Fact Rushes to Defend Federal Fracking Regulations, Steps on a Rake

This afternoon, Fact produced a fact-check that ostensibly criticizes U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) for his contention that there has never been an instance of ground water contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing.  Of course, this piece isn’t really about Inhofe at all; but before we get into that, we can’t help but wonder why they are fact-checking Inhofe and not former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson … or Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz … or Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell — all of whom have said exactly the same thing.

Rather than a “fact-check,” it reads more like an advocacy piece making the case for the Obama Administration’s decision to impose onerous new federal rules on hydraulic fracturing on federal lands, which will inevitably stifle oil and gas production.  Unfortunately, to make its case, uses questionable or even dubious “facts,” and fails to disclose important facts about an activist who is cited extensively.

Relies heavily on anti-fracking activist Anthony Ingraffea leans on the work of Anthony Ingraffea, a well-known and outspoken anti-fracking activist who has been called an “implacable fracking opponent.” He also played a starring role in the Gasland films and is the president of Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, an organization that is not only funded by the anti-fracking Park Foundation, but which has taken institutional stances against fracking.  As writes,

“Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell civil and environmental engineering professor, told us in a phone interview that discussing contamination related to the frack per se isn’t useful. ‘The simpler question to ask is, ‘Is there any instance in which oil and gas development, writ large, has contaminated peoples’ drinking water?’ And the answer is, thousands. Thousands of cases.’”

Ingraffea has been claiming for years that wells fail at astronomical rates, namely by suggesting that pressure buildup in a well is the same thing as a leak. Fact check: it’s not.

In order for a well to fail, every one of the multiple layers of thick cement and steel would have to crack and leak. Easily obtained data in a simple Google search confirm that such instances are exceedingly rare.

For example, the Associated Press recently completed an investigation of water contamination and well integrity, and using data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, found a well failure rate of only about one-third of one percent (0.33 percent) in Pennsylvania.  Further, a 2011 study by the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) found a well failure rate of only 0.03 percent in Ohio and only about 0.01 percent in Texas.  Importantly, those numbers pertain to operating situations that predate many of the new casing regulations that have gone into effect in those states in recent years.

Additionally, Ingraffea’s work has been publicly criticized by University of Chicago climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert, physics professor at Berkeley Richard Muller, and earth and atmospheric sciences professor at Cornell Louis Derry .  Michael Levi, an energy and environmental expert from the Center for Foreign Relations, even asked rhetorically about Ingraffea’s claims about fracking: “Is there value in debating people who don’t want to think?”

Relies heavily on discredited Duke studies also leans heavily on the discredited research of Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor who previously worked at Duke University.  As the puts it,

“Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor of earth system science who coauthored the 2014 study, told us that drilling that uses hydraulic fracturing has ‘contaminated ground waters through chemical and wastewater spills, poor well integrity, and other pathways.’”

Jackson is one of the Duke University researchers who published studies in 2010 and 2013, both of which contained a number of flaws (several conceded by the authors). These flaws include a lack of baseline data, the decision not to randomly sample wells, and the presence of high levels of methane in water wells that were nowhere near natural gas drilling.

Just this week, a new peer-reviewed study by researchers at Syracuse University was published that discredits the Duke researchers’ findings – and it does so by using a much larger sampling size and pre-drill baseline samples.  The new paper specifically addresses the limitations of the Duke studies: it uses a dataset hundreds of times larger, it establishes baseline water condition, and it looks at all commercial hydrocarbon wells, not just unconventional wells. The study comes to the conclusion: “there is no significant correlation between dissolved methane concentrations in groundwater and proximity to nearby oil/gas wells.”

The U.S. Geological Survey also recently released a report finding plenty of thermogenic methane in water wells in Sullivan County, Pa. (an area where the Duke team also took samples) that predate drilling activity.

Additionally, a recent study by led by Fred Baldassare from Echelon Applied Geochemistry Consulting analyzed groundwater in northeastern Pennsylvania and found large amounts of thremogenic gas, prior to any natural gas development.  In fact, 88 percent of the 67 water wells tested had some presence of thermogenic gas, and none of those sampled showed the presence of Marcellus gas.  As the study explains,

“When future isotope data show a stray gas in this area to be thermogenic, that finding cannot be the sole basis for alleging that the stray gas was caused by oil or gas-well drilling.”

Ignores government determinations that hydraulic fracturing is safe

While relies on discredited research and a less-than-objective activist for its “data,” it completely ignores what national and state officials have had to say:

  • Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the U.S. EPA: “There’s nothing inherently dangerous in fracking that sound engineering practices can’t accomplish.”
  • Ernest Moniz, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy: “I think the issues in terms of the environmental footprint of hydraulic fracturing are manageable.”
  • Sally Jewell, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior: “Fracking has been done safely for many, many years.”
  • Governor John Hickenlooper (D-CO): “We can’t find examples in Colorado, or more than one or two examples, where fracking, in any sense, has caused harm or been sufficiently dangerous to the public that would justify us to ban it.”
  • Steven Chu, former Secretary of Energy: “This [hydraulic fracturing] is something you can do in a safe way.”
  • Ken Salazar, former Secretary of the Interior: “My point of view, based on my own study of hydraulic fracking, is that it can be done safely and has been done safely hundreds of thousands of times.”

Advocating for Obama administration regulations

It’s not until the end of the piece however, that finally comes clean about the real point of the piece:

“Clearly, the DOI’s new regulation is designed to ensure water quality and safety as it relates to the entire process of extracting oil and natural gas, not just to the singular action of fracking. Inhofe is entitled to the opinion that such regulations should be left in the hands of the states, but he is wrong to say or imply that existing regulatory efforts have a perfect track record when it comes to preventing contamination of water supplies.”

States have been regulating hydraulic fracturing safely and responsibly for more than 65 years, with no incident that would suggest a need for redundant federal regulation.

It appears needs to do a better job of keeping the “fact” in fact-checking — and stay out of the advocacy business.

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