Clumsy Data Errors Undermine NRDC’s Latest Attack on Fracking
The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the FracTracker Alliance (FTA) are out with a new report with the eye-catching headline of Fracking’s Most Wanted: Lifting the Veil on Oil and Gas Company Spills and Violations. But a review of their research shows NRDC and FTA taking a page out of the anti-fracking playbook, namely by suggesting, erroneously, that if information can’t be found through a simple google search it’s somehow not publicly available, and by elevating clerical or paperwork errors to major environmental incidents.
The group zeroed in on the three states they found that had online databases. From there, their review of data on violations taking place between 2009 and 2013 in Colorado, Pennsylvania and West Virginia is riddled with basic errors and is short on much-needed context. To be clear, the NRDC and FTA have faulted a select group of operators for violations of less than one-half of a percent of all wells drilled during a four year period. The story could end there, but let’s lift the veil further.
The fact is that hydraulic fracturing is primarily regulated by the states. As such, individual states are able to regulate in ways that they see fit based on their individual knowledge of their geology and importantly, in response to their citizens’ needs. Each state also has different methods of making information about violations available. Some states require formal requests to obtain the information, while others publish it on their websites. Regardless, just because a record is not posted on the agency’s website, does not mean that it is not available or that the agency is not being transparent.
In Colorado, searching records for what they term the “Top Five Violators,” NRDC and FTA claim to have found a total of 130 violations between 2009 and 2013. To generate their data, the groups looked at Notices of Alleged Violations (NOAV) in the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) database.
According to Mother Jones, NRDC’s response a question regarding how many of these violations were administrative was “the volume of violations processed for the report was too great to identify what proportion were for administrative problems like this.”
Really? It took us about five minutes to see which violations were administrative. And when you actually look at the data, it paints a very different picture than what the report calls “significant violations both in number and severity.” In fact, 10 percent are paperwork or filing errors resulting in an NOAV. Other records include an unsecured fence that allowed deer to enter a well site resulting in their removal by a Division of Wildlife Officer. They also include five NOAVs issued for undesirable plant species found on location. While violations are always taken seriously, and some of the records required a significant response, these infractions are a far cry from the report’s characterization of these as “wide range of dangerous infractions.”
Further analysis of the report’s data show that collectively, the “Top Five Violators” drilled a total 27,066 wells in the state between 2009 and 2013. That means that out of nearly 30,000 wells, these “Top Five Violators” incurred violations in just 0.4 percent of the total wells drilled. While any violation should be properly addressed, this small percentage per well demonstrates a strong track-record of safety.
EID found major discrepancies with how the Pennsylvania information was presented. First, let’s look at the amount of wells developed in the state from 2009-2013, when the NRDC pulled its information. According to state records, 7,010 conventional wells, 6,943 unconventional wells and 13,953 total wells were developed in Pennsylvania during those dates.
Here’s what the NRDC report said about the number of wells developed by Pennsylvania operators in those years:
According to the NRDC, the total number of wells from these five operators exceed the total number of wells, both conventional and unconventional developed in the entire state by 2,838 wells during those four years. According to state records, the actual number of wells developed for these five operators look more like this:
It’s a mystery as to where NRDC and FTA got their information but it doesn’t seem to be well vetted.
Again, much like the case for Colorado, when EID dug through the violations, over half of them for each company were administrative in nature. These ranged from having an expired permit to not having the correct signage displayed on an access road. Operators across the country take these violations very seriously and always work to resolve the situation correctly and quickly. For example, take the violations on this page. Each one was corrected in a timely fashion or immediately corrected, according to state records. But they are hardly examples of “dangerous infractions.”
The NRDC also tried to fault the Pennsylvania DEP for its inability to police the industry stating:
“It has been well documented that state and federal regulators do not have the resources to conduct all necessary inspections.”
In response to the growing development of domestic resources in Pennsylvania, the DEP has more than quadrupled the size of its enforcement staff. As this industry continues to expand, regulatory bodies across the country are working to properly staff and regulate the oil and gas industry.
The NRDC and FTA report that there were 364 violations in West Virginia between 2009 and 2013, with the clear insinuation being that each of them was a serious infraction that caused environmental harm.
But again, a review of records kept in the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection online database indicates that at least 35 percent were of a clerical nature, being either paperwork or filing errors.
Furthermore, according to the database, out of a combined 1,777 wells operated by the “Top Five Violators” identified in the NRDC and FTA report, at least 39 percent of 318 violations were of the clerical nature. And just 12 percent of the violations were deemed significant enough for state inspectors to identify environmental impact in the comments section of their reports.
To the NRDC and FTA’s consternation, just four spills are listed in the database in the five-year time period, one of which was five gallons.
The data in this report reflects an industry that operates under a robust regulatory system that is far cry from what is being portrayed by the authors. Further, while states have (and have always had) primary regulatory authority over hydraulic fracturing, oil and gas producers also have to abide by a whole host of federal laws – in fact, every step of the way they are regulated at the federal, state, and local levels, often at multiple levels simultaneously.
It should come as no surprise that the NRDC has pieced together a lopsided report maligning both state and federal regulators and oil and gas operators. The group is known as one of the largest (its total assets exceed $240 million) and most influential anti-fracking groups in the country, and it has supported a moratorium on drilling all across the country, from New York to California.
But when you actually dig into the data, they show the oil and gas industry’s strong record of safety and transparency, much to NRDC and FTA’s chagrin.