“Casual” Misinformation Obscures the Debate on Hydraulic Fracturing

As we have noted before, anti-fracking activists in California have routinely spread misinformation about responsible shale development to deceive the public into believing hydraulic fracturing is, contrary to sixty years of experience, inherently unsafe.

Sometimes, though, there is another kind of misinformation that we need to address, and it poses just as great a threat to California’s energy future. This is the “casual misinformation” that makes its way into otherwise factual reporting in respected media outlets. Two recent examples illustrate this point.

The first comes from MSN’s Money website, where an incredibly deceptive and misleading infographic appears to show hydraulic fracturing fluids migrating from depth to contaminate groundwater. Here’s that graphic:


You can see the green, vapor-like plume emanating from the fractures in the shale formation. As the graphic’s author helpfully explains:

                  “Chemicals from pumping mixture can enter water table.”

This is a strange assertion to find in a supposedly educational infographic on a mainstream news site, given the fact that fluid migration from depth – which this image would suggest occurs all the time – has in fact never happened. To repeat: chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing have never been shown to have migrated up – through billions of tons and multiple layers of impermeable rock – to contaminate shallow groundwater aquifers. Never.

How do we know this? Fortunately, unlike the activists’ repeated falsehoods about water contamination, the lack of contamination has been confirmed by federal and state regulators, scientists and responsible environmentalists, and even Democratic and Republican officials. Here are just a few examples:

  • Lisa Jackson, former EPA Administrator: “In no case have we made a definitive determination that [fracturing] has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” (April 2012)
  • Jackson: “I’m not aware of any proven case where [hydraulic fracturing] itself has affected water.” (May 2011)
  • U.S. Dept. of Energy and Ground Water Protection Council: “[B]ased on over sixty years of practical application and a lack of evidence to the contrary, there is nothing to indicate that when coupled with appropriate well construction; the practice of hydraulic fracturing in deep formations endangers ground water. There is also a lack of demonstrated evidence that hydraulic fracturing conducted in many shallower formations presents a substantial risk of endangerment to ground water.” (May 2009)
  • U.S. EPA: “EPA did not find confirmed evidence that drinking water wells have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing fluid injection…” (2004)
  • Carol Browner, former EPA Administrator: “There is no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing at issue has resulted in any contamination or endangerment of underground sources of drinking water.” (May 1995)
  • CardnoEntrix (Inglewood Oil Field Study): “Before-and-after monitoring of groundwater quality in monitor wells did not show impacts from high-volume hydraulic fracturing and high-rate gravel packing.” (October 2012)
  • John Hanger, Former Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection: “We’ve never had one case of fracking fluid going down the gas well and coming back up and contaminating someone’s water well.” (2012)
  • Dr. Stephen Holditch, Department of Petroleum Engineering, Texas A&M University: “I have been working in hydraulic fracturing for 40+ years and there is absolutely no evidence hydraulic fractures can grow from miles below the surface to the fresh water aquifers.” (October 2011)
  • Dr. Mark Zoback, Professor of Geophysics, Stanford University: “Fracturing fluids have not contaminated any water supply and with that much distance to an aquifer, it is very unlikely they could.” (August 2011)

There are a variety of reasons why the hydraulic fracturing process does not connect with groundwater, chief among them being the industry’s commitment to safe operations and a dynamic process of improving operations. But there’s also basic geology to thank: hydrocarbons have been trapped miles underground for literally millions of years, and the same geologic structures that have kept oil and gas trapped at depth also keep hydraulically fractured zones isolated from what’s above – including groundwater.

So, there you have it. The graphic published by MSN was not just misleading; it was factually and demonstrably incorrect. It is unlikely that MSN deliberately set out to muddy the discussion about the responsible development of oil and gas using hydraulic fracturing.  After all, the accompanying article is by no means an anti-industry screed. But this also shows how easy it is for one mistake to have an enormous impact. Infographics are powerful because they provide information in an easy-to-digest manner, and it is likely that many people viewed the infographic to get a better idea of the process itself (why else would MSN put it there?). Those readers would have no idea that they had just read a baseless assertion that is simply unsupported by the scientific and regulatory community.

A second example of letting activist talking points skew straight news reporting came in May, when we highlighted a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll on hydraulic fracturing – including how the Times reported on its own poll.  Here is the infographic published with the story:


Here is the headline that the Los Angeles Times used to describe these data:

Californians uneasy about fracking’s safety, lack of oversight

More than 70% of voters favor banning or heavily regulating chemical injections into the ground to tap oil and natural gas, a USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll finds.

Wait, what? A plurality of Californians support keeping hydraulic fracturing legal (albeit with additional regulations, which even the industry supports), and yet the paper gives readers the assumption that a significant majority opposes it! As we previously noted, based on the poll results, fully 60 percent of Californians want hydraulic fracturing to continue to be used to develop our homegrown energy.

And yet, the Times, like activist groups that sought to spin the data in an anti-fracturing direction, chose to add the “continue fracking with new regulations” number to the “ban fracking” number to tell a much different, misleading story. Considering the fact that the folks who want to ban fracking view themselves as diametrically opposed to those who are simply calling for more regulation (the “ban” camp argue that the process cannot ever be done safely), combining those results was not only arbitrary; it was flat-out absurd.

EID readers will also remember that the poll itself asserted the existence of “federal rules on hydraulic fracturing,” which is not true. States have, for more than six decades, tightly regulated hydraulic fracturing, a regulatory system that even the U.S. EPA has praised on numerous occasions.

Just as with MSN, it’s not likely that the Los Angeles Times set out to mislead readers. But the activist narrative of an unregulated oil and gas industry only serves to misinform the public, and only moves us further away from an informed discussion. Even small omissions of detail – to say nothing of gross distortions – from credible news outlets can have an enormous impact; if we can’t trust the news, then who can we trust to understand what’s going on in the world?


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