Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Pro Publica Reporter Says Fracking Debate Escalates To Hyperbole and Middle Ground Lost

Abrahm Lustgarten, a reporter for Pro Publica who has written extensively about gas drilling, had reportedly interesting things to say about the quality of the public discussion about fracking at a panel on April 2nd at Allegheny College. Mary Spicer of the Meadville Tribune writes that Lustgarten noted that "...concern about the enviromental impacts of Marcellus drilling has escalated into hyperbole and almost-hysteria--and he's not sure why."  Spicer then quotes Lustgarten as saying: "Any middle ground has been lost...It's dissolved into a false choice between frack and not frack, while attempts to educate the public has turned into panic."

Lustgarten describes well the condition of the public discussion. Yet, I am surprised that he is not sure why the middle ground has been lost, and so here are 6 possible reasons:

1. Gasland reached millions of viewers with a powerful, emotional message that gas production is an enormous threat, even evil.  A purpose of the movie was to destroy middle ground and rally support for banning hydraulic fracturing.  Whether one likes the movie or not, it had impact.

2. Sensational, false reporting appearing routinely in the NYT  left many believing shale gas is a Ponzi scheme, gas is as dirty as coal, and that Pennsylvania's drinking waters were possibly poisoned with radionuclides.  I don't blame readers of such journalism for reacting with panic or abandoning any middle ground.

3. Repetition of false narratives months or years after they have been debunked like Pennsylvania's drinking waters are contaminated with radionuclides or that gas drilling caused the massive fish kills at Dunkard Creek.  See the recent Rolling Stone Magazine piece that repeated the radionuclide scare and the McKibben review in the New York Book review that falsely said gas drilling caused the Dunkard Creek fish kill.  No surprise again that readers reading such material abandon any middle ground.

4. Typically a dramatic, scary and often false charge gets more coverage than any subsequent debunking.  For example, see the paucity of the coverage about all the testing that proved Pennsylvania's drinking waters have no radionuclide contamination.  See the huge coverage given the Howarth study but virtually no coverage given the Carnegie Mellon University study, the NETL, the Worldwatch Institute, and the other Cornell study refuting it.  The NYT is the most egregious example of a journalism that promotes one-side of key issues, within the larger public discussion of gas drilling.

5. The fight over gas drilling has taken on its own momentum, with pro-drilling and anti-drilling groups daily facing off, and viewing any concession about information or facts to be weakness.  The pattern becomes a harsh attack is met by a harsh response, and middle ground is lost.

6. There is no equivalent discussion and focus on our other energy choices--coal, oil, nuclear, renewables that include wind and solar, as well as corn ethanol and big hydro.  Just look at Pro Publica's reporting on energy, as one example. The disproportionate focus on gas distorts.  Gas is compared implicitly to a mythical perfect alternative that none of us use. All energy choices have impacts on the environment and have other pros and cons.

Wars have not been fought over Iowa corn but have over oil in the Middle East; yet water pollution from producing corn to make ethanol dwarfs the damage done to water quality by gas drilling. Using more gas has meant that coal electricity generation has declined from 52% of total electricity supply in 2000 to 39% in the last 3 months. The EPA states that pollution from mainly old coal-fired power plants causes each year 34,000 premature deaths. Using more gas that emits no soot for example has already saved thousands of lives and prevented hundreds of thousands of illnesses.

None of those comparative facts gain any prominence in the public mind.  Yet, despite the obstacles to finding middle ground, most people want sensible ways forward that must include strong regulation and efforts to reduce the social and other costs of our energy choices.  And progress is being made.


  1. Concerned ScientistApril 4, 2012 at 9:19 AM

    This is really rich - Abrahm Lustgarten basically wrote the script for Gasland. He wrote the articles that set this whole thing in motion and he continues to try to frighten readers. He is as much or more to blame than Josh Fox and Ian Urbina. He is not a scientist and had no prior knowledge of oil and gas drilling, subsurface geology or any of the other things people need to understand to write knowledgeably on the subject. That did not stop him from writing though! He started fears on water withdrawals, radioactivity, frack fluids containing cancer causing chemicals that seep upward and get into people's water and make them sick, pollution of the NYC drinking water supply, insinuating that gas is as bad or worse than coal in terms of GHG pollution, undermining public officials and more. All of which are not true!

    Within the last few weeks he wrote an article questioning the EPA tests in Dimock and continuing to fan the flames of fear (read the comments to see how silly his writing is).

    It is somewhat unbelievable that he - the father of the disinformation campaign against hydraulic fracturing - would come out and bemoan the lack of a middle ground.

    Note that he said: "Have pre-drilling water evaluations done. “Once that happens, we can have scientific discussions about why things changed,” he said." Note that he says why things changed not if things changed. This insinuates that the water is going to change. It doesn't change in the vast majority of cases.

    John - you inhabit the middle ground. If he really wants a middle ground then he should be singing your praises. I'll bet he has never once mentioned you or this site because it undercuts his entire narrative.

  2. Concerned ScientistApril 4, 2012 at 9:23 AM

    I love this line that you wrote:

    "Gas is compared implicitly to a mythical perfect alternative that none of us use."

    Couldn't have said it better.

    I posted this before but all who believe in the mythical perfect alternative should read it

    There was probably more wildlife and farm animals and more water pollution in that incident than in all of the fracking accidents combined.

  3. I literally spit water all over my computer screen when I read in the Post-Gazette that Lustgarten had the cojones to state publicly that he didn't know where the middle ground on the fracing debate went to. How do folks like this sleep at night?

  4. And of course there is the threat that natural gas presents to the extreme environmental movement. Many of them, with good intentions, believed that green, carbon-free, energy was doable in the next ten years, and would be economic with reasonable government subsidies. Along comes the good fortune of natural gas, which could push wind and solar off for another 50 years or more at current rates--which continue to fall. Many of them are left to fight for their very reason for being and they will use whatever tactic necessary to try to assure their place in the future.

    1. You may be right that such concern motivates some opposition. Yet, the facts are that the US shale gas boom coincides with a huge boom in wind, solar, and other renewables. Gas and renewables are both growing. Wind has doubled since 2008 when shale gas took off. Solar has increased 8 times in US since 2008. The prices of wind is down; the price of solar is collapsing. Globally renewables are doing as well or better, with global investment in renewable energy power production exceeding fossil fuel power plants. The future is bright for both gas and renewables.

  5. John, I think you failed to mention industries failure to PROACTIVELY address public concerns... blame the media. Ok, that's fair. But there are two sides to every discussion.
    Back in 2009, industry was resisting tooth and nail disclosure of frac fluids. They said contamination "from fracking" had not occurred, while ignoring failures in well integrity expected with any type of drilling.
    They had pits in ND that over flowed, despite warning from regulators.
    They've attacked anyone who raises concerns as "anti" industry.

    The current situation is the result of a miserable failure of industry to address public concerns transparently and proactively. Emissions data is lacking. wastewater disposal and treatment planning was previously insufficient. The API has invested more time attacking the government and concerned citizens than it has issuing updated best practices. Industry wants everything to be "voluntary"

    get a clue, John.

    1. Fair points. Reason 5 partially speaks to your point. The "no disclosure" position was wrong and a mistake. Some drilling supporters believe that they must prove the industry is perfect and fight tooth and nail all claims of problems. That too is a substantive and communication mistake. That is part of the momentum of the fight that takes on a life of its own.

    2. Hogwash Anonymous. As someone who has been very "proactive" as you say, those who are against natural gas development counter everything I say with "you work in the industry, you're a lying cheating crook, and nothing you say can be trusted".

      Companies have been very much out in front of these issues. We did lag on the chemical disclosures, I'll give you that. But we do not attack anyone who raises valid criticisms. Mr. Hanger has raised MANY valid criticisms, and he doesn't find himself the brunt of (many) attacks from the gas industry. He oversaw the implementation of strong new regulations, he started the largest environmental group in the state, and I find that it's the anti-drillers who drag his name through the mud, not the drillers. Why? Because he supports rational, reasonable, responsible drilling, and acknowledges gas's ability to reduce energy pollution. To the anti-drillers, anyone who is not 100% for a total ban on gas drilling is an industry lackey or a shill. I'm as "gas industry" as you can get, and I have the utmost respect and admiration for Mr. Hanger. Explain that.

      Mike Knapp
      Knapp Acquisitions & Production

    3. Thanks for proving my point, Mike.

      I wonder why those people feel that way about industry? Is it really all just fantasy, or do they feel like industry has done far from enough to satisfy basic concerns of transparency.
      As CEO of CHK said, paraphrasing, "Those environmentalist would like to see us cold and shivering in the dark"

      It is a two way street; you act as if being discounted by environmentalist means that industry reps don't do the same thing.

      I wasn't attacking John. I think he does great work; however, I was pointing out that there are two sides to any argument, and this post seems to largely ignore the fact that there have been significant issues that the industry was slow to address (ie "get a clue" that any debate is two sided, and you must present both sides fairly to maintain a certain level of respect).

      If industry had spent as much money on reporting emissions, well integrity issues, above ground storage and waste handling, and supporting fees and community development rights to give back directly to the communities most affected by development, among other things, as they had "educating" the public about how safe fracking is with lobbyist and PR campaigns while ignoring many of these other issues until the public backlash became so strong that they could no longer ignore it, then maybe industry wouldn't have such an extreme anti-gas movement on its hands.

      It is easy to explain why you are supportive of Mr. Hanger, as am I. I'm not anti-gas. I'm not anti-environment either. We both support Mr. Hanger because generally he does a good job of highlighting the facts. He does a much better job than most industry reps and enviro-leaders that I have encountered. Both sides are guilty of misinformation and lack of clarity; I don't think either side is any more guilty than the other, but maybe that is because I don't align with either side completely. But like you say, you're as "gas industry as you can get", so I wouldn't expect you to be as sympathetic for concerned citizens as you are for your own industry.

      I watched Mr. Hanger give a great testimony at one of the DOE SEAB hearings. Their panel raised highlighted some great middle ground to build on.
      The head of the TX Railroad Commission was there... I'm not going to go into details, but you should read the testimony if you're interested in why the enviros are angry.

      If the development process was perfect, that would be one thing, but it isn't. Both sides should participate in proactive, well-informed, constructive discussion. Blaming one side or the other doesn't really pass the test in my eyes.

  6. John, as I've discovered in the months since The End of Country came out, that's the way we discuss EVERYTHING in this country these days.

    1. Seamus,
      Your book has been a very good way to share the concerns I have about fracking with landowners in Southeast Ohio. I so appreciate you writing it, and hope that others wanting a more down-to-earth, honest, and humane telling of the experience of fracking in a rural community will read The End of Country for themselves. Thank you.

    2. One of the reasons why End of Country is a great book is that it encourages humility and less self-righteousness. Those values are needed for middle ground to be possible.

  7. Abrahm LustgartenApril 4, 2012 at 3:23 PM

    John, thank you for your thoughtful post. I was quite surprised to see that Meadville paper state that I don't "know why" there is hyperbole in this discussion. I could write a book full of my reflections on the topic, and described some of them at the panel discussion which I was a part of at Allegheny College on Monday. I do agree that the conversation about fracking has reached a fever pitch, and that both the activist community and the industry bear some responsibility.

    Middle ground is the space between two points, not one. Left out of this discussion as a factor is the stubborn refusal of many members of the oil and gas industry and the regulatory community to engage in an honest discussion about real problems and real risks. Instead, for so long, the critical findings of my reporting was met with blanket denials that pollution exists, denials that this industry has an impact, denials that some of the chemicals used are dangerous, and denials that regulators could do more to address them. Thankfully, we are seeing that change, as discussions like the one we had Monday -- and the one I will have publicly with SouthWestern Energy's Mark Dowling at the Tenement Museum in New York next Monday -- turn instead to an honest exchange of ideas aimed more at collaborative improvement than finger pointing. From a regulatory standpoint, you led some important aspects of that change. But it should be said that the historical absence of that dialogue, and the energy industry's general insistence that there is nothing worth discussing when it comes to fracking, is as much responsible for the polarization and hyperbole as some of what you hear from the environmentalist community.

    1. I think to be precise the Meadville paper quoted you as saying you don't know why the middle ground has been lost, as opposed to not knowing why there is hyperbole. A quibble perhaps.

      We all paint broadly--too broadly--when we use the words "environmental community" and "gas industry." While none of us are perfect when communicating, and some industry supporters do meet your description not all gas companies have said that there is no regulatory issues or environmental problems worth discussing. Clearly there are many. Similarly, not all environmental groups have done the same from the other direction, declaring that gas is uniquely evil, more dangerous than any other source, and must be shutdown. But too often the most polarizing, extreme voices dominate the discussion. Perhaps that is changing on this issue and others are insisting on being heard. That would be good.

    2. John, Abrahm, As one of the panelists Monday I felt that we did have a rational and honest discussion but it only went so far. What always bothers and confuses me is the lack of perspective that exists in the whole process. I continue to hope that we can find credible sources of data that will allow a rational examination of every (at least the major) contributions we make to the environment. The emotional side of this, flaming faucets while ignoring geology and historical facts, water issues while ignoring agricultural inputs, etc., makes for a very incomplete review. I think the middle ground might be making a bit of a comeback judging from Monday's crowd. I hope.

    3. Mr. Lustgarten,

      If you are truly interested in finding middle ground, I would love to see you turn over that new leaf. But, in my humble estimation, as someone who closely monitors and is occasionally referred to on such matters, you are the number three cause of the hyperbole you claim to be mystified by... behind only Josh Fox himself and Mr. Urbina (who, despite the angle he chooses to take, was fair and reasonable when he interviewed me).

      For the benefit of the peanut gallery, here are Mr. Lusgarten's past headlines. You all can decide if this is the work of a reporter trying to find honest, middle ground (while trying to provoke worthy debate on real issues), or someone trying to stoke the fire with incendiary, slanted anti-gas reporting. I'm not cherry-picking these:

      "So, Is Dimock’s Water Really Safe to Drink?" (following EPA's confirmation that the water IS safe to drink)

      "Feds Link Water Contamination to Fracking for the First Time"

      "EPA Finds Compound Used in Fracking in Wyoming Aquifer"

      "Science Lags as Health Problems Emerge Near Gas Fields"

      "N.Y. Enviro Commissioner Expects Little From EPA Fracking Study"

      "Does an Old EPA Fracking Study Provide Proof of Contamination?"

      "EPA Fracking Study to Focus on Five States—But Not Wyoming"

      "Gas Drilling Companies Hold Data Needed by Researchers to Assess Risk to Water Quality"

      "Scientific Study Links Flammable Drinking Water to Fracking"

      "Natural Gas Drilling Is at a Crucial Turning Point"

      "More Reasons to Question Whether Gas Is Cleaner Than Coal"

      "Pa.’s New Jobs Czar Fought Enviro Regs for Years"

      "Pennsylvania Limits Authority of Oil and Gas Inspectors"

      "PA Governor Gives Energy Executive Supreme Authority Over Environmental Permitting"

      "Former Bush EPA Official Says Fracking Exemption Went Too Far; Congress Should Revisit"

      "Hydrofracked? One Man’s Mystery Leads to a Backlash Against Natural Gas Drilling"

      "Drilling Industry Says Diesel Use Was Legal"

      "Clearing the Air on ProPublica’s Drilling Pollution Story"

      "Climate Benefits of Natural Gas May Be Overstated"

      "Opponents to Fracking Disclosure Take Big Money From Industry"

      "Do ‘Environmental Extremists’ Pose Criminal Threat to Gas Drilling?"

      "Feds Warn Residents Near Wyoming Gas Drilling Sites Not to Drink Their Water"

      That's what Mr. Lustgarten has been up to for the last few years. I hope that he is sincere in his statement of wanting to find middle ground. Hopefully he will now try to seek out said middle ground, as opposed to the avenue he's taken thus far.

      Mike Knapp
      Knapp Acquisitions & Production

      Years After Evidence of Fracking Contamination, EPA to Supply Drinking Water to Homes in Pa. Town
      (fracking doesn't cause methane migration)

      Fracking Cracks the Public Consciousness in 2011

  8. Given the scary title that appears above every ProPublica story about natural gas (Fracking - Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat) it's difficult to take seriously Mr. Lustgarten's reporting on this subject or his bafflement about the lack of middle ground. This heading effectively cancels out any balance one might find within the story and biases the reader before they've read the first word. A modest step toward more honest coverage would be for ProPublica to choose a less biased title for this series and trust their readers to think for themeselves.

  9. Yeah, propublica should probably just leave it to the good folks over at to keep us informed, right?

    Sounds like some folks just don't like any negative coverage, regardless of the merits...

    I, for one, am thankful for Mr. Lustgarten's fine reporting.
    Thank you, Mr. Lustgarten for your interest in investigative reporting on tricky issues! You can't please everybody (especially not industry)

  10. I hate it when people take an interest in protecting the environment and long term sustainability of the earth, regardless of how uninformed, unproductive, and/or hyperbolic the discussion may be

    This is a portrait of my crying for the entire fossil fuel industry; sometimes, life just isn't fair... especially when industry leaders repeatedly say "There is no problem, and if you suggest there is, you must be an eco terrorist"