Saturday, February 26, 2011

Gasland And The Oscars

Despite Josh Fox having real roots in Pennsylvania, and though normally I root for all things Pennsylvanian, I am not pulling for Gasland to win an Oscar for Best Documentary.

I gave Josh an extended interview when I was the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection that he heavily edited to include in the film.  As Mom says: "You got to love the super close-ups of your darling face."

While treating my face fairly, the film presents a selective, distorted view of gas drilling and the energy choices America faces today.  If Gasland were about the airline industry, every flight would crash and all airlines would be irresponsible. In Gasland, the gas industry is unsafe from beginning to end and is one unending environmental nightmare with no benefits.

Gasland seeks to inflame public opinion to shutdown the natural gas industry and is effective. In pursuing this goal, Gasland treats cavalierly facts both by omitting important ones and getting wrong others. 

As just one example, Gasland wrongly says the budget for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection was cut by 25% and that hundreds lost their jobs in 2009.  That was a useful mistake for Gasland to make, because it builds falsely the argument that natural gas drilling is not regulated.

In fact, more than 70% of the DEP budget in 2009 came from either federal funds that were stable or increasing or from fees/fines that were stable or increasing as well.  The budget cuts were restricted to the 30% of the total budget that came from state taxpayers and amounted to a total of 9%, a far cry from the 25% total budget cut Gasland falsely claims.

When the Lehman Brothers collapse on September 15, 2008 led to a near depression and a decline in state tax revenues, I began a push to increase fees by $50 million to help meet or expand DEP's vital permitting and enforcement duties.

And what was the first fee that Governor Rendell and I raised after I became Secretary on September 2nd, 2008?  The fee for applying for a gas drilling permit.

The drilling application fee in 2009 jumped to as much as $5,000 to $10,000 per application for Marcellus wells from a ridiculously low $100 that had been set in 1984 and never raised.

Revenues from application fees increased from less than $1 million per year to more than $10 million per year. All that revenue went to more than doubling the size of the gas drilling oversight staff.  Additional gas staff were hired in 2009 and again in 2010, increasing the number of state employees that solely regulated the gas industry from 88 to 202.

You will not find any mention in Gasland of the drilling fee increase or the hiring of more gas regulatory staff.

The 9% budget cut did require laying off 97 (not hundreds as Gasland suggests) state employees in December 2009, and for each one of those workers the lay-off notice was a personal and family crisis.

But none of the 97 positions were in the gas oversight staff. None were inspectors or had enforcement duties in any programs, because I directed that enforcement duties in the entire agency were immune from budget cuts. DEP's workforce temporarily declined from 2,830 to 2,727 positions but returned to the pre-layoff number starting in the July 1, 2010 budget. 

You will also not find any mention in Gasland of the 4 new, strengthening regulatory packages--water withdrawal policy, wastewater disposal rule, 150 foot buffer for High Quality streams rule, and gas well drilling standards rule--that were in process as early as 2008 at my direction and completed by 2010.

Each of these rules greatly increased the strength of rules governing gas drilling and the protections of our water.  For example the drilling wastewater rule that went into effect on August 2010 and was used in permits during 2009 required any new drilling wastewater treatment plant or any existing drilling wastewater treatment plant that expanded to fully treat drilling wastewater, including for Total Dissolved Solids (salts) to the Safe Drinking Water Standard, prior to discharge.  Existing plants were conditionally allowed to continue operating as long as the receiving streams had water quality levels below 75% of the Safe Drinking Water Act's 500 mg/liter standard.  This rule stopped Pennsylvania's decades-long practice of allowing unlimited amounts of drilling wastewater untreated for TDS to be discharged to rivers and streams.

In response to the draft drilling wastewater regulation that was issued in 2009, the drilling industry developed technology that allowed it to reuse or recycle drilling wastewater.  By 2010 approximately 70% or higher of drilling wastewater that returned to the surface was being recycled by the industry. 

You will find none of that regulatory development in Gasland.

Nor will you find in Gasland any mention of the1400 violations to industry that DEP staff  issued from January 1, 2008 to June 30, 2010.

Nor will you find the October 2008 DEP orders to municipal sewage treatment plants on the Mon River and elsewhere that were taking drilling waste without DEP permission to cut by 95% their drilling waste volumes.

Nor will you find any mention of the orders to stop drilling or to stop fracking or to pay to clean up spills or leaks.  Nor will you find any mention of orders to plug gas wells and spend millions repairing wells.

And you won't find any mention in Gasland of the DEP and state police random stops of gas drilling trucking traffic that put as many as 40% of the drilling trucks out of service.

All these actions are true but inconvenient to the Gasland narrative that gas drilling in Pennsylvania is not  regulated so they don't make it into the film.

But perhaps the biggest of Gasland's many problems is that it does not discuss the alternatives to natural gas.  If not natural gas, then what?

The reality today is that only more coal and oil, both of which are dirtier than natural gas, could replace the 24% of America's electricity made from natural gas and the 51% of homes heating with natural gas. Since coal and oil pollute more in their production and combustion, using more natural gas to replace them decreases mercury, soot, smog, and heat trapping pollution. That is true for at least the next 10 years. 

Consider what the past and current use of coal and oil has wrought.

Gasland does not show the 5,000 miles of streams in Pennsylvania polluted by acid mine drainage or the 180,000 acres of abandoned mine land that are being slowly reclaimed at great expense.

Gasland does not show mountain top removal coal mining or any of the 500 mountain tops already removed and 1200 miles of streams buried. 

Gasland does not show the soot, smog, and mercury pollution coming right now from the one-third of USA coal plants that are more than 40 years old and operating with few or no pollution controls. 

Gasland does not discuss the oil spills that have damaged ecosystems around the world   Just one out-of-control oil well in the Gulf devastated it.  No gas well could do such damage.

Gasland does not tell viewers that one-out-of-six American women have elevated levels of mercury so that their babies would have lower IQ, and that the mercury in their bodies comes from burning coal.

Gasland does not tell viewers natural gas has no mercury emissions, or natural gas creates less soot or smog than coal or oil that kills or sickens hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.

Gasland does not tell viewers that burning coal emits more heat trapping pollution that is raising temperatures slowly but surely around the world than natural gas does

America does not run on clean fuels today but instead on mainly coal and oil.  Natural gas is cleaner than coal or oil and can quickly replace large amounts of both for electricity generation, heating, and transportation.  America should be doing that for our economy, national security, and environment.

Of course, natural gas has impacts and is not the full, only, or ultimate solution.  It must be strongly regulated, rules enforced, and rules strengthened further if needed.

And we must accelerate deployment of even cleaner technologies like wind, solar, and others. More must be invested in energy conservation, the cleanest and cheapest option. 

Yet those who say renewables could replace here and now gas, coal, and/or oil are unfortunately wrong, totally wrong (I will address further this point in a separate post).  I say that as someone who has led the charge for more wind, solar, energy conservation in Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania now has 20 wind farms operating or being built and over 4,000 functioning solar projects.  More of both are being built and both have higher growth rates than any other generation technology.

Another fact is that shale drilling has created enormous natural gas supplies and has driven down the price of natural gas by 20% in the last year and 70% since 2008, even as oil skyrockets 40% in one year.  These sharply lower prices are vital, a true blessing, for poor and middle class families who had $3,000 heating bills in 2007 and 2008 when natural gas cost three times what it costs today.  Heat in winter is a necessity, but even now some go without.

The much lower price of natural gas means that it is available for the equivalent of $1.40 per gallon when gasoline now hits about $3.30 a gallon.  To capture the economic and environmental benefits of natural gas we must use it to replace dirtier and now more expensive oil and gas.

Society cannot make good decisions without looking at the facts as they are.  Gasland does not do that.

In the last year, I have interacted with Josh Fox.  While some of his critics would not agree, I believe he has good intentions.

Mr. Fox is giving voice to real concerns and speaking for some people that really have been negatively impacted by drilling who should not be ignored. He would be a more convincing and responsible voice if he were more careful.  Indeed we all should strive to be more careful.

Yet, I also believe that his critics that include me would do well to focus on a basic truth: the natural gas industry is industrial and must be strongly regulated.  Again, rules must be enforced and strengthened if necessary. 

The natural gas industry can be safer and cleaner and should always fix problems right away when they occur. 

Natural gas is cleaner than coal and oil, but it is not as clean or safe as it can be.  Achieving operational and environmental excellence is a challenge first and foremost for the industry, but it is one that everyone --government, industry, communities, environmental groups -- should help meet.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    The shortest way to state the problem is something like: The energy status quo is lousy. Exploiting the shale gas in the Marcellus is lousy. Whether exploiting the Marcellus Shale will make the overall picture more or less lousy, I still don't know. What does need to happen is that we need to start using a whole lot less energy.

  2. Interesting discussion, John. I just watched the film for the second time, and I have to say, I thought it was well done. At the same time, I can certainly appreciate your position and understand if the film does not reflect your point of view.

    I have not spoken with Josh myself, but I believe I have a good idea of his motives and his concerns. I led a documentary team down to the Gulf Coast back in August 2010 and I heard with my own ears repeated defense of the oil industry, despite the systematic abuse of the environment by that industry over many decades. The Oil Spill Commission Report, which I am now reading, is clear in its assertion that the regulatory structure in place to protect the environment and public health from the risks of offshore oil drilling has been woefully inadequate, and has suffered repeated setbacks dating back to the 1970s.

    The pattern is clear - people (and often government agencies) tend to look at the economics of these situations first and foremost, and do little to analyze the bigger picture, much less their own behavior, or how they play a part in the system overall. I was happy to hear you mention energy conservation, which is indeed the cleanest and cheapest option available to us.

    I think one of the biggest problems we face is that we have become so accustomed to cheap energy sources (regardless of their devastating environmental and health impacts) that there is a tendency to latch onto whatever will allow us to keep going the way we're going now without having to really sacrifice anything along the way. In my documentary work, that is the piece that I try to drive home - we ALL play a part in these disasters, and it's up to each of us to look inward and make changes to our own behavior. Until we are willing to consume less, drive less, build smarter homes, etc., we cannot cast too many stones.

    I would like to see a drastic reduction in consumption coupled with a dramatic increase in regulation and safety enforcement of fossil fuel extraction across the board. I would also like to see realistic pricing that would level the playing field and allow alternative energy sources to truly compete. As long as we are willing to subsidize the fossil fuel industry both directly and indirectly, and bend (or even ignore) the rules so that this industry can continue to operate as it has for decades, we will continue to suffer disaster after disaster until there is no untouched land or water left to enjoy.

    I don't envy anyone in your position. There is only so much you can do with the resources you are provided. You might have the best intentions and be an honorable man. If only there were more honorable men and women that would raise their hands and stand up for the good of the people and the natural environment, films like Gasland would not be necessary.

  3. We expected you to be more aggressive in protecting our environment rather than to be more concerned with the oil & gas industry's profits. Pennsylvanias deserve better. You could have rallied more support rather than tried to do everything on your own. I for one am disappointed in the lack of leadership and marshaling of forces necessary for such a large task.

  4. John:

    I can say that the industry's profits never once entered our calculations except when Govenor Rendell and his Administration (including me) strongly advocated for a severance tax. A basis for that position was the profitability of the industry. The public record will confirm this point.

    My role as a regulator was to be neither a friend or foe to any interest group. We endeavored to be professional, independent regulators.

    Starting on September 2nd, 2008 when I became Secretary, the record shows that the PA DEP advanced 4 major new rules/policies. The new water withdrawal policy; the new wastewater disposal rule; the new gas well drilling standards rule; and the new 150 foot buffer rule for Pennsylvania's High Quality streams. I aggressively fought for each of those rules. I urged support for them. Spoke to reporters and anyone who would listen on the behalf of the rules as there was major opposition to both. I personally made the argument at the vital Independent Regulatory Review Commission meeting when the wastewater rule and the buffer rule were approved by IRRC on a 4-1 vote.

  5. It's a shame you evidently moderate your comments, considering the amount of time and thought I put into the one that I submitted last night.

    I was looking forward to a dialogue, but it appears you are not interested.



  6. Brandon:

    Please resend your original post. i tried to publish it but it didn't publish and then it vanished. please resend.

  7. From your defensive posturing, it seems clear that you are as disgusted by how you came off in Gasland as I was by watching you. Your feeble attempts to justify the prostitution of Pennsylvania's land for profit was just appalling. I know it's not a perfect world. However, after watching the documentary, how could you look at even one of those affected families and justify your position? You clearly feel that you need to defend yourself. If that's the case, are you even capable of grasping that perhaps you deserve the scorn and derision you are receiving? I understand that sort of self-awareness must be unbelievably difficult and painful, and for some, almost impossible. But in reality, the case is this: you have seen, unless your position is that all of those families are lying, the deleterious effect of the fracking process on American citizens. No amount of justification will change the fact that you are staking your position on the side of the corporations that are killing American citizens. I wonder how you look at yourself in the mirror. Oh, need to wonder. The answer is convenient self-delusion. Shame on you.

  8. Well a long time ago I found out that no decision or inaction is without moral consequence. You seem to want to ban gas drilling or at least fracking. Your position would have many impacts. Those near drilling now who have been impacted by drilling would be protected (As dep secretary I did not hesitate to conclude drilling impacted families where the facts supported it). But what else would happen? How about the 14,000 to 36,000 Americans dying this year from pollution from the old coal fired plants that amount to one-third of all coal plants? Your victory of banning gas drilling/fracking would mean more coal burning and more deaths and illness. What about more oil usage? Our nation has fought two wars in the middle east oil fields in the last 20 years. Less gas means more coal and oil. What about the 51% of american families that use natural gas to get through the winter and many of them have incomes below $30,000 per year? What would your victory mean for them? Utility shutoffs because they can't pay 10% or 20% of their total income just for the gas bill. Your victory would kill people, hurt people, pollute people too. None of us walk on water and have perfect choices.

  9. Mr. Hanger,

    I work in the natural gas industry here in Pennsylvania. I would like to voice my opinion on this issue as somebody who the DEP is in charge of regulating.

    I moved here in 2008 with my wife and three daughters to work on Marcellus shale gas sites. Personally, I think the public perception that the industry is unregulated is highly misleading. I have come to understand the strict environmental standards the DEP in Pennsylvania enforces, which is greater than any place I have worked. I don't think many people realize how much of a presence, and control the DEP has on this industry. From personal experience, I know that it is not uncommon for inspectors to show up on our sites multiple times every single week. These visits are random, unannounced, and serve to keep our sites environmentally sound. We do get fined, we are taught better ways to operate, and we are continuously improving.

    What may surprise people to hear is that we do not object to these inspections. We actually do want the DEP to inspect our sites, offer suggestions to keep our workers and the environment safe. We know that if we do not operate in an environmentally safe way, the DEP has the right (and authority) to block our permits and shut us down, a fact that is sometimes misunderstood.

    We look at the DEP as authoritative figures to enforce best practices on these sites. While inspections and violations may ultimately lead to fines for our companies, we know they are enforced to serve the public.

    It's unfortunate the DEP has been subjected to such criticism when I personally see how much of a presence they have on operations here. Hopefully with time the public will better understand our operations and the safegaurds in place to protect them.

    That being said, there will always be more improvements to be made, we know the DEP will be there to enforce them, and we will be here to work with them.

  10. I work in the oil/gas industry (drilling) and see the lengths that companies go to in order to minimize environmental impact. It's tough but we are constantly improving our process's. That being said, it's not a perfect world and anyone with audacity to criticize the industry that is the economic backbone of the modern world is just plain ignorant. Yes there are alternatives but there is no infrastructure for them yet and it will be a slow process to ease our dependance on oil, gas and coal for that matter. The next time any of you feel the need to spout off about how "bad" the oil/gas industry is, think about where you would be without it. We heat your home, fill your car with fuel, etc etc. The amount of products that are made using petroleum products is astounding. Even your alternative energy is somewhat dependent on oil as it is used to make solar panels, mining equipment runs on diesel so you can have your lithium batteries. The list goes on and on.
    So think about the big picture before spewing your righteous BS.

  11. both sides argue about their case. One cautions while the other though not justifying it, reveals the way the production process is handled sitting on the field of work. One talks of futuristic danger while the other talks of the present realistic existence. Be it as it may, it is time that we seriously think of alternative less harmful but efficient all purpose energy source. I appreciate you Mr. Hanger for your thoughtful insights. It applies more to developing world. Manohar

  12. I find it most interesting - and not a little telling about your own bias - that in amongst the article you comment how the film *must* be wrong... because of the many cases where the use of fracking *has* been found to be dangerous and *has* been found to be hazardous to health and *has* been found to damage the environment by the authorities in the various areas.

    One can hardly say that findings by authorities that the film is fundamentally correct in its assessment of damage caused is in any way "debunking" the films own portrayals of exactly the same sort of problem!

  13. Drilling has caused spills and leaks at surface that have had impacts on land and water (much less than the oil spills everyday). Poor well construction has caused gas to migrate to some private water wells. No frack fluids in Pennsylvania have comeback from depth to contaminate water wells. The recent Duke Study confirmed both the reality of the gas migration problem and the absence of frack fluids coming from depth. 11 water companies have tested their water for radionuclides and more than 90 other contaminants and have found no contamination whatsoever of drinking water in Pa.

    What impacts have specifically in the film has been confirmed to which you refer?

    The Colorado authorities said the iconic picture of tap water lighting in the movie was a result of long-existing gas and not gas migrating due to drilling.

    1. in response to the anonymous post about "spewing your righteous BS" why don't you look at what else you precious industry has done? They spend as much money lobbying congress for weak laws that are easily bypassed and when that is too obvious they argue for outright loopholes with false statements of policy, they then have to stick by those false statements or else some lawyer will connect the dots all the way back and say hey "congress only enacted this law with this language because of testimony your company gave saying this specific wording is the only safe way" and that is how you get this situation - elected officials that are clueless but given a good story by the lobbyists, "scientific" analysis being paid for and conducted by groups funded solely by industry, and an industry that refuses to admit problems despite video of people lighting drinking water on fire!

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  15. Are you serious? Look at the dates for all of the things you cited. Original permit created in 1984, everything else is late 2000s, so for 26 years your state has been EXACTLY as bad as portrayed in both gasland films? What would you have done without the films? (Besides continue to line you and all your cronies pockets)?

    1. I am very serious. All the regulations discussed began in 2008 or 2009 or more than a year before Gaslands was shown for the first time. I hired more inspectors a full year before Gaslands appeared. I raised the drilling application fee from $100 to on average $3,000 a full year before the movie ever appeared. I can go on with example after example.