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CNN Earthquake Error Highlights Media’s Problem with Covering Wastewater Disposal Accurately

“[W]e’re not talking at all about fracking. In fact, it’s been driving us crazy, frankly, that people keep using it in the press.” – Dr. Michael Hornbach, Southern Methodist University (May 4, 2015)

Last month, researchers at Southern Methodist University released a report that linked seismic activity near Azle, Tex., to oil and gas related activities, chiefly a process known as underground wastewater disposal. They did not blame fracking, which is a separate process, but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

After all, headlines across the country assured us that “fracking” was to blame. An editorial from the Dallas Morning News declared: “We can’t ignore studies linking fracking to Azle earthquakes.” The headline for an AP story in the Charleston Daily Mail said the study “links fracking to earthquakes.” A CBS affiliate in Tyler, Tex., claimed the study “connects fracking to earthquakes,” and never even mentioned wastewater disposal. The left-wing bloggers at ThinkProgress used the SMU study in writing that “the link between fracking activity and earthquakes is getting stronger,” mirroring a headline from RT, Russia’s media mouthpiece in the United States (gee, I wonder if the Kremlin has an interest in undermining fracking?).

The situation culminated in a demonstrably false assertion from CNN this past weekend: “What’s causing Texas earthquakes? Fracking ‘most likely,’ report says.”

There’s only one problem: The report did not link fracking to earthquakes, and the authors are speaking up about the media’s refusal to understand that fact.

During a House Energy Resources Committee in Austin earlier this month, lawmakers discussed the study with three of its authors: Dr. Michael Hornbach with SMU, Dr. Brian Stump with SMU, and Dr. Jon Olson with the University of Texas.

At one point, Rep. Phil King asked Dr. Hornbach if their study linked earthquakes to fracking, referencing some news headlines he’d seen. Hornbach’s response was blunt: “In the Azle/Reno case, we’re not talking at all about fracking.” He went on to say that it’s been “driving us crazy” that the press keeps saying otherwise. The SMU study instead looked at underground wastewater disposal, a separate process from hydraulic fracturing, and which is regulated by a different set of laws.

To be fair, the study was released in late April, and the statement from Dr. Hornbach didn’t come until a few weeks later. But that’s hardly an excuse. The AP story that covered the SMU study the day it was released noted that the authors were not talking about fracking. Referencing a conversation with study co-author Bill Ellsworth, who is with the U.S. Geological Survey, the AP reported:

“But the deep injection of the wastes still is the principle culprit, Ellsworth said. The controversial method of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, even though that may be used in the drilling, is not physically causing the shakes, he said.” (emphasis added)

Energy In Depth reached out to CNN to ask how they could justify their headline, which incorrectly tells readers that the study linked earthquakes to fracking. The response didn’t exactly inspire confidence:

The level of dishonesty in that justification – using two words from a scientific study to claim it concluded something it didn’t – is astounding.

Energy In Depth has covered this issue before, but it’s still worth asking: Why do so many in the press refuse to cover this issue accurately?

There are two primary arguments for using “fracking” instead of “wastewater disposal” in the news, neither of which is particularly justifiable.

The first is that the general public views “fracking” as the entire development process – preparing the well site, drilling the well, hydraulic fracturing, and disposing of or recycling the wastewater. Notably, there is no polling to support this claim. It is merely an assumption to justify a lack of accuracy. If anything, it presumes the general public is too dumb to understand that oil and gas development involves multiple processes, many of which are regulated by different laws.

But even if that were the case, how is that justification for deliberately reporting inaccurately? A recent survey from the Harvard Public Opinion Project found that a growing number of individuals are skeptical of global warming. Should we expect the press to cover that subject differently as a result, catering to the views of an increasing slice of the general public? Or should science always be reported accurately?

The second argument is that hydraulic fracturing produces wastewater, which must then be either recycled or injected into disposal wells. Thus, the reasoning goes, whatever happens with disposal is “linked” to fracking, and thus can be called fracking. (We’ll leave aside for the moment that all oil and gas wells – regardless of whether fracking is used – generate wastewater. In parts of California, many wells generate about 10 barrels of water for every barrel of oil, comparable to many wells where fracking is utilized.)

This is the same nonsensical explanation that allows the media to say things like “fracking pipelines,” a term that is devoid of meaning and completely manufactured by newsrooms. It is similar to implicating Toyota or Chevrolet if a pile of used tires catches fire in a junkyard. After all, had the cars never been manufactured, there never would have been a need for the tires – right?

More fundamentally, calling something “fracking” that is not, in fact, fracking contradicts what the scientific community has said repeatedly. In addition to the SMU authors adamantly declaring “we’re not talking at all about fracking,” other scientists have flatly stated that wastewater disposal and fracking are separate processes that should not be conflated, including experts at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

In the case of the USGS, Bill Ellsworth – one of the coauthors of the SMU study – criticized the media a few years ago for falsely claiming his research linked fracking to earthquakes. After the release of a USGS study that identified wastewater disposal as a possible culprit for induced seismicity, Ellsworth expressed frustration with the media’s inattention to detail. As EnergyWire reported:

“I was greatly surprised to see how words were being used in the press in ways that were inappropriate,” Ellsworth said as the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America wrapped up. “We don’t see any connection between fracking and earthquakes of any concern to society.” (emphasis added)

Some might say this is all semantics, and that focusing on correct terminology misses the forest for the trees. If oil and gas development is linked to seismicity – even if only rarely, as the data suggest – then the industry needs to focus on solutions. Once again, the general public could be forgiven for not knowing that the industry has partnered with research institutions across the country to help us understand how to mitigate or even prevent induced earthquakes – partnerships that include SMU, Stanford University, and the University of Oklahoma. As Dr. Hornbach with SMU told the Dallas Morning News: “We’re lucky that companies have been willing to work with us…They have gone far above the call of duty.”

We also hear precious little about how the industry has provided critical data to state geological surveys and regulators, data that have informed regulatory updates in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Ohio. The industry has invested in new seismic monitoring stations in Oklahoma to help researchers better pinpoint where earthquakes are occurring, which in turn provides a better understanding of whether the seismic events are natural or potentially manmade.

Each of these facts are worth emphasizing, because the general public wants to know what is being done to address earthquakes. That this information is typically buried deep in a story that wrongly blames fracking for seismic activity – if it’s reported at all – means the public must search extra hard for information it may not even know exists.

Gallup recently found that “Americans’ confidence in the media’s ability to report ‘the news fully, accurately, and fairly’ has returned to its previous all-time low,” reflecting a general downward trend that has been occurring since the late 1990s. Unfortunately, when it comes to “fracking,” we’re seeing one reason why.

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