Texas Monthly Could Sure Use an Ombudsman

Nate Blakeslee at Texas Monthly has decided to take the Ian Urbina route to reporting about hydraulic fracturing: just keep throwing stuff on the wall and see what sticks. That’s too bad.

Ian Urbina, of course, is the New York Times reporter who, throughout 2010 and 2011, filed a series of inflammatory, Gasland-style pieces that took about 30 seconds to fully debunk. His reports were so poorly sourced and inaccurate that the public editor for the Times felt it necessary to file not one but two separate pieces of his own apologizing to the Times’ readership for Mr. Urbina’s serial misreporting.

Such embarrassment must have had an effect on the Times’ editorial staff, since it’s been quite awhile since we have heard from Mr. Urbina on the subject of shale gas or hydraulic fracturing.

Filling the void appears to be Mr. Blakeslee, who filed an “Urbina-style report” in the October issue of Texas Monthly, making many of the same half-true claims upon which The Times was fond of expounding. For instance: the claim that hydraulic fracturing benefits from some sort of loophole in the  Safe Drinking Water Act (not true). And like the claim that hydraulic fracturing has been proven to contaminate drinking water (not true), in which he relies on a single disputed case in West Virginia that occurred in 1982. On this,  Mr. Blakeslee hangs his hat on an inconclusive event that took place three full decades ago, in another state, under a completely different regulatory regime than we have here in Texas.

When my colleague Steve Everley responded to the Texas Monthly piece with a letter pointing out the facts about hydraulic fracturing, the publication did print it – albeit an edited version. But for some reason, the publication also gave Mr. Blakeslee a second opportunity to repeat his debunked claims.

To be sure, no one is afraid of or opposed to healthy debate, and we’re pleased that Texas Monthly posted the response. But it’s interesting that a magazine would publish the functional equivalent of a letter to the editor, then give the author of the offending article more space than was allowed for the letter itself to respond to it.

Fact is, hydraulic fracturing has never been regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act since its passage in 1974 — for the simple fact that scientists and policymakers in seven different administrations spanning both parties and 38 years have determined the process does not present a threat to ground water. Mr. Blakeslee, however, chose to insinuate that the 2005 Congress did something nefarious, picking up on a tack that’s popular among anti-shale bloggers, but isn’t considered credible by most responsible journalists.

As for the West Virginia case, EID has actually done a little work on that one. Here are the facts:

  • In 1982, a well was drilled into and through the Pittsburg sandstone in West Virginia.
  • Some time later, residents near the well site noticed contaminants in their drinking water, and reported this to state regulators.
  • West Virginia regulations at the time required operators to set casing 20 feet below known drinking water zones. However, at the time the well was drilled, no one in the state government knew that anyone was obtaining drinking water from the Pittsburg sand, which had long been known also to contain productive amounts of oil and gas.
  • Thus, it is unlikely that well casing was set and cemented below this water-containing zone, making it possible that fracturing fluids could have escaped into the Pittsburg sand. (Another possibility, however, is that the “contaminants” in residents’ drinking water were simply naturally occurring oil and gas that the Pittsburg sand formation is known to contain.)
  • West Virginia state regulators at the time made no determinative finding as to the source of the contamination. However, after finding out that the Pittsburg sand actually was a source of drinking water for some West Virginia residents, the state began requiring casing to be set below that formation in order to prevent any oil and gas well fluids from escaping into it.
  • Urbina and Blakeslee claim that the “EPA” determined this 30 year old incident was without any question at all the result of hydraulic fracturing. However, that claim is based not on any real-time formal EPA finding, but a report issued five years later, in 1987, by Carla Greathouse, a well-known, long-time opponent of the oil and gas industry, who was working on contract for the EPA.  No agenda-free reporter would think of claiming Ms. Greathouse as an authoritative, unbiased source.

Now, there is a reason why EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has repeatedly and unambiguously gone on the record dismissing the accusations of the other side: she understands that a 30 year-old incident in which no real determination of any kind was made is not the sort of thing a credible person would hang his or her hat on.

Texas Monthly wants Texans to believe otherwise, advancing the same discredited talking points that we were forced to endure from The New York Times last year. But hey, at least The Times had an ombudsman on hand over there to set the record straight when it was needed. If there’s one of those on staff over at the Texas Monthly, now might be a good time to dust him off and hear what he has to say.

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