve heard the methane leak accusation quite a bit, especially in recent years, but the most credible science continues to indicate that leakage is small and manageable.

      For example, the U.S. EPA’s most recent data — coming from the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program — indicate that methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing have actually declined by a staggering 73 percent since 2011:

      The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that natural gas has reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, even incorporating some of the research suggesting higher than expected methane leakage rates:

      Finally, a study published just two months ago by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) harmonized data from several of the most prominent and credible studies on methane leakage. Many studies measure different things, so this was really the first attempt to try to create an apples-to-apples comparison and analysis of what methane leakage actually is. The authors of that study, which include people from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, concluded that the median estimates of greenhouse gas emissions (including CO2, methane, and others) show shale gas still produced about 50 percent fewer emissions than coal, which is precisely what scientists have been saying for years:

      In a nutshell, groups like Earthworks and other “ban fracking” activists have leveraged the methane claim — and, in many cases, a friendly media — to instill doubt about what the scientific community has actually concluded with respect to greenhouse gas emissions. That’s unfortunate, but when you’re a group that is funded to bash the oil and gas industry, scientific research that contradicts the message that oil and gas are dangerous has to be either ignored or spun.

      Hopefully that helps, and thanks again for your comment.


    • Tom
      Posted at 10:35h, 16 October Reply

      True- they may be concerned about methane leaks. However, fewer wells made possible by horizontal drilling (a typical horizontal well may replace 5 to 8 vertical wells) means less methane leakage from any sort of surface facility.

      It is not true to say methane is the most potent green house gas. It simply is not. Using the same source you cited, NOAA, methane has 0.496 W/m2 of global radiative forcing while CO2 is at 1.884. Since the majority of methane sources are natural and not anthropogenic (unless you count agricultural sources as anthropogenic) this is very much an issue of nature. Add to that the fact that methane has a half-life of 8-10 years in the atmosphere, and its forcing capabilities are short-term. Even the IPAA reports cite published research that cautions against using long-term numbers for short-lived gases
      like methane.

      There are also significant examples that document how the oil and gas industry has actually lessened the impact from natural methane seeps. In the coastal waters of California oil and gas drilling has reduced methane emissions drastically from high levels caused by natural seeps. In one example an oil company built metal tents to submerge over natural seeps and those have captured methane now for over 30 years that previously added millions of cubic feet of hydrocarbon gases to the air pollution problems of the Santa Barbara and Los Angeles area. In other examples production from subsurface reservoirs over time lessened the reservoir pressure to the point that the natural seeps no longer leak, eliminating air pollution as well as reducing the amount of tar and oil that washed up on beaches.

  • chris pedersen
    Posted at 16:50h, 15 October Reply

    Thanks for the article. I think once Sierra Club went, they all would follow.

  • Eric McLeod
    Posted at 12:28h, 23 October Reply

    Down the Memory Hole! In Nova Scotia, NOFRAC scrubbed their page showing activists dressed in hazmat suits pretending to do “tests” at the leftover hydrofrac water pond in Debert after it was revealed to be safer than ordinary treated sewer water that the county puts back into the watersheds every day.

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