Lies, Damned Lies, and Walter Hang’s Statistics

Ithaca activist scores lots of coverage over claim of “270 oil and gas spills in New York” – but what do the data ACTUALLY say?

Walter Hang knows his way around a government database. And it’s a good thing he does. As president of the Ithaca, N.Y.-based Toxics Targeting, Inc., Mr. Hang’s entire business depends on being able to access and track all sorts of state, local and federal environmental data, and then distill that information into accurate, up-to-date reports for his customers. So when Mr. Hang released a report last month listing “270 oil and gas spills” in New York over the past 30 years, data he derived from government sources, the public took notice. And the media did too.

A lot of notice. A quick internet search for “Walter Hang” and “270” returns more than 1,000 individual media and blog mentions, including prominent pieces in several area newspapers, plenty of extended radio spots, and on local television from far Upstate to the Southern Tier.

And to his credit, Mr. Hang gives a great interview. His argument, always impassioned, goes something like this: “DEC’s own data,” found right here in my report, prove that oil and gas exploration is unsafe; DEC has severe “regulatory shortcomings” and cannot be trusted to oversee shale gas exploration; and finally, the draft DEC regulatory document governing the Marcellus is “inadequate.” It cannot be fixed. It cannot be amended. It can only be destroyed. My report – have I mentioned that? – well, it proves it.

In reality, it’s not much of a “report” at all. Found here on Mr. Hang’s website, it appears simply to be a compilation of incident sheets downloaded directly from DEC’s spill database (available for public searchhere) and marked up furiously with a highlighter. But what do the numbers actually say? Well, Energy In Depth took a look at the data — for real this time. And what we found might just knock you off your chair.

First, let’s have Mr. Hang set the baseline for us:

“I just posted data at [on my website] for 270 oil and gas spills in New York State that have caused fires, explosions, home evacuations, polluted drinking water wells as well as long-term impacts on forests, streams, wetlands, ponds and other waterways.”

270 oil and natural gas spills – a claim, remember, that Mr. Hang makes in support of his larger argument that DEC cannot do, and indeed has not done, an “adequate” job of regulating the exploration and production of oil and natural gas in the state of New York.

Now let’s compare that assertion with the actual facts:

  • Total number of spills over past 30 years, across entire state, related to oil and natural gas exploration & production: 161 (not 270)
  • Total number of spills documented in DEC’s database over the past 30 years: 354,615
  • Percentage of total spills tied to oil or natural gas exploration: 0.045% (45 thousandths of one percent)
  • Number of incidental spills reported over same period at gas stations (and in no way related to oil or gas exploration): 30,122

Catch all that? The process of exploring for, and eventually producing, oil and natural gas in New Yorkover the past three decades is responsible for one-forty-thousandth of one percent (!) of the total spillage recorded over that time. Still too high? Let’s take a look at the numbers just for natural gas:

  • Number of DEC-recorded spills tied to the exploration or production of natural gas: 45
  • Out of a total, 30-year spill total of: 354,615
  • For a total spill percentage of: 0.0123%

It’s important to keep in mind here that New York is not Rhode Island. New Yorkers have been producing natural gas in their state longer than anyone; indeed, the world’s first commercial gas well was developed in Fredonia nearly 190 years ago. Today, the state supports more than 14,000 individual natural gas wells. And over the past 30 years, those wells have delivered more than 800 billion cubic feet of natural gas to consumers in New York and elsewhere.

We’ll say it again: More than 800 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 30 years. And in that time – 45 spills.

From where do the remaining 354,000 spills originate? Let’s run through the list:

  • 100,929 (28.5%) — commercial/industrial sites
  • 69,719 (19.7%) — residential (private dwelling) sites.
  • 63,121 (17.8%) — transportation (automobile, railroads, trucks)
  • 35,072 (9.9%) — institutional sites
  • 30,122 (8.5%) – simple spills at gas stations.

No one should doubt Mr. Hang’s sincerity and passion, and certainly no one can discount his ability toorganize a crowd. Indeed, according to reports, Mr. Hang has secured more than 6,000 signatures from folks who apparently believe, like he does, that natural gas exploration is responsible for hundreds of catastrophic spills over the past 30 years, and is bound to account for many, many more in the future. His report “proves” it.

But as our analysis indicates, one that is easily corroborated by simply taking the time to look through the sheets, Mr. Hang’s well-publicized efforts to target and eliminate sources of oil and gas spillage in New York would be more appropriately directed at several other places: starting with his local gas station, and extending all the way through to his office space. Now that’s a report we’ll be anxious to read.

In the meantime, we’ve got jobs to create, revenue to generate, and a public comment period to show up for – one that closes in 13 days. Click here to make your views known to DEC. And here to keep up on what’s going down.

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