Monday, April 9, 2012

Testing Tonight Fracking's Middle Ground: Lustgarten and Pro Publica Forum In NYC

Last week this blog had a good discussion about Abraham Lustgarten's lament that the middle ground on fracking had been lost, and that it should be found once more.  Pro Publica tonight is sponsoring a forum, entitled the Perils and Promise of Fracking in New York City, at which Mr. Lustgarten will be one of 4 panelists. Will the lost middle ground be found?

Pro Publica will offer a live web-stream at

It will be interesting to see whether the truth about Dimock and EPA testing is accepted.  Will the panelists accept that gas migrated but that hydraulic fracturing did not cause contamination? Will the panelists focus on real impacts from gas drilling and how to reduce them?  Will the industry accept its responsibility to build a ubiquitous culture of safety and be accountable for mistakes?  Will regulation that is professional and independent be genuinely embraced by all?

Will the panelists compare the impacts posed by coal, oil, gas, nuclear, biofuels, large hydro, wind, and solar?  Such a comparison would find that the impacts on water from gas production are not zero but less than coal, oil, biofuels, large hydro, and arguably nuclear.

Will the panelists note that the electricity market share of coal has declined from 52% in 2000 to 39% from November 2011 to January 2012? Will the panelists accept that the market share of gas over the same time has increased from 16% to 27% and is displacing coal, while wind power in the USA has doubled since 2008 and solar power has increased 8-times since 2008? Will anyone note that pollution from mainly old coal-fired power plants caused 34,000 premature deaths last year, according to EPA data, while natural gas plants emit no soot and meet the EPA's Air Toxic Rule?

What does California raising its renewable standard for electricity production to 33% by 2020 indicate? Major progress to me.  It shows the big strides that are possible by the most aggressive renewable energy state in the nation, and among the most aggressive jurisdictions in the world.  Yet, where will California get its remaining 67% of electric power? Gas is the principal answer today and in 2020.

Will anyone note that natural gas consumers and electricity consumers have saved $1,000 in the last year?  Will anyone speak to how important such savings are to the lives and safety of those with median incomes or certainly incomes below the 25th percentile of incomes?

Can the center hold?  Will the lost middle ground be found?


  1. Concerned ScientistApril 9, 2012 at 12:44 PM

    It's a good, fair, balanced panel. Something good could come of it.

    1. The most remarkable thing about this "middle ground" is that it is no middle ground at all. It has manifestly not been established that fracking did not cause the gas contamination at Dimock. It is also clearly disputable if not demonstrably false that fracking--including its collateral industries, the trucking, compressor stations, the transmission lines, the construction of all of these-generates a smaller carbon foot or contributes less to climate change. The narrow focus on the fracking isolated from all of these associated industries is disingenuous at best. Fair and balanced for the fracking industry means about as much as it does for FOX news: language deployed to manipulate and extort consent. "Middle ground" is nothing but propaganda for an industry whose methods of production have no middle ground--that is, not unless cancer, environmental destruction, asthma, and death count a "middle." They do not; they count instead as the consequences of a greed so mammoth that the resort to any strategy of manipulation appears permissible.

    2. So the choices are two--ban it or drill baby drill? No middle ground? No policy of strong regulation and reasonable taxation as a third option. I don't buy that there are just two policy options, but I will not change your opinion that there are but two choices.

      But what happens if gas production is banned? That means 26% of US energy supply is gone. What happens to the 51% of US households who use gas to heat? Where does the 29% of electricity generated from gas in 2012 come from instead?

      Unless coal and oil are banned at the same time, coal and oil would largely fill the vacuum. Or is gas worse than coal and worse than oil and only gas is banned or is it only shale gas that is banned? In which case the gas production in Pavillion Wyoming would not be banned because that is not shale gas.

      Gas has impacts but it emits no soot, no mercury; EPA puts deaths from mainly soot at 34,000 per year. Gas causes much less havoc than oil and oil spills, leaks, accidents and so on.

      There is no serious case that coal and oil cause less damage to water or air resources than gas.

      I love all renewables, even corn ethanol and large hydro, the two biggest renewables. But they supply 11% of total energy. I especially love wind and solar but they supply less than 2% of total energy.

    3. Nice to meet you, John--and no, there are not two choices when the danger to water that can NEVER be restored to the water is so patently clear both with respect to the quantities required for fracking and with respect to the storage this water requires once its "recycle" life is concluded.

      (1) It's rather like this: Would anyone with any sense think there to be a middle ground for, say, child molestation or rape? No. it's just plain wrong in virtue of the massive damage it creates. This is no different. And the evidence makes this patently clear.

      (2) The above forum is also not an example of any middle ground--it is, in fact, an industry promotion disguised as a middle ground, especially since we ALL know that "regulation" in this context means industry-self-monitored, the gutting of municipality powers a la Act 13, and the defense of maintaining the class one status of rural areas in order to avoid regulation.

      (3) You presuppose in the very way you discuss energy use that conservation will play no role in the future of energy use. But you and I both know it must, and that this will either be a choice we all make collectively or it will be forced on us at great expense at the end of fossil fuels. What must "fill the vacuum" is a combination of alternatives which we ought to be developing far more aggressively, AND significant conservation. Such a strategy, of course, would not be the money-maker that Insures Aubrey McClendon enjoy his $400.00 bottle of wine.

      And that, of course, is what this is really about--the sheer billions there are to be made in an industry whose history is simply rife with environmental exploitation and destruction. I have been researching and writing on this issue for about a year, but I have been working in environmental philosophy for the whole of my professional life. This makes me no tree-hugger, as you might be tempted to dismiss (please Google my exchange with Derrick Jensen), but it does inform my clear understanding that propaganda like what's captured in the language of the "middle ground" is no substitute for facts. And the facts are no on the side of this industry. For an idea of my fuller argument here, please see my exchange with Terry Engelder:

      Or the piece I will be presenting at the Crisis in American Democracy Conference at University of Indiana later this month (debating that state's Oil and gas Agency representative):

      Wendy Lynne Lee
      Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania
      Bloomsburg, PA 17815

  2. Hi John,

    Great questions. I wondered about the panel also. In my opinion, all I would hope for is Mr. Lustgarten to stand by his own words to you. Will he indicate a middle way is possible without resorting to bashing the "industry", or manipulating the facts with convenient exclusion of current findings?

    As a resident of California, the issues are complex. We are paying for these progressive policies with a budget which makes the Keystone states' look fiscally sound. Our voters asked for these policies, but so far are unwilling to accept taxes to pay for them. Time will tell.


  3. White House Hears From Industry, Environmentalists About Fracking Rules. In its "E2 Wire" blog, The Hill (4/10, Geman) reports, "Natural-gas companies are taking concerns about looming Interior Department 'fracking' regulations to the White House with efforts that include a meeting between a major producer and the Obama administration's top regulatory official." The article notes that "the recent meetings - which include trade groups and big players like Exxon and Anadarko Petroleum - are part of a wider industry push to ensure that regulation of the development method doesn't create what the companies consider burdensome requirements that stymie production." In a presentation provided to the White House Office of Management and Budget, the gas industry raised "fears that the rules could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of annual delays for industry projects on public lands, and warns of 'onerous' reporting requirements."

    Meanwhile, in its "E2 Wire" blog, The Hill (4/10, Restuccia) reports, "Major environmental groups on Monday urged the White House to reject attempts by the oil and gas industry to soften upcoming Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) air pollution standards for natural-gas drilling." According to the article, "the CEOs of 13 environmental and public health groups, in a letter to White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, took aim at what they called the industry's 'misinformation' campaign over the regulations." They "specifically trained their fire on attempts" by the American Petroleum Institute "and others to 'riddle the EPA standards with loopholes' that greens say would render the regulations ineffective."

    Interior Issues Drilling-Friendly Decisions. In its "Green" blog, the New York Times (4/10, 1.23M) reports, "With a mild winter in much of the country having tamped down gas demand and with production of natural gas thriving due to the success of hydraulic fracturing technology, a.k.a. 'fracking,' the country is running out of storage space and as a result some producers are slowing down, the Associated Press reports." However, "just as the market seems saturated, and the Energy Department reports that prices are extremely low, the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management has issued new rules that will allow for another 3,600 wells in eastern Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune reports." Also, "Ken Salazar, the secretary of the Interior, made a two-day visit to North Dakota last week and talked up a streamlined permit procedure for new natural gas drilling."

  4. Green Group Seeks To Measure Natural-Gas Climate Impact. The Denver Post (4/10, Jaffe, 385K) reports in its "The Balance Sheet" blog that the green group Environmental Defense Fund has unveiled a study that attempts to measure the amount of greenhouse emissions generated during natural gas production that needs to be reduced to get actual environmental benefits of natural gas. Scientists say natural gas production results in release of methane into the atmosphere, limiting the benefits of burning natural gas because methane is more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat from the sun. Still, natural gas seems to be more environmentally friendly than coal for generating electricity, as long as the leakage remains below 3.2 percent, said the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study used EPA data from 2009, and drew the criticism of some because the data reportedly are outdated and incomplete.

    Dow Jones Newswires (4/10, Tracy, Subscription Publication) adds that the study authors -- which included scientists from Duke University, Princeton University and the Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as experts at the Environmental Defense Fund -- cautioned that before the federal government moves to make any policy changes promoting the use of natural gas, the EPA should conduct comprehensive studies on the potential hazards associated with methane leaks that occur not only throughout the production stage but also during the transport and delivery processes.

  5. In an article published June 21, 2010, Laura Legere exposed the hazards posed by natural gas drilling-those not always underground. Cradle to Grave...."It goes from an accident to negligence," .."poor management" "not proper oversight" quotes from John Hanger and "the industry's got to look in the mirror" just a little trip down memory lane..I would like to think operations are safer but having just finished researching compressor station and pipeline "incidents" and the fact the the Lathrop Compressor station explosion was out of regulatory reach I am not.

  6. 50,000 people are killed in car accidents every year. Almost all of those could be avoided if we just set the speed limit to 15 miles per hour on every road in America. Speed limits are certainly within regulatory reach. But we don't, even knowing full well that 50,000 people will die because of our inaction. Why? Because we view the risk to be worth the reward.

    There is no way to eliminate accidents. There is no way to eliminate all risk in life. Did that compressor flash-fire hurt anyone? Or were there fail safes and warning systems that evacuated the workers? Did it catch any neighboring properties on fire? Or did setback requirements make sure there was adequate spacing. We should be looking closely at the Lathrop incident. Yes, it's horrible that the incident occurred, but it's fantastic that the system worked to keep any workers from being injured or killed and any adjacent properties from being put at risk. Regulations, doing what they are supposed to do: Minimizing risk, and saving lives.

  7. Concerned ScientistApril 10, 2012 at 10:43 PM

    I listened to this panel discussion.

    The good:

    Stu Gruskin is excellent. He should be on every panel. He knows what he is talking about and allows no bs to stand.

    A. Lustgarten actually did make some more balanced comments than I am used to hearing from him.

    Mark Boling is an interesting character. I was surprised to hear some of the things he said. He really is trying hard to find some middle ground. An industry guy actually showing what sort of casing problems might occur was quite refreshing. I think this is a very good approach and will over time build confidence in industry. I am sure some other companies don't like what Southwestern is doing, but I think it is probably the best approach to be transparent.

    There was a point at the end when Mark Boling said that he had received letters of thanks from people whose farms had been saved and whose kids were going to college and a few in the crowd booed and hissed. He straightened them out pretty quickly and the Stu Gruskin seconded him. The anti-fracking crowd seemed callous and uncaring - elitists from NYC. That might have pushed some people toward support for shale gas.

    The Bad:

    The moderator started out worshipping Abrahm Lustgarten and I think that was inappropriate. Lustgarten has made a lot of mistakes in his coverage and bears much of blame for polarization on this issue. I also thought his editorializing on the other panelists stacked the deck in a way. Deborah Goldberg from Earthjustice was called someone who protects little people from big people or something like that. That is not an entirely fair characterization. I think they might do that if it was an issue that they could fundraise on. I think money is the main motivation for many of those groups and they will be dishonest if they need to be. Their main constituency is actually rich white people. The moderator did improve with time.

    The crowd was filled with people who wanted to ban fracking. A more balanced crowd would have made it better.

    Deborah Goldberg continued to disinform. She wants to keep the fear alive that the fluids left in the ground are going to work their way up to the surface. Ironically she said that deep injection is the best way to dispose of the fluids. Stu Gruskin caught her on this point and said that the fluids left in the ground are really no different than deep injection. Duh.

    All in all, I wouldn't be surprised if a few people left there more supportive of shale gas than they were when they went in.

    1. Thank you for the excellent summary. I felt like I heard the evening.

    2. Concerned ScientistApril 11, 2012 at 8:59 AM

      If one clicks the link provided above, you can watch the whole thing except for a few commercials.

      One other thing was made clear. A Lustgarten was asked about his commonly repeated quote that there have been more than 1000 cases of groundwater contamination from fracking. It turns out these were all cases of unlined pits in Colorado and New Mexico. What he leaves out is that this has nothing to do with fracking but everything to with poor regulation in those states. They used unlined pits drilling conventional wells that aren't fracked and these are just as likely to leak. He also left out that these states don't or didn't require pit liners but that PA and NY and most other states do.

      He was also asked if he should be more balanced in his coverage and he said no. I think it is fine to discuss the topics he discusses. But the real flaw in his and other reporting is the lack of context provided. And I think this is what we should all be demanding. He provided no context on the contamination in NM and CO so it was left to the reader to think that fracking contaminated the groundwater there when it was not. They provide no context on the downside of what we are doing now for our energy - if that was provided it would be clear that shale gas is a huge improvement. They provide no context on how to interpret water samples by only using presence/absence rather than concentration and also by not noting other possible sources for elements and compounds found in the water. They choose sources for their stories who only know or tell half the story or who are dishonest. I believe that they do all of this on purpose to keep the story alive. They need to start telling the whole story.

      A Lustgarten is now a rich and famous reporter because he wrote a series of articles where the context was left out and an impression was given that isn't true. This started an entire movement based on half or less than half of the story.

    3. Excellent summary. I preach this up and down. It's all about context. It's like a dial. Josh Fox has his set on zero, Mr. Hanger on 100. The more context, the less evil natural gas appears to be. Which is in and of itself very telling.

    4. At an Energy Task Force meeting last Winter (2011) at the Sullivan County Courthouse, Scott Perry DEP Director of Oil and Gas Management was asked directly by Dean Marshall whether pad liners and pit liners were required on frack sites. Mr Perry's answer was that there are no regulations in Pennsylvania that require liners, but some of the operators installed them as a "courtesy." He was also asked whether the liners were intended to prevent heavy trucks from sinking into the stone bases on the pads. This generated the same response from Mr. Perry. It is simply false that PA has safer regulations with respect to pads and liners than Colorado or any other state.

  8. Concerned, I agree with much of your analysis with one major difference. Although Lustgarten did seem to be taking a middle road approach they did specifically mention Pavillion Wyoming, and Dimock as part of the reply to the 1000 cases question. That was the main subtle misrepresentation. In all honesty they seemed to be reluctant to throw those locations in, but did anyway. Progress?

    They also made a rationalization to their unbalanced coverage in Probublic. To paraphrase, I have thought about the issue raised that we do not report both sides of the issue, and decided that we have no obligation to present the business cost benefit analysis to using Natural Gas.

    Unfortunately he does not get it. One of the main issues raised here is the lack of coverage when these accusations of contamination, or fugitive emmissions are shown to be false. That is the point not profits. Correct your mistakes when they are shown.

    1. Concerned ScientistApril 11, 2012 at 1:09 PM

      You're right of course. The few concessions he did make might be more so he can sound reasonable and not like an activist. And it would be really refreshing to hear him admit to getting even one thing wrong.

      I don't even think it is necessary for them to write articles about the economic upside if they don't want to. I just want them to provide full context in the stories they do choose to write. This is where they have left the path of good journalism. The leave out a lot of very important information.

  9. First, I cannot agree more with Mr. Hanger that the portfolio shifts in our nation’s electricity generation sources are significant and important.

    I also want to respond to several of the assertions made by commenters, particularly “concerned scientist.” Is it too much to ask that commenters seeking an honest fact-based conversation identify themselves so that their degree of authority and perspective are transparent?

    I raise this issue because much of the description of my comments from Monday night are innacurate.

    Regarding my statistic of over 1,000 cases of water pollution linked to drilling, I did not say that “these were all cases of unlined pits” and that is not true. As I laid out in my response Monday , the count represents groundwater contamination incidents in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas and elsewhere. I did reference New Mexico’s study finding 700 cases of contamination from unlined reserve pits. I also referenced hundreds of cases counted by Colorado’s Oil and Gas conservation commission in which spills or underground leaks contaminated groundwater, and additional Colorado cases examined by scientists. In addition to those there are cases in Wyoming (not just Pavillion) and elsewhere. I worked with each state agency to determine the ratio of wells that had been used to produce natural gas and been hydraulically fractured, and did not count the number of wells or cases that could not be connected to gas drilling activity. Some of these total cases are allegedly caused by problems underground – whether casing failures or fracturing errors remains unclear. Many of the cases are surface spills and pit-oriented.


  10. continued...

    But whether contamination was caused by drill/frack fluids leaking out of a pit, out of a truck, out of a pipeline, or out of a well bore does not change their importance and relevance to this issue. From the start my reporting has examined fracturing and drilling from a lifecycle risk perspective. The drilling pits contain fracture fluid waste, drilling waste, and produced water brought up in part by fracturing. The surface spills often involve chemicals which would not be on site if it were not for the need to stimulate wells. Well casing and cementing is affected by the pressure of injection, probably more than anything else.

    It is a disingenuous argument to dismiss these parts of the process as disconnected. The EPA agreed with this approach in its definition of its national study on hydraulic fracturing. Even recent studies, like Charles Groat’s paper out of the UT Austin, indirectly agreed. While Groat concluded that fracturing was not responsible for contamination, his own findings contradict that conclusion. His paper says that underground vibration and pressure pulses can cause natural contaminants to work into water wells. It says that casing and cementing deserves additional scrutiny in light of the prevalence of hydraulic fracturing, and that the high pressures can lead to integrity failure and in some cases blowouts. And then it says that blowouts are under-reported.

    It is also a false distinction to imply that conventional wells are entirely unique from unconventional shale gas wells when it comes to these issues. The fundamental risks and record of problems cross over; not counting conventional wells simply eliminates some of the data and history that can inform decisions as shale extraction expands.

    Your comments suggest that my count misleads in part because I ignore context, and ignore the fact that pit liners are used in PA and NY. In fact, I have written many an article about the importance of regulations for pits and how best practices, like lining or eliminating those pits, can help address the risks inherent in these drilling processes. I have written extensively about EnCana’s efforts in this regard in the Jonah field, for instance. I do believe that is an essential component in charting a responsible path forward, and my position on this has not changed. I have never said otherwise.

    Finally, I take great exception to your statement that when asked if I should be “more balanced” in my own reporting, I responded “no.” This could not be further from the truth and is a gross misrepresentation of what transpired.

    The question asked at the forum Monday was whether the body of U.S. media has been driven by bias in its reporting of environmental issues around shale gas exploration, as is suggested in the same Charles Groat, University of Texas Study, which found that the majority of news articles have been negative. I responded that I do not think news organizations have an inherent responsibility to be equally positive and equally negative if the facts of the reporting say otherwise, and that perhaps the tone of the coverage reflects the very real issues here that are of concern.

  11. Abrahm,

    You won't find a company that won't readily admit that surface spills are a concern. But I disagree with your assertion that it is disingenuous to make a very clear distinction between the fracing process itself causing contamination and some ancillary cause.

    Many of those opposed to fracing believe that every single well is going to cause contamination because "it's just inherently unsafe to shoot chemicals down into the ground, and that frac water will, one way or another, ultimately end up getting into the aquifer". If this were true, if there were an inherent flaw in the concept, you'd see me right next to Josh Fox saying "we can't be doing this!"

    But that is not the case. Fracking itself DOES NOT contaminate aquifers. And "fracking", IS NOT a catch all synonym of "gas drilling". It's a specific term. Surface spills are an issue for hundreds of industries. With the proper regulations, they can be all but eliminated. Not a valid reason to want to stop all drilling. This is a huge distinction that CAN AND SHOULD be made, and can be done without trivializing surface spills or leaks.

    You mention that you've found 1,000 cases of gas well drilling contamination. Take a look at a blog I wrote a while back regarding MTBE in drinking water aquifers. There have been over FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND (400,000) CONFIRMED cases of underground gasoline storage tanks having leaked, releasing gasoline and diesel fuel, full of benzene and all sorts of nasty stuff, directly into aquifers below. 15,000 confirmed cases in PA alone. Leaves one to wonder how many went unreported.

    Again, not to say that surface spills are of little consequence, just adding some of that much needed perspective.