Appalachian Basin

Slottje Double Talk on Hydraulic Fracturing

Energy In Depth was the target of an attack yesterday by attorney David Slottje, of Planet Ithaca, for supposed double talk on hydraulic fracturing. As it turns out, Slottje is the one doing the double talking, as he cites sources that don’t support his case and offers an absolutist interpretation of the precautionary principle.

Attorney David Slottje, otherwise known as the Great Davidski on this site, recently put a post on up on his Park Foundation funded Community Environmental Defense Council (CEDC) website attacking EID and comparing us to the tobacco industry.  He accuses us of “Fracking Double Talk” but a closer examination of the facts suggests quite a bit more complexity – and not in Mr. Slottje’s favor.

Slottje cites a quote from one of our associates, Steve Everley, in a Maryland newspaper to make his case.  Steve said “There is no hard scientific evidence that fracking is an immediate and irreversible risk to drinking water resources” and Slottje interprets this as a backing off on past claims of no impacts.  Of course, that is not the case and Slottje knows this. Still, Slottje sensed opportunity and seized on it, engaging in a form of double talk of which he ironically accuses us.

To be clear, no one’s opinions at EID on the matter of hydraulic fracturing have changed.  Here’s what Steve said as recently as December 21, for example, on the EID website:

Opponents have been claiming — and will no doubt continue to claim — that hydraulic fracturing occurring a mile or more below drinking water resources poses a serious risk of contamination…

Numerous reports and independent experts — including federal officials — have stated clearly that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely when proper regulations and operating practices are in place.  That was true in 1949, it was true in 1983, it was true in August 2011, and it’s still true today.  Companies also have high operating standards to ensure drinking water resources are protected.

These comments were made in response to an incident in Alberta, Canada, where the operator of a hydraulic fracturing job perforated the wrong section of pipe, allowing some fluid to be released roughly 180 feet below a drinking water aquifer.  Government investigators of the incident said “Based on the groundwater monitoring-well data to date, there is insignificant risk to drinking water in the area.” They also concluded: “No compounds indicating the presence of the fracturing fluids were detected in the shallow monitoring well,” which refers to the area’s drinking water reservoir.

Read Steve’s story to see what it’s all about, which is pretty much nothing.  EID, in one of is very first posts, quoted a Wyoming senator as saying this:

In nearly 60 years of commercial use, not a single documented case of drinking water contamination has been credibly tied to hydraulic fracturing — even though more than a million wells have been “fracked” in that time.

That was true then and remains true today.  More importantly, this claim isn’t just being made by EID and its friends, but by virtually everyone in a position to really know.  Here are some other quotes:

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, Fmr. Clinton 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 member of the Secretary of Energy Committee on Shale Gas Development (August 30, 2011)

EPA did not find confirmed evidence that drinking water wells have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing fluid injection…  – “Evaluation of Impacts to Underground Sources of Drinking Water by Hydraulic Fracturing of Coalbed Methane Reservoirs,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (executive summary, p. ES-16 (2004)

In the 41 years that I have supervised oil and gas exploration, production and development in South Dakota, no documented case of water well or aquifer damage by the fracking of oil or gas wells, has been brought to my attention. Nor am I aware of any such cases before my time. – Fred Steece, Oil and Gas Supervisor – South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resource (June, 2009

We’ve never had one case of fracking fluid going down the gas well and coming back up and contaminating someone’s water well. – John Hanger, former Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (as seen in Truthland)

IOGCC member states have all stated that there have been no cases where hydraulic fracturing has been verified to have contaminated drinking water. – Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a multi-state organization of oil and gas regulators (IOGCC website)

I have been working in hydraulic fracturing for 40+ years and there is absolutely no evidence hydraulic fractures can grow from miles below the surface to the fresh water aquifers. – Stephen A. Holditch, Head of the Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University, Member of the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board Shale Gas Subcommittee (October 4, 2011)

They all say the same thing; there is no case of the hydraulic fracturing process ever polluting a drinking water supply. That ‘s what’s been said from the beginning and remains true today.  There is no change in position. There is only the parsing of words by David Slottje, the “Lawyer Up, Big Guy” attorney who likes to make bombastic statements such as this one referring to the City of Binghamton’s moratorium case (before he lost it, of course):

Yes, the city was so pleased with me, and thought that I was so great that they wanted me to represent them.

He also described his efforts as follows (video with repeats of his statement here):

What I said to the board before is if you’d like us to represent you in litigation as opposed to the drafting, and nobody here has met anybody who can draft as well as we can, but, if it is litigation, we said we would do it.

He went even further in urging communities to follow his losing Binghamton strategy of enacting protective laws and/or moratoriums before DEC issued permits:

It is a lot easier to win the lawsuit if you pass the law, it’s a no brainer I think, to win a lawsuit if you pass a protective law before hand [before the DEC issues permits].

It’s what Slottje says about hydraulic fracturing that is troubling, though.  He offers this (emphasis added):

Not too long ago, fracking advocates were giving unequivocal assurances that there did not exist a single reported case of fracking operations having contaminated groundwater resources.

But they had to come up with something different to say, because while true that there wasn’t a single case, in fact there were many.

Because the fracking process often involves surface spills of chemicals, and fracking “mud” and trade secret fluids are laden with toxic chemicals and gas wells do leak and there is evidence of contaminated groundwater resources, the industry had a credibility problem.  What to do?

Slottje draws a distinction between ground water and drinking water supplies that avoids the central claim he and his friends have been making for the last couple of years.  “It’s All About the Water,” they say and they mean drinking water.  What else was that brown jug about, after all, if it wasn’t drinking water?

Helen Slottje, the other half of the duo, also prepared some guidance for natural gas opponents at EPA hearings, which, of course, focuses on drinking water.  The guidance offered this proposed comment:

The study needs to include all potential drinking water sources and potential impacts to drinking water sources throughout the lifecycle of HF activities.

She also presents these helpful hints:

Local agriculture is SUN based not OIL based

“We are the polar bears.”

Don’t repeat or counter industry’s claims

Go on the offense not the defense

640px-Polar_Bear_familyHelen apparently doesn’t realize natural gas is the source of an important farm fertilizer ingredient (anhydrous ammonia) and lower prices and greater availability of this product are helping farmers.  It’s not clear why she thinks natural gas opponents are akin to polar bears, but it’s obvious they are not; polar bears are thriving (see here as well).  Her advice not to bother countering industry claims and to go on the offense must also be guiding her husband, as he proceeds to reach beyond supposed drinking water threats to include anything at all that might threaten water anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances, wherever it is found.

Revealingly, Slottje, to make his case for groundwater contamination links to a case where pre and post development water tests by private, state and Federal agencies all show no meaningful differences.  A researcher funded by Colcom and Heinz , however, is trying to somehow turn this into an indictment of the industry.

That case is about drinking water, but let’s stick to Slottje’s groundwater argument.  If we give him the benefit of the doubt and agree the Alberta incident was a case where some aspect of hydraulic fracturing (perforation of pipe in this instance) was done incorrectly, does that disqualify a process that has been performed literally millions of times over several decades?

If you’re a thinking person, it does not.  Otherwise, you would live in a state of complete paralysis.  You wouldn’t dare breathe because there is a possibility someone in your family might have mixed some ammonia with bleach, to clean the windows, which could kill you if you breathed enough of it.  You wouldn’t dare not breath either, of course, because that would kill you, too.  You wouldn’t get out of bed, you wouldn’t drive a car (not even that big Suburban David drives), you wouldn’t go to work and you wouldn’t cross the street.  You would just stop.  Period.

The real question is one of risks, of course, and assessing them.  It has always been thus and always will be.  There is even risk to hiring an attorney – you can lose as Slottje did in Binghamton.  The great Vaclav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic and economist,  wrote about this absolutist obsession with a “precautionary principle” – the same one David Slottje advocates – saying this:

The precautionary principle is either misunderstood by the environmentalists or understood only too well, but in any case it is essentially misused to serve their own ambitions… We are witnessing the absolutist interpretation of the precautionary principle being used by environmentalists to justify any kind of regulatory intervention or ban. All they need to implement such regulations—once the imminent catastrophe is sufficiently described—is simple moralizing, noble preaching about the future, and demonstrating their ‘concern’ about humankind.

Likewise, Cass Sunstein, a former regulatory official in the Obama White House, said this about the precautionary principle

… For now, my only claim is that the principle is crude and sometimes perverse way of promoting desirable goals—and that if it is taken for all that it is worth, it is paralyzing, and therefore not helpful at all. – Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle

There are many other reputable scientists who note the same thing.  Life is a matter of risks.  The important thing is this, expressed by one of the natural gas regulators from Texas:

We have never had any instance of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing — ever. For any fluid, frac fluid, to migrate up a mile, two miles to the water table is impossible. You are more likely to hit the moon with a Roman candle. – Elizabeth Ames Jones, Texas Railroad Commission (June 3, 2011)

There are many other reputable scientists who note the same thing.  Life is a matter of risks, and human activity depends on understanding and managing those risks.  David Slottje can use all the clever rhetoric he wants to convince himself that the risk of environmental harm from hydraulic fracturing is high, even though the regulatory community does not agree. The rest of us, however, are perhaps more willing to have a grown-up conversation about managing and reducing risks.

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