Straying from History (And The Facts)
A recent article in the Citizens Voice provides an interesting overview of the methane migration issue but, as is too often the case, presents many of the facts in a way that deliberately tilts the playing field in favor of natural gas opponents. The article is, as it happens, a textbook case of how statistics are misused in news stories. Let’s take a look at a few of the problems.
Here is some of what was said to set the tone of the article:
As shale gas drilling has increased in Pennsylvania, so has the prevalence of methane migrating into water supplies as a result of the exploration.
The number of new Marcellus wells nearly doubled between 2009 and 2010, but the rate of methane migration more than quintupled: In 2009, there were 1.26 cases of gas migrating into groundwater for every 1,000 new Marcellus wells drilled, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. Last year, there were more than seven cases for every 1,000 new wells.
Of the 10 confirmed Marcellus Shale stray gas cases since the start of 2008 – each of which may include more than one affected water well or flawed gas well – all of them have been recorded in this corner of the state.”
The first thing a careful reader notices is that it is highly unusual when someone attempts to make a case for a trend based on only two years of data, especially when at least three years of data are obviously available as the third paragraph above indicates. Moreover, why aren’t we seeing the actual numbers, as well as the rates? The data on the number of wells drilled is readily available from DEP. It indicates there were 199 Marcellus wells drilled in 2008, 764 in 2009, 1,454 in 2010 and 654 so far in 2011. Applying the rates quoted in the story, this suggests there were 10 methane migration cases last year and one the year before – a total of 11 for the two years. This is curious because the article also says there were only 10 for all of 2008-2010. How can this be? Additionally, what is the source of the data? Presumably, it’s DEP, but a source is never actually stated. Journalistic standards apparently now permit undocumented assertions. Who needs confirmation, anyway, when the subject is knocking natural gas?
It is also interesting to note how the violations data is utilized in the article. In this case, the writer opts to employ data from 2010 and 2011, which is unusual considering 2011 data was not used with respect to methane migration case numbers. It notes there were 47 cementing and/or casing violations identified in DEP records for 2011 to date and 90 for 2010. The data is publicly available and I notice the violation rate is fairly steady over the entire period. It also appears there were relatively few recorded violations in 2009, which suggests the “quintupling” of cases that serves to feed the story headline is more likely a matter of better observation and better enforcement beginning in 2010, rather than any real change. This makes sense given what was learned in 2009 about the methane migration problem and to which now both DEP and the industry are responding. There have been selected problems but they are minimal in number (less than five cases for every 1,000 wells drilled).
Finally, what is missing from an article is often more important than what is written. This piece is no exception. It acknowledges the progress being made (toward the end of the article) but, prior to that, pans the oft stated fact that methane migration is a common problem. What is missing is the perspective that would have been provided by a comparison with the numbers of methane migration problems resulting from water well drilling and the number of wells with existing methane problems. That data was available from multiple sources. The recently released New York State SGEIS, for example, says “methane migration to shallow aquifers is a natural phenomenon and can be expected to occur in active and non-active natural gas drilling areas.” It also notes an example from Saratoga County where “water wells in the Brown Road subdivision, Saratoga County became contaminated with methane gas when water wells were “blasted” (fractured) to reach a greater supply of water.” A story that appeared not too long ago in the Hancock Herald about the experiences of a long-time local water well driller noted the following:
The phenomenon of “seepage” is relatively common in Susquehanna and Wayne Counties and drillers often found natural gas while drilling for water. The internet features several videos of people “flaring” matches at water faucets in Susquehanna County, which is cited as evidence that gas drilling is damaging private water wells. However, drillers fifty years ago often found that they could flare matches at the faucets. According to Francis Tully, near Clifford, in Susquehanna County, “nearly every well in the area” has natural gas.
Francis Tully’s observation is supported by other publications from around the country that talk about methane problems originating with water well drilling – this National Ground Water Association report, for example, and this presentation. This 1982 report also substantiates the problem, as does this local newspaper story.
So, as the Citizens Voice story makes its rounds among the sycophant media outlets who jump on every story that appears to be in the slightest regard anti-gas, keep these facts in mind. No one denies stray gas is an issue that must be dealt with effectively in drilling for gas in our region and companies are rising to the challenge (a point made clear in the article) but suggesting it is anything but an existing situation to which gas drilling must adapt or that it is quintupling is over the top. It’s time for reasoned discussion, and while most of the article was in that vein, some healthy skepticism is in order in this case.
** Update (July 11, 11:00pm): John Hanger also covered this story on his blog today. See his review here.