Grading the Duke Study News Coverage

Besides doing our part to get the facts out about natural gas and correct the record on those occasions when folks opposed to responsible development re-write the narrative or distort the reality, EID tries to hold those who cover the issue to account as well.

Of course, we know that covering the news fairly isn’t always easy. I was a journalist for 15 years before going to work for the oil and gas industry, so I know firsthand the challenges associated with accurately and quickly reporting on issues that are both complex and sometimes controversial. But that said, even I was struck by the inconsistent quality of the news media’s coverage this week of a new study by researchers from Duke Univ.

To recap, a team of Duke researchers took a series of water samples from drinking water aquifers across Northeast Pennsylvania. They found no trace of fracturing fluids in those samples. They did find traces of saline, and theorized that it may have originally come from deep underground pockets of salty water, called brine. The saline was not found anywhere near oil and gas wells, and therefore, the researchers concluded it was naturally occurring and not caused by hydraulic fracturing. But, the researchers further theorized that if the saline was naturally occurring, and if it originally came from deep underground, then it’s possible that some of the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing and some of the natural gas released from deep shale formations could someday migrate upward, through thousands of feet and billions of tons of rock, to shallow drinking water aquifers. Everyone clear on that?

Notably, the Duke researchers didn’t say how long it might have taken for the saline to move more than a mile upwards through the rock. That omission drew heavy criticism from a Penn State geologist during the peer review process, because it would take thousands to millions of years, yet the Duke paper implies without evidence that it could have happened more quickly. This criticism, and others, were made widely available to reporters covering the Duke paper, because time is an important “news value.” In other words, something that may possibly happen thousands or millions of years from now just isn’t that newsworthy compared to what’s going on today.

For example, the Associated Press was quick on the draw and took the right approach from the start – what’s happening now is the most newsworthy part of the Duke study:

PITTSBURGH — New research on Marcellus Shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania may only add fuel to the debate over whether the industry poses long-term threats to drinking water.

A paper published on Monday by Duke University researchers found that gas drilling in northeastern Pennsylvania did not contaminate nearby drinking water wells with salty water, which is a byproduct of the drilling.

“These results reinforce our earlier work showing no evidence of brine contamination from shale gas exploration,” said Robert Jackson, director of Duke’s Center on Global Change and a co-author of the paper, which appeared online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team evaluated 426 samples from groundwater aquifers in six counties.

Later in the same story, the AP elaborated on the theory outlined in the Duke paper, and included some criticism from Delaware’s state geologist David Wunsch, who’s also the director of science and technology at the National Groundwater Association.

Another wire service, Bloomberg News, initially decided the “news” was a theory of what might happen thousands to millions of years from now:

Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Pennsylvania may contaminate drinking-water supplies, a Duke University study concluded.

The report, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said a chemical analysis of 426 shallow groundwater samples showed matches with brine found in rock more than 1 mile deep, suggesting paths that would let gas or water flow up after drilling.

While the connection predates hydraulic fracturing, it shows natural routes for seepage into wells or streams, the report says…

Later, in an updated version of the story, Bloomberg took a few steps in the direction of the AP:

A study that found hydraulic fracturing for natural gas puts drinking-water supplies in Pennsylvania at risk of contamination may renew a long-running debate between industry and activists.

The report by researchers at Duke University, published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said a chemical analysis of 426 shallow groundwater samples found matches with brine found in rock more than one mile (1.2 kilometers) deep, suggesting paths that would let gas or water flow up after drilling. While the flows weren’t linked to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the study found natural routes for seepage into wells or streams…

Acknowledging in the first paragraph that there’s a debate between industry and activists – but not environmental regulators – is an improvement. But has the debate become so fierce that people no longer agree that there are 1.6 kilometers, not 1.2, in a mile?

Moving along, further down the story, there were a few more improvements to tone down the urgency and add some balance, but Bloomberg still fell short of the AP:

“We have not seen any evidence that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated groundwater in Pennsylvania,” said Kevin Sunday, a spokesman for Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, in an e-mail. …

The study found that the minerals in shallow wells flowed there naturally, over time, and didn’t find a connection between gas drilling and water contamination. …

“The good news is that the researchers make it crystal clear that the phenomena they observed had nothing to do with shale development,” Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the industry- backed group Energy In Depth in Washington, said in an e-mail. …

It’s not clear how long it took for the brine to migrate into groundwater, and it could take thousands of years, [Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University,] said. And once fracking takes place, gas and water will flow into the well and not up through any fissures that may exist. “The natural flow would be into the well bore,” Engelder said.

Given some of National Public Radio’s recent forays into energy reporting, EID was eager to see what it would make of the Duke study. Here’s an excerpt from the online version:

The nation’s boom in natural gas production has come with a cost: The technique used to get much of the gas out of the ground, called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has contaminated drinking water. But how often and where this contamination is taking place is a matter of much debate and litigation.

Now, a new study has found natural pathways of contamination — but that doesn’t mean the drilling industry is off the hook.

Wait, what? First of all, the authors of the Duke study said very clearly their water testing found no evidence to suggest hydraulic fracturing has contaminated drinking water. From the Duke press release:

 These results reinforce our earlier work showing no evidence of brine contamination from shale gas exploration.

Secondly, any reporter who has spent five minutes covering shale-gas and shale-oil development knows – or should know – that there’s never been a verified case of hydraulic fracturing contaminating drinking water aquifers. So, EID reached out to NPR to seek a correction, and sent over the following statements:

  • “In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” Lisa Jackson , U.S. EPA Administrator (April 30, 2012)
  • “I’m not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.” — Lisa Jackson (May 24, 2011)
  • “There is no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing at issue has resulted in any contamination or endangerment of underground sources of drinking water (USDW). … Moreover, given the horizontal and vertical distance between the drinking water well and the closest methane production wells, the possibility of contamination of endangerment of USDWs in the area is extremely remote.” Carol Browner, former EPA administrator (June 2, 1995)
  • “There have been fears that hydraulic fracturing fluid injected at depth could reach up into drinking water aquifers. But, the injection is typically done at depths of around 6,000 to 7,000 feet and drinking water is usually pumped from shallow aquifers, no more than one or two hundred feet below the surface. Fracturing fluids have not contaminated any water supply and with that much distance to an aquifer, it is very unlikely they could.” — Mark Zoback, Professor of Geophysics at Stanford University and shale-gas advisor to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu (August 30, 2011)
  • “Researchers found no evidence of aquifer contamination from hydraulic fracturing chemicals in the subsurface by fracturing operations, and observed no leakage from hydraulic fracturing at depth.” — University of Texas Energy Institute  (Feb. 15, 2012)
  • “There has been a misconception that the hydraulic fracturing of wells can or has caused contamination of water wells. This is false. … My predecessor, former DEP Secretary John Hanger, told Reuters in October 2010 that ‘Pennsylvania has not had one case in which the fluids used to break off the gas from 5,000 to 8,000 feet underground have returned to contaminate groundwater.’” — Michael Krancer, Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (May 31, 2012)

Given EID’s previous encounters with NPR, and the fact that its story on the Duke paper did not include any comment from the industry, we should have been prepared for its response. Nonetheless, it still came as a shock. When we reached out to the editor, she declared: “No correction is needed.”

Some media outlets try harder than others to stick to the facts, and give a fair shake to everyone involved a news story. Sadly, however, some outlets don’t really try at all.



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