Sprawling piece on natural gas development in SWPA lands in NYT Sunday Mag; EID sorts through the data that NYT’s Griswold leaves behind
If it’s true that the definition of a good compromise is one in which both sides leave unhappy, it might seem that the 5,700-word piece on Marcellus development in Washington Co., Pa. filed this past weekend in the Sunday magazine of The New York Times comes close to being one heck of a deal.
Writing about the piece on the environmental website Grist – no friend to shale – Sarah Laskow concludes that “anyone who already understands the issue should probably skip it, to avoid getting ticked off.” For what it’s worth, we happen to agree — albeit for different reasons.
On the positive side of the ledger, NYT contributor Eliza Griswold includes about a half-dozen stories from real folks in the Amwell Twp. community whose lives have been made materially better owing to the local development of enormous reserves of clean-burning natural gas from shale. Folks who now can keep their farms, send their kids to college, maybe even retire somewhere someday. Folks who care deeply about the quality and nature of their local environment, and who, despite the hype, have seen no evidence heretofore that Marcellus activity is deleterious to it.
Those are the parts that Grist doesn’t like, preferring instead the ones in which Griswold attempts to paint a picture of natural gas development as scourge to air, water, and land; hoof, hound and equine. But a closer look at the air and water testing data compiled by state regulators and third-party technicians – every bit of it publicly available; very little of it mentioned in this piece — reveals a reality in tiny Amwell Twp. very much at odds with the narrative put forth by the Times.
Below, we take a closer look at some of the claims made in the piece, and see how they stack-up when juxtaposed with the science.
Wrong on the basics
NYT: “’Fracking,’ as it is known, is a process of natural-gas drilling that involves pumping vast quantities of water, sand and chemicals thousands of feet into the earth to crack the deep shale deposits and free bubbles of gas from the ancient, porous rock.”
- “Hydraulic fracturing,” as it’s more accurately known, is not a “natural-gas drilling” process. It’s a post-drilling well stimulation technology that has been deployed more than 1.2 million times over nearly 65 years of commercial use. NYT/E&E News: “The method of drilling is not called ‘hydraulic fracturing.’ … Fracturing has been used by drillers for around 60 years.” (Groundtruthing Gasland, NYT/E&E News, Feb. 24, 2011)
- According to EPA, fracturing technology is used not only in the context of oil and natural gas development, but also to aid in the recovery of geothermal energy and as a means of enhancing the clean-up of Superfund sites. (“A Citizen’s Guide to Fracturing,” EPA fact sheet, May 2001)
NYT: “This summer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York moved to lift the state’s yearlong moratorium on fracking against vocal opposition from environmentalists and many local residents. Following a series of hearings this month, New York will decide whether to allow fracking early next year.”
- Contrary to what’s been reported, fracturing technology is neither banned in New York State nor under temporary moratorium. For evidence of that, click here to view a permit issued by New York’s Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on Oct. 25, 2010. The permit approves the use of hydraulic fracturing – in the Marcellus Shale, no less – in Otsego Co., New York.
- In 2008, DEC announced that it would delay new permits for development projects requiring more than 80,000 gallons of water as part of the fracturing process until the agency’s updated Marcellus regulations were in place. Those regulations were released in draft form this past September, with the final document anticipated in early 2012.
- According to the state’s DEC, fracturing technology has been deployed safely in New York “since at least the 1950s.” All told, more than 75,000 oil, natural gas and salt wells have been drilled in New York over the past 150 years. According to DEC, more than 14,000 remain active today, almost all of them having been fractured.
Wrong on Amwell Township
NYT: “Beth Voyles, 54, a horse trainer and dog breeder … signed the lease with Haney in 2008. She told Haney that her 11 /2-year-old boxer, Cummins, had just died. Voyles thought that he was poisoned. She saw the dog drinking repeatedly from a puddle of road runoff, and she thought that the water the gas company used to wet down the roads probably had antifreeze in it.”
- To her credit, Griswold does include a comment from Range further down in the piece stating that the company does not use glycols as part of its development processes. Unfortunately, she fails to mention DEP’s extensive testing of Ms. Voyles’ water, as well as the agency’s findings that her water is not contaminated.
- DEP letter to Voyles (last month): “Finally, you raised concerns that your water supply might be contaminated by glycols. There is no credible evidence of the contamination of your water supply by ethylene, di-ethylene, or tri-ethylene glycol. … [N]either the sample analyses performed by Summit Environmental Technologies Inc. … nor Test America’s analyses … showed any evidence of glycol in your water supply.” (DEP letter to Ms. Voyles, Oct. 19, 2011)
- More from that letter: “We have concluded our investigation and have determined that there is no evidence to substantiate the complaint. … In summary, DEP has determined that Range has not contaminated your water supply.” (Ibid)
- Voyles’ own veterinarian disputes her statement about her animals: “On November 10, 2010, you voluntarily supplied Range Resources with lab results from both your dog and horse veterinarians. Upon review of these results, Range contacted the canine and equine veterinarians. … [I]t was stated by the veterinarian that the test results were inconclusive for anti-freeze [ethylene glycol] poising. … The veterinarian indicated that the horse had toxicity of the liver, which he felt was not related to [ethylene glycol] poising.” (Range letter to Voyles, Jan. 14, 2011)
- Tests for metals also come up clean: “[F]ollowing conversations with the veterinarians, Range ordered additional testing of your water supplies, including testing for heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead. … Upon review of the information provided [by independent, state-certified Microbac Laboratories], the test results … indicate that both of your water supplies meet all of the EPA minimum primary drinking water standards for all parameters tested.” (Range letter to Voyles, Jan. 14, 2011)
- DEP also tests water of Ms. Voyles’ neighbor, and reaches same conclusions: “The methane gas in your water well was clearly identified through isotopic analysis to be drift gas, not natural gas that would be coming from a gas well. … The three hydrocarbons detected at low levels are common reagents in laboratories, are used as solvents and cleaning agents and can be found in groundwater throughout Pennsylvania where there has been residential or industrial development.” (DEP letter to Mr. Loren Kiskadden, Sept. 9, 2011)
NYT: “Voyles … called the Department of Environmental Protection to register yet another complaint about the stench. The D.E.P. sent out a water specialist, John Carson. … Voyles claims that Carson refused to take her complaint.”
- Pennsylvania DEP lays out very different story in another letter to Voyles: “[O]ver a period of three months, on 24 separate occasions, the Department visited your property and detected no malodors.” (DEP letter to Ms. Voyles, Sept. 22, 2011)
- More context from DEP: “Additionally, last summer, the Department conducted a short-term study of ambient air concentrations of target pollutants near certain Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations in southwestern Pennsylvania [including your property] … Results of the ambient air sampling did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” (Ibid)
NYT: “In Amwell Township, your opinion of fracking tends to correspond with how much money you’re making and with how close you live to the gas wells, chemical ponds, pipelines and compressor stations springing up in the area.”
- The economic benefits of natural gas development extend well beyond a few households in Amwell Township. According to company data, more than $25 million has been returned to landowners in Amwell since 2009 in the form of lease, royalty and bonus payments. With just short of 1,500 households in the township, that translates into more than $16,700 per home.
- It’s worth noting here the writer’s use of the term “chemical pond” to describe temporary impoundments comprised almost entirely of freshwater. Keep that one tucked away; we’ll get back to it in just a bit.
Wrong on disclosure
NYT: “Popular concerns about natural-gas drilling have centered on what chemicals companies are putting into the earth, not least because this list is a proprietary secret.”
- This assertion is directly rebutted by Pennsylvania DEP: “Drilling companies must disclose the names of all chemicals to be stored and used at a drilling site … These plans contain copies of material safety data sheets for all chemicals … This information is on file with DEP and is available to landowners, local governments and emergency responders.” (PA DEP Marcellus FAQ, accessed Nov. 21, 2011)
- Straight from Pa. code: “Within 30 calendar days of cessation of drilling or altering a well, the well operator shall submit a well record to the Department that includes the following information. … A descriptive list of the chemical additives in the stimulation fluid, including any acid, biocide, breaker, brine, corrosion inhibitor, crosslinker, demulsifier, friction reducer, gel, iron control, oxygen scavenger, pH adjusting agent, proppant, scale inhibitor and surfactant.” (25 Pa. code chapter 78.122, accessed Nov. 21, 2011)
- On the federal level, operators are bound by requirements of the Community Right-to-Know Act (passed in 1986), which mandate that detailed product information sheets be drawn up, updated, and made immediately available to first-response and emergency personnel in case of an accident on-site. (OSHA Standards, accessed Nov. 21, 2011)
- More recently, an effort led by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) culminated in the creation of a searchable, nationwide database with specific well-by-well information on the additives used in the fracturing process. Just six months after it was launched in April, GWPC announced in October that information on more than 5,200 wells is now posted on FracFocus.org. (E&E News, Oct. 21, 2011)
- Ironically, the company highlighted in the piece, Range Resources, was among the first major shale operators in the country to actively disclose online the specific materials used in the completion process. (“Natural-Gas Driller to Disclose Chemical Use,” Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2010)
NYT: “In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney spearheaded an amendment to the energy bill, which critics call the Halliburton Loophole. This legislation exempts hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act and protects companies like Halliburton, of which Cheney was once the C.E.O., from disclosing what chemicals are going into the ground.”
- This charge is categorically false. Hydraulic fracturing has never in its nearly 65-year history been regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. It has, however, been aggressively regulated by the states, which have compiled an impressive record of enforcement and oversight over the past six decades – a record that EPA has acknowledged as being sound as recently as … last night on the Rachel Maddow Show.
- EPA administrator Lisa Jackson on Maddow: “States are stepping up and doing a good job. So I always say: It doesn’t have to be EPA that regulates the 10,000 wells that might go in. (Jackson interview with Rachel Maddow, 9:01, aired Nov. 21, 2011) Jackson, this past weekend: “[Y]ou can’t start to talk about a federal role [in regulating fracturing] without acknowledging the very strong state role.” (Jackson interview on EnergyNOW!, aired Nov. 20, 2011)
- Incidentally, SDWA isn’t even a disclosure bill; the word “disclosure” only appears twice in the entire 77,000-word text, and only in sections unrelated to underground injection (search the legislation here for yourself).
- Language adopted in 2005 simply reaffirmed the fact that states have always taken the lead in regulating the fracturing process. And incidentally, the 2005 energy bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support — with 74 “yea” votes in the U.S. Senate, including ones from the top Democrat on the Energy Committee; current Interior secretary Ken Salazar, then a senator from Colorado; and then-Sen. Barack Obama. In the U.S. House, 75 Democrats supported the final bill, including the top Democratic members on both the Energy & Commerce and Resources Committees.
- Fmr. Clinton EPA administrator Carol Browner explains: “EPA does not regulate – and does not believe it is legally required to regulate – the hydraulic fracturing of methane gas production wells under its UIC program [under the Safe Drinking Water Act].” (Browner letter to David Ludder, Esq., May 5, 1995). How could it be a “loophole” if even EPA itself admits it never regulated the process in the first place?
Wrong on the numbers
NYT: “There are more than 4,000 Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania, with projections ranging from 2,500 new wells a year to a total of more than 100,000 over the next few decades.”
- According to DEP, a total of 4,257 Marcellus wells have been developed in Pennsylvania since 2005, an average of 608 new wells per year. Only 1,446 Marcellus wells were drilled in 2010 (DEP’s end-of-year report for 2010 is available here), and the number for 2011 is currently more than 300 short of 2,000 – far below the projections reported in this piece. Not even the most optimistic Marcellus production scenarios for the state even come close to 100,000 future wells.
- For perspective, Pennsylvania was already home to more than 46,000 active natural gas wells before the first Marcellus well was ever spud back in 2005, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Using the latest available data, Marcellus wells account for barely eight percent of all active natural gas wells in Pennsylvania – and only 1.1 percent of all total wells drilled. According to DEP, more than 350,000 oil and natural gas wells have been drilled in the state since 1859 (DEP fact sheet, accessed Nov. 21, 2011)
- Thanks in large part to advances in horizontal drilling technology — which allows producers today to access significantly greater volumes of natural gas from significantly fewer wells — the total number of wells drilled in Pennsylvania over the past six years has dropped 29 percent, even as the volume of natural gas being produced on a daily basis has increased roughly 12-fold. (DEP well reports, 2010)
NYT: “According to a recent study by Pennsylvania State University, the industry has created 23,000 jobs, including employment for roustabouts, construction workers, helicopter pilots, sign makers, Laundromat workers, electricians, caterers, chambermaids, office workers, water haulers and land surveyors.”
- According to a report from the Pennsylvania Dept. of Labor released earlier this month, total employment for industries related to Marcellus development is 214,000 – ten times the number cited by NYT (Pa. Dept. of Labor and Industry, Nov. 4, 2011). According to that same report, more than 48,000 new Marcellus hires were made in just the past year.
- According to a report issued in July 2011 by researchers from Penn State, actual employment in 2010 tied to Marcellus activities translated into nearly 140,000 jobs. That same report estimates that, by 2020, shale development could support more than 256,000 jobs in Pennsylvania. (PSU Marcellus report, July 20, 2011)
NYT: “Currently, companies operating in Pennsylvania pay no tax to extract gas.”
- According to an analysis conducted by the Pennsylvania Dept. of Revenue this past May, “companies engaged in and related to natural gas drilling activities in Pennsylvania have paid more than $1.1 billion in state taxes since 2006.” (Dept. of Revenue release, May 2, 2011)
- And much more to come, say Penn State researchers: “Our estimates suggest that in 2020 the Marcellus industry in Pennsylvania could be creating more than $20 billion in value added, generating $2 billion in state and local tax revenues, and supporting more than 250,000 jobs.” (“Penn State report even more bullish on Marcellus Shale,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 20, 2011)
NYT: “Banks have expressed reluctance to back home mortgages within up to three miles of a well. Whole towns could become brown fields, and home values would drop precipitously.”
- These are very serious (and specific) charges, and ones for which the writer provides not a single shred of evidence, data or even a stray anecdote.
- Here’s an informed view on lending and leasing, offered by long-time, Pa.-based mortgage lender and real estate attorney: “My experience is that gas lease bonus payment enabled a lot of our customers to resolve mortgage issues and pay off many of them. … Lenders see the value in the additional collateral and recognize the potential future income opportunities a gas lease offers both landowner and lender.” (John F. Spall, director of The Dime Bank, Honesdale, Pa.; Oct. 25, 2011)
- EID’s Marcellus team runs the numbers on charges of diminished property values, comparing counties in Pa. with shale activity to those without it: “[F]armland values in Bradford County averaged $6,984 per acre for properties of 10 acres or more. Fourteen sales in Susquehanna County (1,182 acres) averaged $4,993 per acre. Sullivan and Wyoming County properties averaged $5,579 and $7,215 per acre, respectively. … Now, compare this to similarly rural Wayne County, which is still waiting on the DRBC to allow gas exploration, where the average was $2,921 per acre; or Pike County, where it was $3,168 per acre, despite both counties being much closer the New York City, that factor having traditionally driven property values in those areas. … Lackawanna County, despite being a much more urban area, likewise only produced an average value of $3,889 per acre.”
Wrong on water management
NYT: “Disposing of the chemical water has meant trucking it to another state or paying local treatment facilities to process it. The facilities, which are not equipped to remove salts, have often sent the frack water back into local rivers.”
- The disposition of wastewater associated with the natural gas development process is and has always been regulated by EPA under the Clean Water Act; surface discharges of treated water require a permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (also known as an NPDES permit); and treated water must meet stringent safety standards under federal law.
- Fmr. DEP secretary John Hanger: “The water that’s coming out of the tap in Pennsylvania is meeting the safe water drinking standards when it comes to total dissolved solids. Every single drop that is coming out of the tap in Pennsylvania today meets the safe drinking water standard.” (KDKA, Jan. 4, 2011) According to current DEP secretary Michael Krancer, the notion that wastewater is being discharged into the state’s waterways untreated, as implied by NYT, is “a total fiction.” (Associated Press, Nov. 16, 2011)
- Most troubling here, the writer fails to include even a passing mention of wastewater recycling, which is how the vast majority of water is currently being managed in Pennsylvania today: “State environmental regulators say that nearly 70 percent of the wastewater produced by Marcellus Shale wells is being reused or recycled. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, puts the number higher, saying that on average 90 percent of the water that returns to the surface is recycled.” (Scranton Times-Tribune, Feb. 27, 2011)
- And advances in technology continues to push those recycling percentages even higher: “Range Resources is evidence to how fast this transition can happen. It first used a mixture of fracturing flowback in the Marcellus Shale water and fresh water in August 2009. [By] 2010, it said it reused 96 percent of its produced water in Pennsylvania.” (Stephen Rassenfoss, Journal of Petroleum Technology, July 2011)
NYT: “Thanks to the money [Ray] received from allowing Range Resources to drill, build a compressor station and dig a chemical pond on his land, he has been able to reroof two barns, buy a new hay baler and construct an addition to his house for his 94-year-old mother.”
- Although Griswold graciously takes time here to cite the myriad ways in which the royalties and rents from natural gas development are improving the lives of Amwell resident Ray Day and his family, her insistence on referring to temporary water impoundments as “chemical ponds” here (flashback to a previous section) is again noteworthy – and curious.
- All told, Griswold uses the term “chemical pond” or “chemical impoundment” seven separate times in her story, perhaps unaware that many of these units actually hold freshwater. Even where flowback is temporarily stored near the development site, this water is treated at the wellhead; salt is by far the most prominent non-water component of these units.
- Interestingly, “chemical pond” appears to be a term used particularly frequently by John Smith, a plaintiff’s attorney who collaborated with Griswold on this piece and currently represents the people in Amwell Twp. suing DEP. Mr. Smith is also active in an ongoing campaign to spur passage of local ordinances in the region seeking to subvert the state’s oil and gas law by zoning responsible development off the map. In an article this past September in the Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator, Mr. Smith again uses the term “chemical ponds,” telling an audience at a community center that the units are completely unregulated.
- But that’s not true at all. Pa. code on impoundments: “[T]he operator may not use a pit for the control, handling or storage of brine and other fluids produced during operation, service or plugging of a well unless the pit is authorized by a permit under The Clean Streams Law (Pa. code, chapter 78, section 78.57, accessed Nov. 21, 2011)
Wrong on “The Mon”
NYT: “In 2008 … [f]or several months, the Monongahela River, which provides most people in the Pittsburgh area with drinking water, no longer met state and federal standards. Following a request from the State of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found it would require five times the amount of water in their reservoirs to dilute the river. It took five months to clean it up.”
- Independent study released in 2009 debunks notion that natural gas producers adversely affected the Mon River: “Analysis of samples taken over the October through December time period  indicate that the percent of chlorides in [total dissolved solids] did not change significantly after the exploration and production companies had stopped or significantly reduced disposal of flow back and produced water at the municipal treatment plants.” (“Evaluation of High TDS Concentrations in the Monongahela River, Tetra Tech NUS, Inc., Jan. 2009)
- More from Tetra Tech study: “[T]he results of this study clearly indicate that discharges from natural gas exploration and production operations contributed only minimally to the total TDS concentrations and mass loadings in the Monongahela River during the time period the study was conducted. The main chemical component detected in the TDS concentrations and mass loadings was sulfate, which mostly likely is the result of mine drainage.” (Ibid)
- Still more: “TDS and sulfate concentrations in the Monongahela River were near the maximum allowable levels upon entering Pennsylvania from West Virginia in October and November 2008; therefore, there was little to no assimilative capacity for TDS or sulfates in the river during that time period.” (Ibid)