It is not just Rolling Stones Magazine currently providing a buffet of misinformation about "fracking."
For the New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben writes about "fracking," while reviewing the excellent End of Country by Seamus McGraw (buy it and read it), another book, and Gasland. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/08/why-not-frack/. Since McKibben substantially takes his facts from Gasland and the NYT Drilling Down Series that the NYT Public Editor twice rebuked as misleading and inaccurate, he makes big mistakes that inevitably distort his understanding of "fracking" and our energy choices.
For example, McKibben repeats the NYT claim that Pennsylvania's waters were contaminated with radionuclides. Possibly because he is unaware of it, McKibben does not discuss the massive testing for radionuclides, done by both the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and 15 drinking water suppliers, that have all proven that Pennsylvania's streams and drinking water have no radionuclide contamination. None. Zero.
If those test results are news to McKibben, he can thank the NYT that has avoided any significant reporting on the radiation test results that inconveniently refute its sensational original February 27th, 2011 story. If he wants a taste of real information, McKibben should go to www.pgh20.com, where he will see the monthly results of radionuclide testing done by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority since March 2011. Again the PWSA testing is only a small part of the total testing done and all have the same results: no radionuclide contamination of in-stream or tap water. None. Zero.
McKibben also mistakenly asserts that the terrible Dunkard Creek fish kill in 2009 was the result of gas drilling discharges. That after all was what Gasland told McKibben and other viewers. Yet, the EPA, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection all concluded that a coal mining discharge created the water conditions that allowed an algae to bloom that devastated fish populations. Indeed, following the fish kill, the EPA entered into a consent agreement with a coal mining company to build a $70 million plant to treat a mining discharge a few miles upstream from the fish kill so that it would not be repeated.
Similarly distorted is McKibben's discussion of "lax Pennsylvania regulation" that he agains takes almost verbatim from the NYT Drilling Down Series.
Given his reliance on the NYT for facts, McKibben almost certainly is unaware that Pennsylvania issued the most violations--by a lot--to the gas industry (a total of 1200 in 2010 and 1100 in 2011) of any state in the country, as documented by the February 2012 University of Texas study that reviewed enforcement in 15 states.
He may be unaware that Pennsylvania more than doubled its oil and gas staff, hiring in 2009 and twice in 2010, boosting employee totals from 88 to 202, and opening new regulatory offices in Williamsport and Scranton in 2010. No other state comes close to the hiring by Pennsylvania to oversee shale gas production, though still more is needed to keep pace with the industry expansion and record keeping needs.
McKibben may also be unaware that Pennsylvania passed 5 regulatory packages from 2008 to 2011 that modernized and strengthened regulations governing gas drilling. Those packages are:
1. A water plan requirement governing water withdrawals enacted in 2008 to insure that water withdrawals do not damage streams;
2. A drilling wastewater disposal requirement enacted in August 2010 insuring that TDS levels in watersheds do not exceed 75% of the Safe Drinking Water Act TDS level and that required full TDS treatment at the pipe of any new or expanded drilling wastewater discharges. At this point nearly all shale drilling wastewater is recycled or deep well injected, and none of it is being discharged to rivers.
3. A 150 feet buffer rule enacted in November 2010 that protects Pennsylvania's high quality streams that total 22,000 stream miles from all development.
4. A complete rewrite and strengthening of all gas well drilling rules, including design of the gas wells, materials used, and mandatory disclosure of chemicals.
5. Raising the fee as of 2009 charged drillers to apply for a permit from a ridiculous $100 to as much as $10,000 per application. The fee raised more than $10 million per year and all funds were used to more than double the gas drilling staff at the Department of Environmental Protection.
Despite key errors, McKibben is not wrong about everything. McKibben is right that the regulatory model of the regulator as a "partner" with industry is inconsistent with oversight. Instead regulators must be professional and independent. They must be neither friend nor foe to those that they regulate.
McKibben is also right that the gas industry must reduce methane leakage to limit greenhouse gas pollution, even though the science literature overwhelming concludes that coal emits twice the heat trapping pollution as gas does when used to make electricity, and nearly all coal is used to make electricity. Though McKibben does not mention them, the EPA's July 2011 proposed regulations of gas drilling air emissions are crucial bit of 2012 regulatory business.
But gas drilling causes much less impact on water resources than coal mining, oil production, run-off from agriculture, sewage discharges, hydro dams, corn ethanol, antibiotic pollution, and many other things that damage water resources. The most significant impact on water from shale drilling has been cases of gas migrating to private water wells, as a result of poor drilling (gas migration is not a result of hydraulic fracturing). The Duke study that McKibben mentions found gas in water at high rates, but also found that frack fluids were not contaminating the same water wells, something that McKibben does not know or did not state in his piece.
The gas migration problem is real, and it is true that too many companies in the gas industry lawyer-up, when confronted with these cases, instead of fixing the problem, and focusing on reducing the risk. The McKibben piece is another example to the industry of the damage being done by the current handling of this important issue.
McKibben is right that the federal government and states must strongly regulate gas drilling and reasonably tax it. But McKibben must get the full facts about fracking, and he won't find them in the NYT, Gasland, or Rolling Stones Magazine.
Important to McKibben's mission of stabilizing concentrations of heat trapping pollution, the full facts include the role of low-priced gas, made possible by the shale gas boom, in preventing another wave of 150 new US coal plants that had been proposed as of 2005, and in the announcement of the retirment of 331 coal units since January 2010. Moreover, so far, the boom in shale gas coincides with a boom in wind and solar in the USA, showing that gas and renewables need not be mutually exclusive.
McKibben's review proves that he needs to get beyond Gasland and the NYT Drilling Down Series. I would be glad to discuss this vital issue with him if he would like.