Letterman Misses the Mark on HF. Again.

Last night on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” the host and self-anointed expert on all things hydraulic fracturing attempted to have a factual conversation with former Vice President Al Gore about onshore oil and gas development (spoiler: they failed). The subject was discussed in between jokes about how the industrial revolution will kill off the human race (high brow comedy for sure!), Gore’s support of President Obama in the 2012 election, and questions about Gore’s decision to sell his television station to Al Jazeera.

Before getting into the juicy details, it’s worth mentioning that this isn’t the first time Letterman stepped on a rake trying to discuss shale development. Last summer he went on a rant about flaming water and every other claim imaginable, which EID examined with our own Top Ten list of Dave’s errors. There was also Letterman’s comical interview with Promised Land‘s John Krasinski (comical for all the wrong reasons, mind you), which included its own swing-and-a-miss conversation about hydraulic fracturing.

So, the fact that Letterman brought up the subject last night with Al Gore — a noted environmentalist — is unsurprising, although it’s still unfortunate that the “Late Show” keeps providing a forum for people to spread misinformation about a process that’s so important to American energy development.

Without further ado, here’s the most relevant excerpt, and what they got wrong.

Letterman: “Fracking, people setting fire to their tapwater. That can’t be good. We have to stop that. We’re poisoning the great aquifers that keep the, uh… and with the drought coming on.. uh, we’re nothing but screwed.”

  • Once again, Dave is parroting that emblematic (and factually incorrect) scene in Gasland where a Colorado resident lights his tap water on fire — the same incident that Colorado regulators investigated and determined was “not related to oil and gas activity.”
  • As for poisoning drinking water, we know that state regulators have repeatedly said that’s not true, as have multiple officials with the EPA.

Letterman: “Where, uh… is there safe fracking?”

Gore: “It should be very tightly regulated. There are serious questions about the way they put the concrete down in the uh, the wells. It tends to fall apart too often. There’s a real problem with the amount of water that’s required and when the water is used it comes back up poisonous. And then they dispose of it by putting it back deep in the ground.”

  • To answer Letterman’s question (because Gore clearly did not), let’s ask outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, shall we? In response to what he deemed “hysteria” about hydraulic fracturing, Salazar said the process “can be done safely and has been done safely hundreds of thousands of times.”
  • As for regulation, Al Gore is right that it should be tightly regulated. But what he fails to note is the good news: hydraulic fracturing is tightly regulated by the states, and the EPA says they are doing a “good job” with it.
  • Are well casings really falling apart “too often”? If your source of information is Yoko Ono, then you’d obviously believe that to be the case. But if your source is actual data, you’ll realize that failure rates in places like Ohio and even Texas are less than one-tenth of one percent.
  • Finally, regarding the supposed “problem” with the amount of water used, the reality is that oil and gas activity — including but not even limited to hydraulic fracturing — constitutes a very small portion of each state’s total water demand. In Colorado, it’s less than one percent. In Texas — the largest oil and gas producing state by far — the water required specifically for hydraulic fracturing is about 23 percent less than what the city of Austin uses (Texas rice farmers, meanwhile, use about three times more water than the city of Austin). Shale wells also use less water per unit of energy produced than so-called “conventional” wells, according to a study from Duke University.

Letterman: “But didn’t the EPA waive requirements for certain elements that are used…?”

Gore: “It wasn’t the EPA, it was in the Bush-Cheney administration. In their first year, former Vice President Cheney got a law passed that exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Letterman: “That’s right. Why..why would he do that? What’s the matter with that guy? Honest to God…”

  • Forgive us if this sounds like a broken record, but here we go again: hydraulic fracturing was not “exempted” from the Safe Drinking Water Act. The SDWA became the law of the land in 1974, and it was never designed to cover hydraulic fracturing, nor in the forty years since its passage has the Act covered hydraulic fracturing. How can a process be “exempt” from something that never covered — and was not designed to cover — it in the first place?
  • The law to which Mr. Gore is referring (which was passed in 2005, not the “first year” of the Bush administration as he suggests) was the Energy Policy Act of 2005. A provision in that bill merely clarified the regulatory system already in place: the states regulate hydraulic fracturing, not the EPA, which had been the system in place literally for decades and continues to be the foundation for responsible shale development nationwide. As mentioned above, the EPA has even praised the states for the efficacy and efficiency in regulating the process.
  • Earlier in the show, Mr. Gore had proudly stated that he supported President Barack Obama’s re-election. Conveniently, however, he failed to mention in this particular segment that then-Senator Obama supported the Energy Policy Act of 2005, along with 73 of his fellow Democrats and Republicans.
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