Digging Deeper on the Times Water Contamination Story
The Scranton Times Tribune published an investigative article with the inflammatory headline “Drilling Killing Water.” Of course, a review of the article itself and the data underlying it show a much different set of circumstances than the Times-Tribune headline would lead you to believe.
Over the weekend the Scranton Times-Tribune ran an investigative story with a headline that declared in big bold letters “Drilling Killing Water.” Yikes. Of course, reading the actual story provides a much more sober reality than the hyperbolic headline suggests. In fact, the story notes that over the course of five years (2008 through 2012) nearly 80 percent of water contamination claims levied at natural gas development were, upon investigation, determined to be unfounded. Of the remaining sliver of cases, many occurred before Pennsylvania updated its well casing regulations, others were “temporary” (the impacted water supply returning to baseline conditions in a short time period), and still more were unrelated to, you know, the actual drilling of natural gas wells.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the story, shall we?
Failure to Account for Updated Regulations/Other Variables
The Times-Tribune review notes that, over the course of five years, oil and natural gas development impacted 161 private water supplies. But digging deeper into the data we find that a significant percentage of these incidents occurred before the state updated its casing regulations (finalized in February 2011), which had not been updated since 1989. The updated regulations required oil and natural gas companies to ensure, among other items, that centralizers, special cement, strict pressure testing and multiple layers of protection were used to protect groundwater during the oil and natural gas development process.
A cursory review of a large sample of the cases highlighted by the Times shows that 82 of the incidents occurred before the standards were updated. This points to a trend referenced by a DEP representative, who when interviewed for the story informed the paper “that the most recent trends suggest that the improvements are working.”
Indeed, since Pennsylvania updated its casing standards, incidents of groundwater impacted by oil and natural gas development have absolutely plummeted. In fact, based on information included in the article, the number of “contamination” cases fell by more than 70 percent between 2011 and 2012. Granted, an incident rate of anything above zero still leaves room for improvement, but the dramatic decline in cases is noteworthy in that it shows the efficacy of strong state regulations, as well as the legitimate commitment on the part of the industry to reduce its environmental footprint.
Presumption of Liability Doesn’t Mean Causation
Also of note, in Pennsylvania the law governing oil and natural gas development states that a natural gas operator can be presumed liable for damaging a water supply — even if there is no evidence tying the company’s activities to the contamination in question. In that sense, “drilling” may not have actually fouled water supplies, contrary to what readers would assume from the Times-Tribune’s inflammatory headline.
In our review of the data, 10 incidents were attributed to Pennsylvania’s presumed liability doctrine. So, among the sample we reviewed DEP connected to drilling, 82 of the cases occurred before updated regulations were in place, and 10 were the result of presumed liability.
The Word Killing Doesn’t Imply a Temporary Inconvenience
Despite the paper’s chosen headline, the reporter was quick to note that some of the confirmed impacts were, in fact, far more temporary than the word “killing” might imply. Clearly, the paper maintained such a grossly inaccurate statement to describe the piece not with any regard for the truth, but rather as an eye-grabber for readers. Apparently, it’s the fault of oil and gas companies that the newspaper industry is failing. Right? Right.
Regardless, as the article mentioned, 20 of the contamination incidents were labeled temporary, with the homeowner or landowner re-gaining access to their water supply within a very short time period. In some cases, this period was so short that, by the time DEP arrived to investigate, the event had already abated. In one case in Forest County the DEP inspector’s comments read “by the time of my sampling… your spring had already returned to pre-drill quality.”
Comparing Apples to Oranges
By comparing water contamination claims reported to DEP from 1987 onward the Times-Tribune is able to claim “that the state’s case-based tally suggests the rate of drilling-related contamination incidents increased with the start of the Marcellus boom.”
According to data collected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Pennsylvania had 30,000 natural gas wells in 1989. In 1998, that number dropped to 21,576 wells, after reaching a high of 31,792 wells in 1996. But in 2008, Pennsylvania had 55,631 wells, a number that grew to 57,356 wells in 2009, and which stayed above 50,000 for the next two years. It stands to reason that as any activity increases by nearly 100 percent, the number of incidents alleged – whether real or, as was the case with nearly 80 percent of cases in the Times-Tribune’s review, unfounded – would be expected to increase as well.
Taken together, then, and coupled with some fairly important context, a far different picture emerges regarding the prevalence of the impacts of oil and natural gas development on groundwater resources in Pennsylvania. We can only hope that a careful review of actual facts will someday replace the need to run with the most inflammatory (and misleading) headline possible.