Rachel Maddow Resurrects the Flaming Hose and the Deception of Gasland

MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow produced a segment on hydraulic fracturing last week, which played out like a clip from one of the Gasland movies, complete with footage of the iconic flaming hose.   At this stage, the flaming hose has been so thoroughly debunked that even some of the most outspoken activists have stopped using it. Maddow, however, was undeterred.

Let’s have a look at some of those claims made on the show:

Maddow Claim #1: “This is footage taken at night outside – it shows a man setting his well on fire in his backyard. This is not an oil well not a gas well or anything else that’s supposed to be set on fire this is the well from which he gets his water.  This video was shot in Parker County, Texas, which is just west of Dallas-Fort Worth in a town called Weatherford.  And quite clearly there is something wrong with this guy’s water.”

FACT: Of course, the clip that Maddow featured was of Mr. Steve Lipsky lighting the end of his garden hose on fire.  You’re supposed to believe that the culprit is hydraulic fracturing, but what Maddow didn’t mention is that a judge examined the evidence and ruled that Mr. Lipsky had worked with a consultant to create a “deceptive video,” hooking up his hose to a gas vent, not a water line, and igniting it.  According to a 2012 ruling of the Texas District Court, he conspired to:

“…intentionally attach a garden hose to a gas vent – not to a water line – and then light and burn the gas from the end of the nozzle of the hose. The demonstration was not done for scientific study but to provide local and national news media a deceptive video, calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning … [and] alarm the EPA.”

Maddow Claim #2: “This part of the Texas state government that’s in charge of investigating these things that’s in charge of regulating oil and gas. They have now closed this case twice.  And as they have closed it twice they say they will not investigate this matter further. Their advice to the homeowners who can light their water on fire is that those homeowners should ‘properly ventilate and aerate their water systems.’”

FACT: In response to Mr. Lipsky’s complaints, the Texas Railroad Commission called a hearing in 2011 to examine evidence in the case. Through the use of nitrogen fingerprinting, scientists found that the methane was actually from a shallower formation and naturally occurring, and the Railroad Commission thus concluded that the company operating nearby, Range Resources, was not responsible.

Just last week, the Texas Railroad Commission completed a second investigation focusing on nine water wells in the Silverado subdivision of Parker County.  Again, the agency concluded that the methane in the wells was not due to drilling or hydraulic fracturing.

While Maddow had plenty of criticism for Texas regulators, insinuating that they were simply ignoring landowners’ complaints and leaving them to fend for themselves, she left out one crucial detail: the Texas Railroad Commission found that the methane in those water wells was due to the fact that they were drilled straight into gas bearing zones.  From that report:

“Based on this information, it appears that the complainants’ water wells either penetrate into or beneath the transitional zone that separates the Cretaceous Twin Mountains Aquifer and the underlying Pennsylvania Strawn formation…Contribution of natural gas to the aquifer by the nearby Barnett Shale gas production wells is not indicated by the physical evidence.”

Maddow Claim #3: “Testing from independent scientists and from academic scientists at Duke University and ultimately the federal EPA indicated that yeah the drilling was what’s causing the problem – the methane from those wells. The same methane that was making his water catch fire and get explosive, the EPA even went so far as to order the company that drilled those wells to provide bottled water to all the homeowners in that area.”

FACT: First of all, EPA’s investigation was led by then-Region 6 EPA Administrator Al Armendariz, who later had to resign because he was caught on tape saying that EPA’s “general philosophy” was to “crucify” and “make examples” of oil and gas producers – to “hit them as hard as [they] can.”

It was Armendariz who pursued that baseless endangerment order against Range Resources.  Texas regulators criticized EPA’s actions, as the agency had not properly investigated the source of methane.  A few months after the order, the Texas Railroad Commission completed its extensive testing and concluded that the methane was not due to Range Resources activities.  An EPA official later admitted under oath that the agency had not conducted proper fingerprinting to find the source.  In 2012, facing criticism from other regulatory authorities and staring at mounds of scientific evidence that contradicted their theories, the EPA dropped its case.

The Duke University study that Maddow mentioned was actually never published.  As the Dallas Morning News explained, the lead author, Rob Jackson, shared his unpublished “conclusions” – but not the actual report – with the Associated Press.  Needless to say, releasing conclusions before the work can be properly evaluated and scrutinized as a published study is not exactly the model for scientific rigor.


Maddow Claim #4: “Water in that town wasn’t always that way.  Obviously nobody would build a house there and sink a well for drinking water if the water was always that way but when the water turned that way this particular homeowner from Weatherford, Texas, this particular homeowner from that video of the flaming hose called in for help.”

FACT: Parker County, Texas’ water has, unfortunately, been historically bad.  As EID has noted many times, pictures of another flaming water well in the region, taken in 2005, show that methane had been present in water wells long before drilling had ever taken place.

Hurst well

Maddow Claim #5: “In south Texas, a lot of the problem is air pollution.  When the Texas Commission Environmental Quality (TCEQ) got their investigators called out to a home in Carnes County which is South Texas a family there was complaining about toxic smells and weird acrid fumes emanating from the drilling rigs by their house the investigators from the states showed up they turned on the monitors and the investigators themselves reported they evacuated the area quickly because they were afraid of their own exposure because they realized what they were standing in the middle of, which this family lived in the middle of.” 

FACT:  In making this claim, Maddow dredged up an “investigative report” by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), which purports that shale development in south Texas is “releasing a toxic soup of chemicals into the air.”  As EID has pointed out, the piece relied heavily on a “report” by the activist group Earthworks, despite the fact that both CPI and the Weather Channel told EID in an email that they would not be using it. In fact, the Earthworks report – which suffers from its own laundry list of fundamental flaws – serves as the very pillar of their argument.

The TCEQ did not run away from the facility and leave the company to police itself, either, as activists (and now Rachel Maddow) have claimed. As TCEQ explained:

“[T]he activists state that TCEQ investigators found high levels of VOCs at a site and then left the site, without taking further action to reduce pollution. In fact, TCEQ investigators did find fugitive emissions of VOCs inside the fence line of the facility. The investigators stepped away from the immediate area, the facility representative radioed for a repair crew to come to the site, and the leak was fixed that same day. Like most unauthorized emissions from oil and gas activity, this one was caused by an equipment issue – in this case, a bad valve.”

Of course, neither the InsideClimate/CPI team nor Rachel Maddow will tell you that the regulators responded, took action, and the problem was corrected.  That simply doesn’t fit the preconceived narrative that regulators “ignore” complaints from residents and do nothing to protect them. Apparently if the facts don’t match the narrative, it’s easier to ignore the facts.

Interestingly, on the very same day this episode aired, the White House released a new report lauding shale development as “remarkable” for its environmental and economic benefits.   President Obama’s top environmental regulators have long said that the process is safe; state regulators across the country have come to the same conclusion.

In the face of all the evidence against them, it’s no surprise that activists have had to resort to this kind of deception. It’s just unfortunate that the talking heads at MSNBC were unwilling to do some basic fact checking themselves before repeating the same bogus theories.


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