Thursday, August 4, 2011

Statement on the EWG/NYT 1982 West Virginia Fracking Case

As I read the EWG/NYT report yesterday about events at a well drilled and fractured in 1982 in Jackson county West Virginia, one thing I knew for sure from my years of experience as a lawyer, Public Utility Commissioner adjudicating cases, and as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection was not to jump to conclusions.  See the June 9th posting entitled the Regulatory Hot Seat for more on this fundamental point.  I knew that there would be at least 2 versions of events.  That was especially so, because the event about which we are now learning took place 29 years ago.

As I read the NYT piece that was obviously written in close coordination with EWG, another thing that I knew was the NYT gas reporter--the twice censured NYT gas reporter and censured by the NYT's own Public Editor--would not provide a full accounting of the events about which he wrote.  He would leave out key information.  He would slant other information.  He would not accurately or fully describe key characters.

Energy In Depth does an excellent job in insuring that facts important to the gas industry are part of the public record.   Yesterday it issued a must read response to the EWG/NYT Report.  Go to http://www.energyindepth.org/ and follow the links.  We have 2 sides to the story, and I am waiting for still more to emerge.

EID has correspondence from the West Virginia State Agency at the time of this 1982 event.  Reading that state agency information is important to trying to recreate what happened. 

The information developed by EID seems to suggest that fracturing may have been done in the Pittsburg sandstone, a shallow formation, prior to subsequent mapping by the West Virginia authorities to remove it from areas where fracturing was permitted, because it was learned that the Pittsburg sandstone contained potable water supplies.  The EID information seems to suggest that fracturing at depth, thousands of feet below the water table did not cause the water contamination at the water well in Jackson County.

Jumping to conclusions  one way or another about what happened in 1982 in Jackson County West Virginia this morning would be as silly as yesterday.  Indeed the passage of time may well mean that figuring this out definitively may not be possible.

A few things, howerver, are certain this morning.  As opposed to a rush to judgment, a full, fair discussion of this case is a good thing and not a bad thing, though again we must all be cautious in our expectations of what can be determined nearly 30 years later. 

This case does remind us all that fracking has been going on for decades, a very long time, in many places around the country.  If fracking is a major threat to water, as things like run-off, mining discharges, oil spills are, it is quite amazing that few or any cases have been confirmed of fracking fluids returning from depth to cause water contamination after decades and decades.  Frack fluids would be as obvious in water supplies as a fireworks display in the sky.

I can say definitively that in Pennsylvania fracking has been done for decades, and high volume hydraulic fracturing at great depths for shale gas has been done in Pennsylvania in significant numbers since 2007.  I can say that I personally ordered testing of water wells to determine if fracking was polluting water wells in Pennsylvania.  All results came back negative.  Duke University has also tested a significant number of water wells in Pennsylvania, and Duke University has found no contamination from fracking fluids or chemicals returning from depth.

I can also say that the on-going EPA study of fracking is a good thing and that I am pleased that 3 of the EPA case studies will be in Pennsylvania.

The 1982 events in Jackson County, West Virginia are legitimate grist for investigation but, whatever really happened then, those now inevitably murky events are less probative than the large body of much more recent experience with fracking.

Finally when will similar focus be placed on pollution that we know is causing massive damage to water resources--acid mine run-off that has destroyed 5,000 miles of streams in Pennsylvania, run-off of nitrogen and phosphorus that has sickened the Chesapeake Bay, leaking oil and other chemicals into ground water from industrial activities?  No need to do a year long investigation of events back in 1982 on any of these actual water pollution events happening this morning to know that they are a major problem. We are in danger of losing track of what are the most real and most serious water quality issues that must be addressed.

20 comments:

  1. In a world filled with silly, phony think tanks, Energy In Depth has struck me as the silliest and the phoniest that I have yet come across. They will do anything to defend fracking. I can't take a single thing they say or report on seriously.

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  2. EID is completely industry funded. And this industry has made the "no contamination from frack fluid" a mantra.

    I spoke to a geologist today who said what worries her is not what happened to wells and frack fluid 30 years ago, but what is going to happen to all the frack fluid we're currently injecting in 30 year from now. Due to the vast reaches, the density, and the seriously limited statute of limitations for current horizontal shale wells, how long before EID and the industry are shirking responsibility for GammaFrac seeping into the water table. And will Ian Urbina still be around to blame?

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  3. Regardless of the source of funding, the questions raised by EID and the points they make regarding the exceptionally safe track record of hydraulic fracturing should not be so carelessly dismissed. Facts are facts and valid points are valid points, irrespective of who is paying the salary of the people sent to collect them.

    Mr. Urbina has proven himself (as has been well documented in this blog) to be an untrustworthy spinster using the NYT as his pulpit to maliciously incite unwarranted fear and misunderstanding about the natural gas industry for what one can only assume is a personal agenda.

    To not seriously question the validity of this article with the input of other sources, INCLUDING THE INDUSTRY, would lead one down the path to willful ignorance, and away from clarity.

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  4. As a professional aquatic ecologist, I appreciate John's plea to place questions regarding hydraulic fracturing in the larger context of water quality impairment. The sources and types of impairment of our surface waters are well studied and documented. Top sources of impairment are abandoned mine drainage, agricultural activity, and storm water runoff. Top types of impairment are sedimentation, elevated metals and depressed pH, and eutrophication / organic enrichment. These issues have huge effects on water resources and yet receive very little public attention, in part because the environmental community is distracted by trivial threats. Failure to accurately perceive and prioritize environmental threats will result in a failure to respond to real threats and a degraded environment.

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  5. No. This is not an industry with a safe track record. There are more violations than there are wells. Perhaps Mr. Hangar could put the severity of those violations into context. At a public meeting last week I heard someone in the coal mining business say that the DEP violations don't really mean anything, shouldn't be taken seriously. Then why do them?

    This is not about Urbina or the NYT - although he's a lovely scapegoat for the industry. This is about EPA reports from 1982 that suggest the industry's mantra might be wrong.

    It is absurd to suggest that it doesn't matter who writes the checks. Even respected academic institutions like Penn State will produce recommendations contrary to good science to make more money. This is a new phenomena in public policy or politics.

    http://allianceforajustsociety.org/2408/lets-not-get-fracked/

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  6. I'm sorry Mr. Smith but I have to strongly disagree with you. Compared to the myraid of threats that the environment faces (as mentioned above by Mr. Turner), natural gas drilling is miniscule, especially when you take into account both the environmental and economic rewards that come with the displacement of other dirtier, foreign fuels that are currently in widespread use.

    There is no question that with proper regulation/oversight and commitment from the industry these wells can be completed safely. The industry has shown that it is eager to comply. With just a letter from DEP requesting the cessation of taking water to municipal water treatment facilities, the industry halted this decades old practice in 30 days. 3,500 or so wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania, with only a tiny handful of serious issues, most of which can be attributed to the learning curve associated with this new style of drilling. Lessons have been learned and practices have adapted. Companies consistently go far above and beyond regulation in the implementation of best practices.

    Pennsylvania has more gas well inspectors than the state of Texas despite having only a fraction of the development, attaining nearly a 2 to 1 ratio of inspectors to active rigs. Natural gas drilling is being done right, and will only get better as best practices evolve and regulations tighten. The number of violations (which are on the decline) speak more to the vigilance of oversight rather than industry incompetence.

    This all adds up to the safe, responsible development of this crucial resource which has the potential to greatly improve both the air quality in PA (which is atrocious) and the local economy.

    In regards to your accusation of collusion between academia and industry, I would be interested to know what exactly you are basing that on. MIT and PSU are two of the most highly respected research institutions in the world. To wantonly suggest that they are corrupt is nonsensical. The money paid by the industry to cover the costs of research would not even be a drop in the bucket to these institutions, and to risk their good name by being "caught in bed" with the natural gas industry just doesn't add up.

    Regards,

    Mike

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  7. Mike, the violations up to date from Marcellus Shale are not on the decline - they're about half of what they were last year. They're available on the EPA website - for example, MDS Energy had 4 wells this year, and 12 violations so far, these don't seem like safe operations:

    1) Failure to contain pollutional substances in the form of drill cuttings/waste. Discharge of industrial waste to the ground. Drill cuttings/waste was found in a ditch line on the perimeter of the site and extended down slope about 75 feet. Appears to have been squeezed out of the pit during encapsulation. 2) Improper pit construction - pit not minimum of 20 inches from SHWT. According to onsite E&S plan SHWT at 14 to 36 inches. 3) Improper encapsulation of waste.

    You should check the link I provided, and listen to the TAL it references. Or, you should talk to any professor at a Western PA university. I can give you 5-10 who will tell you that they're pressured not to be critical of Marcellus shale fracking, or even coal mining. The most clear case is Dr. Voltz from PITT who was pushed out for exposing the very problem that the DEP finally recognized with treating waste water. The first line of Penn State's latest jobs report on MS is "This research was paid for by the Marcellus Shale Coalition." Don't be so naieve.

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  8. With regards to the huge list of other current health hazards that PA residents are forced to contend with because of the extraction industry, you'll get no argument about that from anyone concerned about fracking.

    But it's the kind of money, influence, and bald face denials of good science that are being exposed in fracking that keep us breathing this toxic air, and keep our fish filled with mercury. I live in a county where a local professor found that kids in our school district have twice the asthma rates of the rest of the country, but didn't publish for fear of reprisals from the industry dominated board of directors. Our state senator has a bumper sticker that says, Coal: the Original BioFuel. He actually said to me that he's spent his career in Harrisburg defending the interests of drillers, miners and the industry. Many folks have suggested he's the reason why the nearest air quality monitor is 1/2 hour away (significantly farther than two coal plants, one of which is currently being sued by at least 2 states and the EPA). Our state Rep. made a presentation where he intimated that the threats of mercury pollution from coal plants are unfounded, because there's no way mercury could get airborne. Professors at our local university are afraid to speak out against these things for fear of reprisals, and for legitimate fear of losing funding.

    But, the idea that Pennsylvanians are barking up the wrong tree when they're highly critical of fracking is insulting. People are now hearing the same lies, or mistruths, and industry funded propaganda such as EID that they heard before oil, before coal, before nuclear, etc.

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  9. It's not as if people think - "oh, isn't PA such a lovely, serene, healthy environment, I don't want even a drop of this diluted frack fluid in my pristine lake." People have been lied to by the extraction industry for years, and all we have to show for it are burning towns, acid mine drainage, asthma and cancer pockets, and a sad hope that this Marcellus boom is going to be the real thing.

    People are tired of it, and they're tired of it being okay for this same industry to have a majority of the seats at the table in Harrisburg.

    And people are indeed doing something about it - last week I attended a local meeting of the Sierra Club which is expanding it's Beyond Coal campaign thanks to a $50 million grant from Bloomberg. That's a significant chunk of change for one state. The NYT carried that news, did you?

    But just because the landscape has already been crapped on, doesn't mean we should stand by and allow a new industry to come crap on it some more - even if the new crap is smaller. One guy suggested to me under oath that his GammaFrac product was just as "safe" as the crap that coal plants dump into our rivers. That doesn't make either of those things okay. It's still crap.

    Anyone who really cares about PA's environment should be embracing the high level of scepticism that the natural gas industry is enjoying. Anyone who really cares about PA's environment should be should be working their buts off to expand that scepticism and environmental awareness to the myriad of other threats to the public health of the Commonwealth (particularly if someone knows anything about organizing).

    Anyone who's punching holes in this fragile popular movement that at the very minimum will keep the dangers of fracking at bay is likely out to make a buck.

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  10. Mr. Hangar, you've suggested that the costs of such scepticism is that we burn coal for longer, leading to more crap. But I'd suggest to you that the reward for such scepticism is that we have a populous that is highly aware of industry threats to their health. The reward is that the balance of power in Harrisburg could shift from being dominated by the corporate interests (which are increasingly from out of state, and out of the country) to one dominated by Pennslyvanians who aren't explicitly out to cash in on fossil fuels.

    And please, Mr. Hangar, stop making this about Ian Urbina, or the NYT, or Josh Fox, or Dianne Ream. I know those folks have publicly misquoted, or misrepresented, or were disrespectful to you, but it's time to move on. How many times have you posted about them?

    I would much rather read about your thoughts on the DEP's short term air quality study in which they tested for ozone on a cloudy day. I would much rather read about how DEP's recommendations didn't make it into the Marcellus Shale Commission's recommendations. I would much rather read about these mysterious non-disclosure agreements that companies sign with land owners so the real extent of potential damage from drilling may be worse than we thought. I would much rather read about how the DEP isn't actually able to take care of the 1400 or so orphaned shallow gas wells across the state, and that when you pass by an area in the woods that smells of nat. gas (or the "smeller" they add), that it is likely leaking something. I would much rather read about what's expected to happen with the thousands of MS wells being dug in 20 years. I would much rather read why you say DEP is underfunded, and the Lt. Gov. barked at our county commissioner when he suggested the same thing. I would much rather read about the new EPA regulations, and how the industry shut down the recommendations on ozone, and are putting up a hell of a fight for the most recent EPA recommendations on fracking.

    The industry isn't lacking for a spokesperson. Let EID deal with Ian Urbina. There's other, far more important things to write about.

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  11. Something may have gone wrong with a well drilled 30 years ago, when regulations were doubtless more lax than they are today in PA. Given all the wells drilled since then, this sounds like grabbing for straws.

    Unless you live in a cave or under a log, your activities are directly or indirectly invasive to the environment. Large scale agriculture that produces your food consumes water, fossil fuels and fertilizer. Heat and electricity consume coal, natural gas and uranium, which is hard to dispose of and can result in events like TMI and Fukushima. Sourcing energy from abroad has costs of its own, like the military, deficit spending and fewer domestic jobs. Given all this, you may find that, managed properly, natural gas production is less invasive than many of the other industries that enjoy far less controvercy.

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  12. Seriously John, you damage your credibility more every time you weigh in on Ian Urbina or Diane Rehm or whoever is taking a close look at facts about the gas industry today. I am horrified that you, a former ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATOR, not only take talking points from an industry PR group, but you exaggerate even past what Energy in Depth said. Come on. There's been a lot of contaminated drinking water because of this industry. Here in Pennsylvania, we all know that. Think Dimock. Think Bradford County. And at the end of the day, it's great that causation was proved in one documented West Virginia case, but when it comes down to it, when you've got a water buffalo in your front yard instead of a working well, you don't care whether it was the casing or the drilling or the fracking that was the strict legal cause, you just know that your water went bad.

    And it's not just people who live near a drilling rig. I live in a city in Pennsylvania, I drink water from rivers where the documents - not the New York Times, not Ian Urbina, federal documents and documents from YOUR VERY OWN department - show partially treated wastewater carrying radioactive and toxic chemicals was dumped into rivers that SOMETIMES might not be able to dilute them enough to make them safe. I'm sorry, but a few tests, taken in the winter and spring when river levels are high, aren't enough to make sure that the water I drink is safe. Only actually addressing the issue and enforcing the laws that are supposed to stop people from dumping chemicals into rivers will do that. But instead, we're getting half-measures and obfuscation.

    But really, in the end, who am I going to believe: a former state regulator who now spends his time quoting the industry he was supposed to police on his blog, or the New York Times which published thousands of pages of state and federal documents online to support everything they wrote? Next time, I recommend you take a couple of hours and closely read the documents BEFORE you start slinging mud - it'll save us all some time and we can actually discuss the issues, not industry talking points.

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  13. Some folks are willing to believe anything that confirms their opinion or position and not even look at anything that challenges it. So some in the industry insist gas drilling never causes gas to migrate and some folks who think gas drilling is evil believe any reckless charge made against it. On both sides these folks are beyond reason. In the piece to which these comments were filed, I said that there were two sides to the story and that jumping to any conclusion was wrong. Folks should read both the EWG and Energy In Depth reports. Both are written by folks paid to write them. That is not a reason to ignore either of them but something to consider when reading both.

    I am afraid in these times, folks read and watch what makes them comfortable. You believe Obama ia a socialist listen to Rush and watch Fox. Believe the gas industry is evil then read just the EWG or NYT gas reporter. Believe the gas industry is perfect then read and unquestioningly believe EID. I cannot stop that madness.

    As to the NYT gas reporter, the NYT Public EDitor has slammed him twice. Free country and a free press allows you to ignore that. But I doubt you would if the NYT gas reporter was running pieces recklessly, falsely praising the industry and the NYT Public Editor took the reporter to task for his deliberately false narratives.

    As to water testing of public drinking water systems, see the June 28th posting. The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer authority is testing every month for radionuclides. It is posting the results on the web every month. All test results are negative. It is doing radionuclide testing every month for a year. The water is safe. What do you want to bet that the water will be safe every month for the year? Public drinking water is tested daily for many contaminants. it is just
    factually wrong to say the water was tested in streams once in the spring.

    And again there are many much more serious threats to water quality than gas drilling. Gas drilling must be tightly regulated. But as a commenter pointed out gas drilling is not in the top 5 or probably top 10 threats to water quality.

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  14. I think a lot of people have had their minds put at ease knowing that for the next year, we won't have radioactive fracking waste fluid going into the waters of the commonwealth.

    So if radioactivity is not a problem, why, then are DOE and GE investing $2 million to remove radioactivity from fracking waste fluid?

    http://blogs.forbes.com/jeffmcmahon/2011/08/03/fracking-radiation-targeted-by-doe-ge/

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  15. Concerned ScientistAugust 8, 2011 at 10:39 AM

    Energy in Depth is an industry funded organization and should therefore be viewed skeptically. The links they provide, however, are commonly to neutral sites and in doing this they are providing a valuable service. You will not find these links provided They help readers who are actually interested in figuring out what is true. I don't accept anything EID writes as fact, but I do think everyone interested in this issue should read the site and especially the links that they provide. Their takedown of Gasland was largely confirmed by a study published in the NYT and you know they wanted to find flaws with it. EID is an industry front group though and the industry is in this to make money. Anyone with a financial stake should be viewed skeptically.

    Similarly, claims from many (but not all) environmental groups should also be viewed skeptically. They are trying to whip up fear in order to raise money. They have a financial stake in keeping people afraid so the donations keep rolling in. The Marcellus and shale gas in general have probably been the biggest moneymaker for them since Three Mile Island. Never forget that they are in it first to keep themselves funded. Some of the people who run these groups may believe what they say but many of them know they are being dishonest. This is a real crime as there are serious environmental problems the world is facing that we need to be taken seriously. When they hype an issue they know to be false they are acting as against the best interests of the environment.

    The people to trust on this issue are career state regulators. They get paid either way and are charged with protecting the environment.

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  16. Concerned ScientistAugust 8, 2011 at 2:55 PM

    This is funny - if you read EWG's press release here:

    http://www.ewg.org/release/epa-report-fracking-contaminated-drinking-water

    They actually say

    "Environmental Working Group found that the evidence in the West Virginia case was consistent with pollution from hydraulic fracturing, though it is possible that another stage of the drilling process caused the problem."

    That little caveat at the end of the quote suggests that maybe this is not the smoking gun that EWG and the NYT are trumpeting it to be. The NYT story had no such caveat.

    Of course, now the horse is out of the barn and this will become more conventional wisdom on the subject. What a crime.

    That this is the best they can come up with really does speak volumes.

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  17. I give more credit to EWG for intellectual honesty. It has more than the NYT gas reporter. But expecting the NYT gas reporter to not deliberately try to mislead his readers would be like expecting a rattlesnake not to bite for food.

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  18. Mr. Smith,

    You can regurgitate all of the anti-drilling talking points you want (although you may want to refresh your list, several of them are outdated). You can lob thinly veiled accusations of industry collusion towards the DEP. You can make unsubstantiated claims of academics being intimidated into silence. You can misrepresent public statements from elected officials with inflated hyperbole. You can misquote chemical engineers who INVENTED certain fracking chemicals to misrepresent the point of their comments. You can duck and dodge, spin and skew every single point that flies in the face of your agenda. Do you know what it all ads up to? The impression that you're a green incarnation of Glen Beck.

    We've talked many times. I think you are a rational person whose heart is in the right place. But if you refuse to allow honest arguments to exist in the proper context, and demand that the narrative be completely dismissive of ANY points that contradict your position, and you rely on flimsy conspiracy theories as the basis of many parts of your argument, your message will end up falling on deaf ears.

    In one breath, you criticize studies for being funded by the gas industry. In the next, you bash Mr. Hanger for pointing out the well documented fact that Ian Urbina is on a witch hunt to sink natural gas drilling. Both are pertinent points that provide necessary context. But for some reason, you are harshly critical of one, but not the other.

    Being so dismissive could lead one to believe that your objectivity has been seriously compromised.

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  19. Concerned ScientistAugust 11, 2011 at 8:23 AM

    Yeah Mike, I love this:

    "And please, Mr. Hangar, stop making this about Ian Urbina, or the NYT, or Josh Fox, or Dianne Ream. I know those folks have publicly misquoted, or misrepresented, or were disrespectful to you, but it's time to move on. How many times have you posted about them?"

    Mr Smith is trying to make out like John Hanger's feelings were hurt by these people and that is why he was posting about them. A very clever tactic!

    Those people are actually the unwitting lobby for the status quo. It isn't really about them - it's about the damage they are doing to the truth. they are taking a subject that is fairly complex and adding a bunch of misinformation that makes it even harder to explain the issue to the public. Add in Howarth and much of the Duke study as well. This is like the problem with climate change deniers. They make reasonable sounding yet false arguments to people who don't know anything and this makes it even harder to get the truth out. It becomes a he said she said argument. Shale gas will carry the day because there is so much money to be made on all sides, but a lot of people are literally losing sleep over this issue that don't need to be so worried. Plus we have real problems in this country and it would be good to spend our efforts on those rather than on false attacks on shale gas and hydraulic fracturing.

    Smacking these people down early and often is the only way to handle this. If that had been done with the first Propublica articles - a firm smackdown on obvious mistruths - we might not be in this mess. Then again, there is clearly a market for conspiracy theories about the oil and gas industries so there may not have been any avoiding it.

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  20. The status quo in PA with regards to gas drilling is, by definition, heavily in favour of limited regulations or environmental protections. The Oil & Gas Act was not written with the deep shale fracking in mind, nor were most local zoning ordinances that mention oil and gas drilling.

    The state has been caught on it's heels, and a very well funded industry is trying to keep us this way.

    Fortunately, there's been some successes - because of the concern over fracking wastewater, and the work of Mr. Hangar, the waters going into the commonwealth are cleaner than they've ever been. There are concrete recommendations agreed upon by all sides on how to improve safety of the practice (that's already pervasive). People are getting down to the truth of the dangers, methane migration, what to do with frackwater flow-back, the cumulative effects on airsheds of drilling, and the long-term consequences of so much geologic impact.

    Has all the hubbub been accurately focused? Probably not. Would all this have happened if Josh Fox hadn't lit a fire under people's asses? Probably not. Are we better off because of it? I can say with certainty that in my corner of PA the answer is yes. Rather than accepting the status quo that any and all drilling is okay, our county officials are deeply involved in a process to better educate, and better regulate the industry. And guess, what, the industry is still investing here (although kicking and screaming the whole way).

    Concerned Scientist, I don't know what mess you're talking about with regards to the pro-publica articles. For whom is the extra-scrutiny on fracking a mess? Who is we? I consider a populace eager to hold the industry accountable a step in the right direction. I guess it's a mess for drillers who were eager to follow Engelder's advice of no regulations.

    As far as other real problems, of course we have other real problems! That's why it's so disturbing that the DEP funding has been slashed in the last few years. Of course, don't ask a gas driller about that, because they'll remind you that the Oil and Gas Bureau has not been slashed. Well, that doesn't make the other cuts okay! We have real problems in this state that a defunded DEP is in a worse position to deal with.

    and again, people, lets keep this on the up and up, don't attack the messenger, address the messages.

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