Monday, March 5, 2012

McKibben Gets Fracking Facts Wrong In New York Review Of Books

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.  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, 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.


  1. Concerned ScientistMarch 5, 2012 at 8:01 AM

    It is certainly in vogue to be against fracking. If you want to stay in the spotlight in the Environmental world and get on NPR you'd better be against fracking.

    A lot of this is motivated by a hatred of oil companies. That hate obscures people's perceptions and makes them eager to believe the worst.

    McKibben and the Rolling Stone writer had the facts at their disposal but chose to go with the Gasland propaganda because it better fit their view of oil companies as the evil other.
    You see that Mckibben quickly gets away from the books he was supposed to review and goes to Urbina and Gasland because they are the more sensationalistic and fit the "oil companies are evil and regulators are inept" worldview.

    Many people don't seem to get the idea of a bridge fuel. Bridge fuel means that you use it while transitioning to no carbon fuels. You use it as a bridge in other words. I guess many of them are worried that this is going to kill wind,solar and other low carbon fuels. It does not appear to be doing that. In fact a good case can be made that shale gas will enable us to transition to those fuels. And you need something like gas (or nuclear) to back up wind and solar when its not windy or dark.

  2. Secretary Hanger, I agree with a lot of what you wrote..but we know, you know that unless you can hold a gas company accountable, without fear of them suing you-then all the regs in the world are useless as the really thick, lawyer approved land lease...because, at the end of the day? "We didn't do it" wins. If I recall? 5 law firms "lawyered up" when you promised us a water line. My neighbors are still unable to drink their water and I doubt if they will ever be able to drink it...and every day there are more and more families facing the loss of their drinking water...bridge? Would THAT be the bridge we should be crossing?

  3. Thank you for your blog post. I am a law school student currently writing a paper advocating state and local regulation of Hydraulic Fracturing rather than federal regulation. After watching Gasland last year, it seemed obvious to me that the facts have been skewed by media outlets. Your blog has helped me find reliable sources, and encouraged me to make sure that my sources are accurate before putting my name next to them. Thanks again.

  4. I really enjoyed your informative blog. More power to you!

  5. One of the very first "informationals" that I attended-desperate to learn more about the impacts we would experience from gas drilling in our yards..I attended a meeting with a DEP staff person speaking..he praised the industry and told the audience gas drilling was gonna be great for the farmers..he also chided an elderly woman who timidly raised her hand and asked about..nearly whispering the words.."the chemicals" the DEP employee scoffed and said, "you use dish detergent don't ya?"...I believe he now works with the industry...I have a pretty long list of situations I believe to be examples of a too cozy relationship between the industry and the more point..we are to be reasured by the number of violations cited? More is better? I would take a look at that number and say the gas companies should be doing better. And when they are "caught" please fine them enough that they have an incentive to not repeat the violations that get repeated over and over...

  6. The New York Times Drilling Down Series, thoroughly documented with memos and studies, is among some of the best reporting on the subject, as is the recent Rolling Stone story and its subsequent response to the orchestrated industry disinformation campaign. Say what you will about Gasland; while it did not portray DEP in a positive light, it did focus attention on this important issue. And the NYT series is beginning to bring about meaningful change.

    1. Concerned ScientistMarch 7, 2012 at 10:33 AM

      The New York Times series Drilling Down shows that you can use memos and studies in a deceptive way to come to any conclusion you want. It was dreadful reporting that has terrorized the area unnecessarily. There are problems with gas drilling, but the points raised by the NYT all turn out to be non-issues.

      Radioctivity? non-issue
      Ponzi Scheme? non-issue
      Lack of regulation in PA? the opposite is true
      Fracking contaminates groundwater? non-issue

      Gasland was made by an avant-garde filmmaker who knows nothing about oil and gas drilling, production, fracking, or subsurface geology. These are complex subjects that require some education to understand. It is really easy to get mixed up if you don't have a solid background in the topic. Fox was really mixed up as he made silly mistakes throughout the movie. Even the NYT found many mistakes

      The NYT, Rolling Stone and Gasland have really confused the issue and have not helped at all.

    2. fact of the day..folks now have bad water in a small community near here...Franklin Forks..another to the list of impacted communities..oh right..they always had it...until the industry accepts responsibility for its impact on drinking water this is going to be ugly and some of us are NOT going to drink the kool aid and go away. Does that clear up the confusion?

  7. Among its many contributions to an objective discussion, The New York Times series correctly pointed out that Pennsylvania's wastewater treatment facilities were not equipped to handle fracking wastewater, prompting a closer look by scientists and federal agencies who found big problems. Sec. Krancer called upon the industry to "voluntarily" stop taking drilling wastewater to some municipal sewage treatment facilities. Without the public attention, this would never have happened.

    But then again, state officials do not like federal officials meddling in their business. The saga continues,

    I am suspect of those who lump all of these reports together as "dreadful reporting," concerned scientist. That kind of talk sounds an awful lot like the industry-paid "scientists" who are working overtime to discredit any sources that don't support their conclusions.