Appalachian Basin

Flaming Water More Common Than Fair Natural Gas Coverage

Accurate unbiased news reporting, in the case of natural gas development, is too often harder to find than flaming water.  A recent story from Pittsburgh, which had nothing to do with natural gas development, somehow turned into an indictment of the industry, illustrating the power of imagery over facts in the hands of reporters with preconceived ideas that are just plain wrong. 

I’ve always held Pittsburgh to a higher standard. Like my hometown of Buffalo, it was a rust belt city that had suffered when manufacturing took a dive. Unlike Buffalo, it found its way out of that downward economic spiral more facilely and on a faster timetable. On my visits there, I checked out the downtown and saw that its urban core had some thriving neighborhoods, a great theatre district, well-preserved architectural treasures, and a historic train station that was a destination restaurant and shopping area. That whole french-fries-on-sandwiches thing was almost as good as a roast beef on kimmelweck. Heck, it even had a football team that won a Super Bowl or two.

Oh, how idols do fall. I was truly dismayed to see that local televisions news in Pittsburgh has fallen prey to over-reacting and under-reporting as other members of the fourth estate. Such was the case last week when WTAE (the ABC affiliate in Pittsburgh) reported on the Headley family in Fayette County and the bubbling methane in a puddle near an artesian spring on the family property.

The culprit, of course, just had to be nearby natural gas development and was portrayed as nothing short of absolutely awful. When the story ended, even the news readers on set were shaking their well-coiffured heads in scripted disbelief.

The Headleys’ story (about which EID has written before) was pretty typical. They bought a home several years ago in what they thought was a rural paradise…and then the drilling began.

The most telling part of the story was right up there in the second line: “They had the chance to buy the gas rights, but chose not to.” Sounds like there’s some buyer’s remorse at having missed out on a financial windfall, but let’s continue.

What captivated the reporter was the sight of the bubbles in the pond and the flaming water. This was news to him!  No doubt the reporter has seen “Gasland” and the infamous flaming faucet. It probably didn’t even occur to him, however, that a simple Google search regarding methane and flaming water would yield some pretty illuminating facts, or at the very least some basic context.

To wit:


That picture is the Eternal Flame in Orchard Park, NY, just outside Buffalo. The Eternal Flame is a beloved and touted natural wonder here. Even the Erie County website boasts about it.

And guess what? It’s caused by the same bubbling methane that apparently strikes fear in the hearts of certain urban broadcasters.

What’s enlightening to me as I researched this story is that, whenever I entered “water on fire” or “does methane ignite,” into my search engine, one of the first images and links to emerge was the oft-quoted “Gasland” footage. I’ll give Josh Fox and his loyal followers this: they sure know how to use SEO (search engine optimization) and meta tags. It’s a no-cost way to really deceive the public. Most folks don’t “click through” a preponderance of links; they tend to hover over the first few that pop up.

But back to the point: Somehow, the reporter didn’t see fit to include this key qualifier earlier in the report, choosing instead to bury it closer to the end:

“The state Department of Environmental Protection said flammable spring water at the Headley farm is the result of methane migration from an old coal seam and not gas well drilling.” (emphasis added)

So, the reporter chose to provide a forum to the “gas ruined my property” narrative, knowing all along that an official investigation contradicted that claim? That’s not news, folks — that’s simply another example of ratings-grabbing shock reporting.

And, alas, it’s not just in Pittsburgh. It’s pervasive. Flaming water is somehow appealing, and blaming it on natural gas drilling takes precedence to scientific facts and sober realities. It’s easier (and more eye-grabbing) to advance a fear narrative about what looks scary, even if the facts tell a different story. In an article in Forbes this week, contributor David Blackmon wrote about the nationwide campaign to demonize shale oil, natural gas and hydraulic fracturing — an unfortunate reminder of this all-too-common phenomenon.

It’s a shame the reporter didn’t take bolder strides to a better, balanced story. That’s a risk he can still easily take: the reward is better understanding, comfort, and acceptance of safe progress, and a more meaningful story to tell. Most importantly, it would help the general public acquire a more accurate view of what natural gas development is and is not doing, rather than continuing to inundate them with horror stories and a skewed version of reality.



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