Monday, July 30, 2012

Critics call Josh Fox on fracking and breast cancer charge A look behind the provocation in The Sky is Pink

During a recent visit to Capitol Pressroom, host Susan Arbetter asked me to separate the wheat from chaff in the debate over claims about the risks and merits of shale gas development. That subject is better suited for a book than a blog. But it is worth framing the debate in this context: Producing petroleum from rock using high volume hydraulic fracturing in tandem with horizontal drilling is a new and developing field, and its cumulative, long-term impacts are largely a matter of speculation, educated guesses, and unfinished study. It’s plain to see that technological and industrial advances in directional drilling and fracking has opened access to vast new domestic carbon reserves, including gas and oil. That holds the promise of reducing the country’s dependence on coal – an unquestionable polluter with well-known health detriments. But how do we know to what degree benefits of shale gas development are offset by risks? And how will each be fairly weighed in an impassioned debate colored by politics and ideology?

Both sides of the argument authoritatively cite a scant and inconclusive body of knowledge. Developing a more comprehensive scientific baseline on which to gauge risks is hurt by a lack of reporting requirements by the industry, which is exempt from many rules fundamental to gauge environmental impacts and protect public health.

Josh Fox
One of the most potent critics of the industry is Josh Fox, the filmmaker who galvanized the anti-fracking movement with Gasland, an Academy Award nominated film that premiered on HBO in 2010. Gasland depicts the natural gas industry as a reckless, uncaring, deceitful, and far-reaching exploiter of resources at the expense of public welfare and the environment. It’s an engrossing film with popular appeal, and to this day is a featured part of anti-fracking rallies lead by celebrities ranging from actor Alec Baldwin to song-writer Natalie Merchant. Gasland has become a natural target for industry, which has funded films like “Truthland” and other rebuttals in an attempt to discredit Fox and his work.

A main theme of Gasland, and of Fox’s follow-up short film, The Sky is Pink, is built around the risks of methane migration, a phenomenon when explosive gases move through the ground into enclosed spaces, sometimes with disastrous results. The gas industry typically blames methane migration on naturally occurring circumstances, without acknowledging that holes drilled into pressurized gas-baring zones thousands of feet deep can open pathways to aquifers and homes at the surface, despite efforts to seal them off. Fox produced the Sky is Pink partly to rebut industry criticism that the footage depicting methane migration in Gasland – notably tap water that erupts into a ffireball in Mike Markham’s sink -- was due to naturally occurring methane. In the film, Fox supports the flaming-faucet footage with documents and a lecture by Cornell Engineering professor (and industry scholar) Tony Ingraffia. Fox also compares the drilling industry’s denial of problems with the tobacco industry’s assertion, for decades, that smoking does not cause cancer. (Fox notes that Big Energy has hired the tobacco industry’s PR firm, Hill and Knowlton.) Had Fox left it at that, The Sky is Pink would have been an effective and persuasive spotlight on the industry’s attempt to cloud the facts. But he doesn’t. After making analogies between the tobacco and drilling industries, Fox states this:

In Texas, as throughout the United States, cancer rates fell. Except in one place: in the Barnett Shale. The five counties where there was the most drilling saw a rise in breast cancer throughout the counties.

Without further exploration or analysis, Fox ridicules a pink drilling rig. Presented in the context of the film, it’s emblematic of the disingenuousness of the industry’s attempts to solve everything with public relations, (which is indeed is an easy target for lampoon).

The approach is cinematically effective; the pink rig juxtaposed with the reference to the cancer registry data is sure to elicit a gasp from industry cynics. It also plays off the title of the film – The Sky is Pink – suggesting the preposterousness of the industry’s capacity to give a damn about the facts. These are deft executions by Fox as a filmmaker. But Fox also presents himself as a journalist; and the breast cancer reference has opened his entire work to a critical offensive not only from the industry scholars and discerning students of public and environmental health, but from the mainstream media.

Fox’s primary source of information, as noted in a follow-up defense of his work, was a report in the Denton Record Chronicle by Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe. The story, August 31, 2011, reports that the average rate of breast cancer in six counties rose from 58.7 cases per 100,000 people in 2005 to about 60.7 per 100,000 in 2008. The story adds that the rates are below the national average, and that researchers did not attribute a cause, although it might involve “many factors.”

Public records compiled from cancer registry data give a snapshot of cancers diagnosed in given places at given times. (I learned this from years of fist hand reporting on several statistically significant leukemia clusters over industrial TCE plumes under several neighborhoods in Broome County New York.) But they are not a tool intended for or capable of accounting for myriad risk factors and demographics necessary for a meaningful epidemiology study. Cancer exposures typically must be accounted for over time (prior to diagnosis). So patients’ histories, life styles, occupations, and migrations need to be factored in. Also, how can one risk be separated from another? Smoking? Diet? Age? Health Care access? Poverty level? Are people moving into the area with these risk factors from another area?

When taking into account all these kinds of factors, sometimes patterns emerge from cancer registry data that are invisible in the vagueness of the big picture; and sometimes patterns that seem significant on face value disappear. Yet Fox’s film – highlighting a map showing blocks of red over the Barnett Shale representing elevated breast cancer rates – fails to mention, much less account for, any of this. It’s the very kind of rhetorical recklessness that Fox blames on the industry, and it has prompted similar kinds of criticism

“Saying something causes breast cancer is like yelling fire in a theater. It should be only said when true,” states John Hanger, who headed Pennsylvania’s efforts to regulate the shale gas industry under Gov. Ed. Rendell. (Hanger was a primary pursuer of the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to order Cabot Oil and Gas to build a waterline to Dimock to compensate residents for an aquifer damaged by drilling-related methane migration.) You can read his blog on the Sky is Pink here.

Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist, author, and fracking opponent, defended Fox by noting that, just because something is not known conclusively to cause cancer, doesn’t mean that it should be excluded as a suspect. In her view, the numbers in Fox’s film warrant a closer look:

The larger point made in The Sky is Pink that there is something unusual about the longer-term breast cancer incidence patterns in the counties overlying the Barnett Shale where gas drilling is most intense. These patterns clearly need to be investigated further.
But does fracking cause cancer? The back and forth between those for and those against was predictable. Less predicable was backlash from an Associated Press reporter Kevin Begos, who called Fox on his lack of methodology. In his July 22 report, Begos cites, among others, Simon Craddock Lee, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas who characterized Fox’s reading of breast cancer rates as way off base. Lee called the claims of an increase "a classic case of the ecological fallacy" because they falsely suggest that breast cancer is linked to just one factor. In fact, diet, lifestyle and access to health care also play key roles.

I believe that Begos’ report reflects healthy (and growing) pressure from the mainstream news media to raise the bar of accountability on both sides for readers growing tired of a partisan back and forth and looking for more sophistication in reporting. Weighing the long-term environmental consequences of spills, water consumption, methane migration, waste production and disposal, truck traffic etc. is not simple – it requires manpower, reporting, transparency, and enforcement. Gauging effects on public health is even more problematic. Researchers must test changes in an elusive and migrant human population with logistical and cultural barriers to examination. The tools of epidemiology – statistics and probability – are abstractions that defy the craving for black and white arguments that easily suite the rhetorical purposes of either side of the argument. Assigning responsibility for dead fish, unhealthy air, biological fragmentation – can be politically charged. Epidemiology studies that connect human disease and mortality to industrial factors are sure to grab even more attention.

As Fox may (or may not) be learning, using incomplete data to make sweeping observations may do his cause more harm than good. That said, pressing for more information is a worthwhile pursuit. Lack of a clear picture of public health risks from fracking should not dampen public discussion that provokes the kind of study that eventually leads to answers.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

BREAKING NEWS: EPA concludes Dimock water probe Agency says treatment systems solve problem in 5 homes.

A seven-month investigation by the federal EPA into the safety of water in Dimock Pa. found elevated levels of hazardous substances in five of 64 homes. The agency concluded that, overall, the results do not suggest health risks from the water supply that has been at the center of controversy over the safety of shale gas development. That's partly because some homes, located amid Marcellus Shale drilling operations, showed no signs of contamination, and partly because filters are addressing problems in homes where high levels arsenic, barium, and manganese might otherwise create risks. All three contaminants occur naturally in the ground. They are also associated with drilling operations, which can exacerbate existing problems or introduce new ones. Based on the results, the agency found no need for continuing the investigation.

The 725 pages of testing results were summarized in a statement released this afternoon that read, in part:

Overall during the sampling in Dimock, EPA found hazardous substances, specifically arsenic, barium or manganese, all of which are also naturally occurring substances, in well water at five homes at levels that could present a health concern. In all cases the residents have now or will have their own treatment systems that can reduce concentrations of those hazardous substances to acceptable levels at the tap. EPA has provided the residents with all of their sampling results and has no further plans to conduct additional drinking water sampling in Dimock.

Dimock has been at the center of a national controversy over the impacts from shale gas development and high volume hydraulic fracturing in particular. The process, know as fracking, involves injecting bedrock with millions of gallons of chemical solution to stimulate the flow of natural gas. Residents in the small town in Susquehanna County sued Cabot Oil and Gas after tests in 2009 and 2010 showed signs ground water contaminated with various substances associated with drilling operations.

The investigated was conducted by EPA technicians and scientists from the agency's Region 3 office, which covers Pennsylvania, and Mid-Atlantic states. Finding a cause for the pollution was not part of the plan, according to Terri –A White, spokeswoman for the agency’s Region 3 Press Office who responded to my follow up questions through written statements.

Question: Given that water systems are dynamic and changing, and drilling operations move around, is there any chance that other water supplies might be affected in the future? Does the possibility of this make it necessary to isolate a cause?

Answer: “EPA’s goal was to provide the Dimock community with complete, reliable information about the presence of contaminants in their drinking water and determine whether further action was warranted to protect public health. At this time, EPA is not looking to identify potential trends regarding drinking water quality in Dimock.”

The federal agency’s reluctance to delve deeper into the source of contamination affecting 8-percent of the homes in its Dimock sample will raise complaints among those seeking more assurances that shale gas development is safe. On the other hand, it will likely meet with approval from industry proponents and regulators, including Michael Krancer, head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, who have charged that the federal agency is overzealous in butting into regulatory matters that have always been handled by the states.

While the process of fracking has driven much of the debate, it should be noted that fracking is technically different than drilling. Drilling (apart from fracking) can create pathways for naturally occurring elements in the ground such as methane, brine, and heavy metals to migrate into ground water supplies.

In January, EPA began providing alternative supplies of fresh water to four homes where records suggested pollution might be causing health risks. Between January and June the agency sampled water wells serving 64 homes, including two rounds of tests at the four suspect wells. According to the EPA statement, the investigation was “a precautionary step in response to prior data indicating the well water contained levels of contaminants that pose a health concern. At one of those wells EPA did find an elevated level of manganese in untreated well water. The two residences serviced by the well each have water treatment systems that can reduce manganese to levels that do not present a health concern.”

Today, the agency announced it is unnecessary to provide residents with alternative water, and it “is working with residents on the schedule to disconnect the alternate water sources provided by EPA,“ according to the agency statement.

In addition to collecting water samples to assess immediate health risks, EPA technicians collected samples from 12 Dimock homes for isotopic methane analysis, according to information provided by White. The goal is to determine whether methane found in Dimock wells migrated from deeper formations. The results will be included in a broader EPA study, with an update due at the end of the year, on the impact of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater. The pending report is especially relevant to a controversy over the so-called “Halliburton Loophole,” which exempts hydraulic fracturing from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The exemption was folded into a clause in the 2005 Energy Act after an earlier EPA study of coal bed methane (CPM) wells concluded that fracking was not a significant threat to groundwater.

The question over methane in Dimock wells and the broader consequences and implications is not new, and it gained national attention after Norma’s Fiorentino’s water well exploded on Jan. 1, 2009. A subsequent analysis of samples collected by the Pa. DEP under Gov. Rendell administration found that methane polluting the aquifer was thermogenic, from deeper producing formations, rather than biogenic gas that collects in shallow seeps.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Defusing the shale gas debate, Panel takes on tough task

In Monday’s post on Dot Earth, veteran science writer Andrew Revkin cites examples of disingenuousness from what he calls both the “bonanza” and “ban” camps of the fracking debate. Namely, the absence of transparency and legitimacy in work presented as objective scientific analysis. As examples, Revkin cites a report from the University of Texas at Austin, titled Separating Fact from Fiction in Shale Gas Development. A university news release accompanying the report points out that the paper is unfunded by the gas industry, but it fails to mention that its lead author, Charles Groat, is allied with the industry through income, investments, and professional affiliation. University officials are reviewing the report in light of the conflict.

On the other side of the issue, Revkin notes a working paper by Elaine Hill, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University, which links birth defects to shale gas wells. The work, Natural Gas Operations and Infant Health, is presented as “robust science” by Hill and anti-fracking activists, even though it is yet to be published or peer reviewed.

(Add to this the recent controversy between the Associated Press and anti-fracking celebrity Josh Fox, whose expose on fracking, Gasland, was nominated for an Academy Award. The AP accused Fox of producing unsubstantiated reports of cancer rates near fracking zones in a follow-up film, “The Sky is Pink.”)

So how does the public fairly gauge the merits and risks of shale gas development when supposedly objective scientific assessments show signs of bias or fall short of scientific rigor? A panel of analysts will address that subject Thursday in Rensselaerville, New York. The event, Beyond the Hype, will feature diverse voices. In addition to Revkin, panelists include Stu Gruskin, former deputy commissioner for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and George Robinson, a watershed biologist at the University of Albany. Robert Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, will moderate. (The event begins at 7 p.m. at the Carey Center for Global Good in Rensselaerville. Note correction: The event is not at the nearby Huyck Preserve, as stated in an earlier version of this post. For directions GPS or search 100 Pond Hill Road, Rensselaerville. RSVP by calling 518-797-5100 or by emailing Advance questions can be submitted to panelists through that email.)

These panelists are venturing into the middle of a policy donnybrook involving academics, journalists, lobbyists, activists, regulators, and heads of state and industry, the outcome of which will decide the extent of on-shore drilling’s role in the country’s energy future. The fight cuts across local, state, and federal lines. Drilling has not traditionally come under the purview of the federal government. In 2005, the Bush administration set out to keep it that way by exempting fracking (the industrial process that produces gas from bedrock central to the fledging on-shore gas and oil boom) from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. But now the Obama EPA, drawing on case studies in Dimock, Pennsylvania and Pavillion, Wyoming, among others, is re-evaluating the impact high volume hydraulic fracturing has on ground water. At the same time, New York, sitting over the northern part of the Marcellus Shale, has become a showcase for anti-fracking efforts that have gone nationwide. Shale gas drilling permits in the Empire State remain on hold while state regulators gauge the environmental impact of shale gas development and retools its regulations accordingly. After assessing more than 70,000 comments on draft versions of the policy review (called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement) –generated largely through grass roots efforts of anti-fracking groups -- Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised the final version of that policy soon. Cuomo has also suggested that the state may ultimately defer to the preferences of local governments when it came to issuing shale gas permits.

Meanwhile celebrities ranging from Yoko Ono to Alec Baldwin have joined a group of scientists, engineers and health policy professionals, including Sandra Steingraber and Tony Ingraffea, who view shale gas development as reckless and unsafe under any regulatory format due to greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and hazards related to faulty well casings and methane migration. Those urging a fracking ban are fighting desperately against shale gas proponents for the hearts and minds of the mainstream voting population. In addition to industry, fracking supporters include a faction of environmentalists who see shale gas as a critical and immediate transition away from coal and related health and environmental hazards ranging from ambient mercury exposure to mountain top removal to carbon emissions.

It won’t be the first time upstate New York has been front and center of an epoch national environmental policy debate. In the late 1970s, Love Canal in Niagara County became a popular cause in an era awakening to the consequences of unregulated hazardous waste disposal. So what comparison can be made between the popular movements driving the political train of Love Canal -- which lead to the Superfund law of 1980 and an era of environmental regulatory reforms -- and fracking? I put the question to several members of Thursday’s panel. Here are excerpts from their email responses:

Dealing with waste, including hazardous waste, is a tiny part of the economy compared to providing energy sources to generate electricity, provide basic feedstocks and heat to big industries and keep vehicles moving. So the clash of interests over shale gas and oil is far vaster, from the scale of landowners with different concerns (financial or environmental) to that of a country seeing what some tally as a $1 billion-a-day economic stimulus and path to an astonishingly quick decline in coal burning and carbon dioxide emissions, but also grappling with on-the-ground environmental questions.

The fracking controversy involves not only environmental safety issues, but also climate change and energy policy, as well as the rights of landowners, so in the big picture there are multiple facets to this challenge for policy makers. It seems to me that regardless of whether we are trying to prevent something like Love Canal from recurring, or anticipating and mitigating the impacts of an industrial process like high volume hydraulic fracturing, government should engage in decision-making that is based upon the facts and science, and not the 'hype'.

The gas industry has an enormous footprint that poses environmental, community, and public health risks. Vehicle traffic, resource demands (like water), workforce demands, etc., all add up, and they add up to a lot. So regulating gas development will mean regulating a multi-headed beast, and it's yet to be seen whether New York will be up to the task.

Rebecca Platel, the press contact for Thursday’s event, said it is intended to help bridge “a disconnect between the public discussion and what the state’s trying to do.” That is, to provide understanding of the regulatory infrastructure needed to oversee gas development, “not just whether it’s good or bad, or we should do it or not do it … Put Home Rule aside. Put flaming faucets aside—what are the impacts that we’re not paying attention to? How do they re-shape policy outcomes? And, given that there are so many different scales at which we can assess and debate the impacts and benefits of fracking—how to create policy that is fair, equitable and safe?”

The public comfort level with the idea of fracking in New York is far ranging– and a lot of this comfort level depends on how closely you are connected to the industry, and what stakes you have in the outcome. But on a fundamental level, we are all stakeholders. As a nation of consumers of cheap abundant energy, we tend to enjoy the comforts that the mineral extraction provides us, as long as we don’t have to look too closely from where it comes. The shale gas venture playing out in American back yards forces us to take a good close look.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Shale gas holds timeless impact on smalltown USA

Values that define the shale gas controversy are embodied in the physical aspects of rural landscapes of Pennsylvania and upstate New York – something I was reminded of in a visit to Cooperstown last week. Cooperstown is the seat of Otsego County, one of many upstate New York communities whose character is derived from a legacy of preservation. It’s a place of natural beauty, history, and gentrification featuring attractions such as Otsego Lake, headwaters of the Susquehanna River watershed; the National Baseball Hall of Fame; the Farmers' Museum; the Fenimore Art Museum; Glimmerglass Opera; and the New York State Historical Association. Otsego 2000 is a preservation agency founded in 1981 to protect the area’s natural and cultural assets. Executive Director Ellen Pope explained that the agency strives to keep the natural landscape more or less the way William Cooper (and his famous son James Fenimore Cooper) saw it 225 years ago. That vision doesn't include shale gas development and its related build out of well pads, pipelines, compressor stations, and accompanying truck traffic.

The rush to exploit the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, by comparison, reflects an altogether different comfort level with resource extraction, shaped by a much different history. The Drake oil fields in northwestern Pennsylvania gave birth to the modern petroleum industry in the 19th Century; the anthracite coal mines in northeastern Pa. fueled the industrial revolution; quarry operations, both family owned and commercial, still provide product ranging from blue stone for upscale building projects to gravel for highways and infrastructure. Marcellus shale gas wells coming on line since 2007 are fueling electricity generation, petrochemical industries, and heating homes and businesses. The hard, dangerous, and messy story of mineral extraction is told in the scars that still mark the Pennsylvania countryside: acid mine drainage, inextinguishable fires like the one in Centralia, Pa.; ecological disasters and fatalities, and abandoned gas wells and drilling operations gone wrong that have contributed to methane seeps and explosions.

Mineral reserves seen as an economic windfall in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania are considered a liability to land preservationists in Otsego County, New York. The shale reservoirs underlying both states– the Marcellus and the Utica -- are much closer to the surface in the Cooperstown area, and therefore less viable as primary targets for exploitation in the near future. But development of petroleum plays tends to lead to the discovery of new horizons and pay zones in adjoining areas. Shale gas plays that start in the center and work out can suddenly accelerate with an expansion in markets and a related jump in the value of the resource. So it is that Otsego County, an area drawing the casual interest of prospectors and speculators, remains on the battlefront of the shale gas war, with the Town of Middlefield playing a central role. A fracking ban in 2011 by the Middlefield Town Board drew a lawsuit by Jennifer Huntington and Cooperstown Holstein Corp. claiming the ban violates her rights to reap economic benefits of a lease to develop mineral rights on her 400 acres. The state Supreme Court upheld the ban in February. The industry is appealing the case, along with a similar state Supreme Court decision upholding a ban in Dryden in the Finger Lakes area. The landmark Middlefield/Dryden case will determine the extent that towns can determine their own destiny regarding shale gas development – a concept know as home rule. (As of now, the state and industry decide where the wells go.)

I met Pope in the courtyard of the Brewery Ommegang, where I gave a talk (hosted by Otsego 2000) about the unfolding policy developments that will influence the shale gas play. Much of my talk and the subsequent discussions were focused on the immediacy of the policy debate in the context of a highly anticipated release of New York state’s permitting guidelines after four years of deliberations and drafts. The backdrop for the evening – a countryside much the same as the Coopers saw it -- was a reminder of how the policy formulation playing out in courts and government halls will have timeless ramifications.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Is DEC’s top regulator too close to Big Energy for comfort? Spotlight on Brad Field, head of Mineral Resources for NY

As head of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Mineral Resources, Bradley J. Field is a prominent figure in an agency that has promoted hydraulic fracturing as a risk-free and impeccably regulated technology with a proven track record in New York.

Perhaps it's relevant that Field also sees global warming as a good thing. Field is listed on the Global Warming Petition Project calling for the U.S. to reject international global warming agreements, while claiming there is “no convincing evidence” that manmade greenhouse gases will disrupt the earth’s climate. On the contrary, the petition cites “substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the earth.”

Field’s support of this global warming refutation was reported in Metroland by Robert H. Boyle, a journalist and activist who criticized Field and his agency for being an industry booster. The article, Field of Distortions, was co-authored by Bruce Ferguson. Given that it lacked comment from Field, I was curious to hear directly from the man who heads the agency that will be in charge of permitting and enforcing shale gas development in New York. I had spoken with Field when I was a reporter for the Press & Sun Bulletin in 2010. At that time, he was defending his agency against assertions by Walter Hang, an activist and head of Toxic Targeting, a firm specializing in documenting pollution. Hang uncovered hundreds of unresolved cases of spills and accidents related to drilling in New York state, contrary to the Mineral Resources Divison’s claim that the state’s record was characterized by “a lack of contamination events” from natural gas development. (More on that further down…) Field, however, is no longer talking to the media, as far as I can tell, and this week he declined an interview with me. I learned from Emily DeSantis, the DEC spokeswoman speaking on Field’s behalf, that “If Mr. Field did sign such a petition, it was in a personal capacity and had no bearings on his professional duties.”

Many will argue, to the contrary, that certain flags go up when a public official who plays a critical role in developing policy on the future of petroleum extraction embraces an ideologically loaded position such as global warming denial. Questions about Field’s pro-industry stance on global warming come as the DEC faces accusations from environmental activists that the agency gave the natural gas industry exclusive and unfair access to draft drilling regulations up to six weeks before they were released to the public or to any other stakeholders. Gas industry representatives purportedly took advantage of this inside information by lobbying to minimize reporting requirements designed to regulate toxic and radioactive runoff from drilling sites. These allegations and other issues will be the focus of a Senate Democratic Conference forum July 18 in New York City, spearheaded by Senator Tony Avella and other elected officials calling for stricter scrutiny of the DEC’s relationship with the oil and gas industry.

So is Bradley J. Field -- the person in charge of overseeing and enforcing a new and unprecedented era of on-shore drilling in New York State -- a climate change denier? And if so, how much does this matter? I asked DeSantis to ask Field directly if he signed the Global Warming Petition Project in a “personal capacity” as to clear the air. “I did,” she replied: “He does not recall.”

Which brings us to why this matters. The response is exactly the kind of equivocation that has characterized Field’s approach to handling the debate over the merits and risks of shale gas development from the beginning. The agency’s position of record, articulated by Field’s staff at public meetings held throughout the state in the advent of the shale gas development in 2008, is neatly summarized in the following memo to Tom Wilinsky, a resident of Sullivan County. Wilinsky wrote to the department, inquiring about necessary steps to ensure that fracking is done safely. This was in May, 2008, long before any policy had been developed or even proposed to handle shale gas development. Wilinsky received this reply:

Oil and Gas development has been taking place in our state since the 1800s. Laws and regulations have been in place to regulate the industry so that property ground water resources are protected. Casing programs are designed to isolate the shallow drinking water from the deeper formations that may be fraced [sic]. The Marcellus Shale is approximately 6,000 feet in Sullivan County, over one mile deeper than drinking water zones. Industry has used horizontal well drilling in New York since the late 1980s. Hydraulic fracturing has been commonly and safely used in New York state for decades. Marcellus Shale fracing operations use fresh water, sand, nitrogen and a diluted soapy solution to fracture the shale. These frac [sic] fluids do not contain benzene, toluene or xylene … The industry is regulated, and the lack of contamination events is evidence that the laws and rules are effectively protecting the environment.
The memo echoes reassurances made by longtime Mineral Resources staffers Jack Dahl and Linda Colhart (documented in pages 64-67 of Under the Surface, Fracking, Fortunes and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale) at town forums when residents were first learning they were sitting over one of the largest natural gas fields in the world, and companies were ready to pay big money for the rights to develop it. The prevailing message -- don’t worry, we have it covered -- raises the question: Is this a sufficient level of vigilance from an agency responsible for overseeing the world’s most powerful industry, setting up shop on millions of acres of other people’s land, and exempt from federal and state disclosure and hazardous waste laws?

Contrary to Field’s reassurances, we now know operators have never used fracking with horizontal drilling in New York state, nor have they ever developed shale gas reserves in New York state; fracking employs hundreds of toxic and caustic agents; cement casings fail at least 6 percent of the time and more as they age. Many of these revelations came to light in the public critique of a review of the environmental impacts of shale gas development ordered by Governor David Paterson in 2008. The 1,500-page document, called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), gives an assessment of environmental risks (mandated by the governor’s order) of high volume hydraulic fracking that was absent in earlier public presentations by Mineral Resources staff. These risks include depletion of water resources, water pollution from spills, and hazards related to methane migration – caused when drilling opens new pathways for natural gas to move through the ground into enclosed spaces and water wells. Permitting guidelines will be based on this review, which fell by natural selection to the DEC’s Mineral Resources Division. The SGEIS is now under its third draft after a series of intensive public hearings drew more than 70,000 comments critiquing earlier versions that were generally praised by the industry but deemed too weak by critics. The next and final version of the document is expected this summer.

It’s true that New York state operators have used fracking to develop conventional wells – a minor undertaking in terms of scope and impact compared to shale gas development. But even here there are all sorts of inconsistencies between the Mineral Resources Division’s position and the record. There are instances where conventional drilling has caused water pollution, but these are obscured by lack of reporting requirements and enforcement. When claims of water contamination are reported, the DEC Mineral Resources Division, the lead investigative agency, often leaves it up to the industry to settle with property owners who face a high burden of proof and experienced industry legal teams. Such was the case with Dave Eddy, who lived with his wife and two small children in Allegany County, near a non-Marcellus drilling operation by U.S. Energy Development Corporation. When workers began fracking the well in 2009, the Eddy’s bath faucet, which at the time was filling the tub for the kids, produced a foamy, chocolate-brown stream. Testing by the company found the well was polluted with petroleum, according to a letter to the DEC from Jerry Jones, operations manager at U.S. Energy. The company subsequently installed a filter on the home, put the family up in a hotel and offered compensation for the pollution, the letter states. It was the beginning of a protracted and frustrating legal battle with the company.

Some of these cases were picked up by local health officials frustrated with the DEC’s denial of problems. As previously reported in this blog, William T. Boria, a water resources specialist at the Chautauqua County Health Department, tracked more than 140 complaints related to water pollution or gas migration associated with a boom in nearby conventional drilling operations (prior to shale gas development). In a 2004 memo summarizing the issue, he concluded “Those complaints that were recorded are probably just a fraction of the actual problems that occurred.” County health officials tabulated information on 53 of the cases from 1983 to 2008 on a spreadsheet, including methane migration, brine pollution, and at least one in which a home had to be evacuated after the water well exploded. “A representative I spoke with from the Division of Minerals (of the DEC) insists that the potential for drinking water contamination by oil and gas drilling is almost non-existent,” Boria wrote in his memo to a party whose name was redacted. “However, this department has investigated numerous complaints of potential contamination problems resulting from oil and gas drilling.”

The lack of accountability has caused nagging public relations problems for the industry and those who oversee it, not just in New York. Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor, national homeland security director, and paid industry spokesman, told AP reporter Michael Rubinkam last year that energy companies need to do a better job reassuring citizens that they take environmental protection seriously, in Ridge’s words “…. to be concerned about their public image and … to understand what they need to do to improve it."

This very issue came up last week in a post by blogger Andrew Revkin, of New York Times Dot Earth. The post featured the perspective of Auden Schendler, who is vice president of sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Company and author of Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution. In Revkin’s post, Schendler reported on many things – namely a project to capture methane waste from a coalmine to power the ski resort. But he had this to say about fracking.

I was at a conference of oil and gas folks, and they said something interesting: “When people started talking about fracking affecting groundwater, we just laughed it off because it’s physically impossible and absurd. And that was a mistake–what happened is that we lost control of the message. We should have said: ‘there are lots of concerns related to the fracking process, air quality, water use, and other issues, and we need to take those seriously. Here’s how..’”

So when will the industry regain control of the message? The discussion now seems stuck on something people like to refer as “nonpartisan science” – which more often than not when used by industry and politicians is code for scientific analysis that supports certain views over others. The fracking debate has become loaded with this kind of science, a fact that shows us, perhaps more than anything, that shale gas development has not been around long enough to generate much in the way of a conclusive body of knowledge and scientific consensus regarding its long-term health and environmental impacts. (Here for example, are opposing studies regarding the global warming effects of shale gas development, one by Robert Howarth and one by Lawrence M. Cathles.) These early studies, in truth, mark the beginning of a long and necessary scientific inquiry. In the meantime, it’s way too early for people to begin closing their minds.

So is Bradley Field, the petroleum engineer and drilling proponent who can’t remember if he is a climate change denier; the holder of a singularly influential position to determine the outcome of shale gas development in New York state as the issuer of permits and the overseer of regulations -- Is this Bradley Field nonpartisan? It’s a relevant question. Elected officials come and go. (Field has already served under five governors.) The policy being derived under Field’s long and unchallenged tenure with the DEC will be enduring.

Correction: The original version of this post inoorrectly cited authorship of the Metroland article, Field of Distortions, to William Boyle.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Nationwide doesn't cover fracking: How newsworthy? Industrial sized risk not part of standard policy

Nationwide’s recent statement declaring its policy designed for homeowners and business does not cover liability and losses related to fracking is interesting, but not as interesting as the coverage it has generated.

The statement, issued earlier this week, was prompted by the circulation of the company’s underwriting guidelines on the Internet after somebody posted them on Facebook in the context of the fracking debate, said Nancy Smelter, a spokeswoman for the agency. With that, Nationwide felt it necessary to explain why it didn’t cover losses from fracking:

From an underwriting standpoint, we do not have a comfort level with the unique risks associated with the fracking process to provide coverage at a reasonable price. Insurance is a contract and it is designed to cover certain risks. Risks like flooding and mining or drilling are not part of our contracts, and the customer should seek out an insurer that handles these customized types of insurance.

There is nothing all that unusual about Nationwide’s position, except for the company’s need to publically explain it suggests risks associated with mineral extraction -- fracking in particular -- are becoming more of a mainstream concern than a niche. How many people or businesses have a mining or drilling operation in their backyard? Prior to on shore drilling boom spurred by shale gas development and high volume hydraulic fracturing, relatively few. But the implication is that shale gas extraction could potentially affect a significant number of policyholders in Nationwide’s marketplace.

The Nationwide statement points out that its general homeowners policy never covered losses to mineral extraction claims, and it puts fracking into the same category as drilling and mining. But the headlines that this generated made it easy to believe that the company was taking a position against fracking. This from the Associated Press: US Insurer Won't Cover Gas Drill Fracking Exposure. And this from the River Reporter: Nationwide Insurance: No Fracking Way. (In the wake of this type of coverage, Nationwide issued another statement this afternoon emphasizing that it’s policies have not changed regarding fracking, and that the company is not cancelling policies. Click here for full statement)

Because the Nationwide story is rooted in the controversial assessment of fracking risks, it presented an opportunity for anti-fracking activists, and a hook for media serving a public eager to know more. If a company that is expert in assigning and mitigating risks is saying no thanks to fracking, it’s logical to conclude, then the risks must be substantial. But there is more to it than that. What if a company that has never dealt with mineral extraction policy suddenly decided to cover fracking in its policy? Now that would be a surprise, but I doubt it would make headlines.

While the approach to these stories may have been off target, the liability issue is important and problematic. Unlike other industrial activities that operate in designated areas, owned by parties subject to fixed regulatory and commercial jurisdictions, drilling often occurs as a secondary function on other people’s residential land – possibly owned by uninformed third parties --– in a relatively unregulated, piecemeal, and itinerant way. The underlying issues of risk and liability are a critical part of understanding the impacts from shale gas. If the Nationwide story raises awareness and sets up discussion of this, then it’s worthwhile.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

More on Pulitzer’s legacy in context of fracking debate --- Are core media values changing with tools, expectations?

Last week I wrote about the role and influence of the media in the anti-fracking debate during a time when the tools and form of reporting are evolving almost as fast as the fracking story.

In response, anti-fracking activist Michael LeBron raised some good points, which give me another chance to circle back to one of my favorite subjects – the function of media. In my July 7 post, Does Gasland controversy reflect reporting in the 21st Century, I cited this quote by Joseph Pulitzer as the embodiment of values once embraced by traditional daily newspapers:

Always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.

I then questioned whether these ideals are falling from favor amid reporting generated by citizen journalist often aligned with or motivated by specific causes, or politically canted coverage from outlets like Fox News. (And I will here add MSNBC.)

Lebron is a New York City resident, artist, and board member of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability who has been an anti-fracking activist since the early days of the dispute, when water wells began going bad in Dimock, Pa. in 2009. This is what he had to say:

Tom, I'm not sure what you are saying. From the quote you selected, it sounds to me like Joe Pulitzer was an advocate for advocacy journalism!

If it could only be said that truth resides in objectively measurable phenomena and with a public that has the patience to take the time needed to observe them. This begs the question as to whether or not - in the absence of having all the relevant phenomena that is observable at the ready (indeed, who decides what is relevant?) - it is possible to observe in a way that is lacking in subjective bias and that will lead to "the truth". But isn't good science more about asking the right questions, questions that lead to ... not answers, but better answers? Ask Tony Ingraffea. [the Cornell University engineering professor and industry consultant now opposed to fracking.]

Having said that, in a society where great concentrations of wealth hang on selected definitions of "truth" and use all the tools at its disposal to aggressively frame them, "better answers" be damned if they depress 3rd quarter results, "advocates" * must provide a counterbalance by seizing the tools of journalism that have been democratized to such a great degree by the advent of the digitization era. In this age, mankind's survival may depend on it.

* and btw, aren't FOX, MSNBC, etc advocates? Why are the Michael Moores and Josh Foxes always the ones to be characterized as advocates? It is sort of like the distinction between "collateral damage" which is what the United States does, and "terrorism" which is what the folks without the drones and smart bombs do, but I digress.

Some of us think that ALL journalists are advocates. What is called "good" or "old fashioned" journalism is simply a journalism that is skilled at masking - or simply oblivious to - its own subjectivism, and that advocacy journalism is much more honest and ethical because it accepts its inevitable subjectivity.

My response to Michael:

You raise some great points. My quote of Pulitzer reflects a broad ideological baseline once paraphrased in newsroom as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” This was the starting point for mainstream newspapers aimed at working class readers, and yes, there is no doubt that it’s a liberal one. I feel need to apologize for that. The media has always been a critical watchdog of power and an agent of reform in truly free countries. Somewhere along the line, I’m going to say during the Rush Limbaugh/Karl Rove/ Fox News era, big institutions saw they could effectively attack this liberal line and present it as bias, rather than as a natural watchdog function necessary for a government “of the people.”

Getting back to Pulitzer as an activist. Yes, he was an activist along very broad lines -- the popular press being a just equalizer for the commoner, a counterweight to the influence of wealth and power that became dangerously centralized during the Gilded Age. Pulitzer’s career spanned a time when newspapers served the working class in pre-union days of unparalleled accumulation of wealth and exploitation. But I don’t see that Pulitzer was advocating that reporters be married to any particular cause. On the contrary, he was urging them to be “drastically independent.” Everybody has his or her own interpretation and comfort level with this. I personally feel I operate better allowing myself a bit of distance between both sources and story, and my training and disposition lend themselves to this approach. I admit judging this tends to be a fine line for reporters who are diving headlong into personal and compelling story lines. While examining and critiquing the very important work of Josh Fox, I will always be open to views from people who disagree, and also to the possibility that my own views are not infallible. This is just my frame of reference, and it doesn’t diminish what Fox or Michael Moore (or any of their followers) have done.

Having worked at mainstream newspapers for decades, I can safely say that being both open minded and critical were points of pride and value in the newsroom, and that those (not on the Op Ed desk) who held strong views were very aware when their own thinking might be encroaching on a story. The newsroom culture was also marked by free thinkers from diverse backgrounds with broad knowledge of the communities and beats that they covered, and a way of connecting with their readers’ interests. Yes, there is plenty of what Fox criticizes as “he-said-she-said” journalism (often made necessary by keeping up with the most relevant and provocative issues of public interest on relentless deadlines), but I will argue there is a place for that along side of the investigations.

Times are changing, and I am not a person who fears change and who is looking at the good old days through the rosy mist of nostalgia. The new degree of freedom, power, and immediacy the Internet brings to challenge, express, and explore views is a good thing. I hope that the good things that traditional institutional reporting brings – resources, experience, talent, reach, and competiveness -- can coexist with the decentralized and very able voices of citizen journalists. If they can, I believe we are heading into another golden age of reporting.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Fracking in NY -- Step on the gas or slam on the brakes? Health, environmental officials far apart on impacts

As shale gas policy in New York nears completion, key agencies are sending very different signals about the state's ability to handle impacts from high volume hydraulic fracturing.

Leaders within the Mineral Resources Division of the DEC – the state’s permitting arm for mineral extraction -- continue to advocate shale gas development while downplaying its risks. A collection of county health officials, on the other hand, have issued a report warning of a lack of resources and knowledge to protect the public from dangers associated the kind of unconventional practices, including high volume hydraulic fracturing, necessary to produce gas from bedrock. They are calling for a comprehensive, independent report to assess and deal with health risks before the state begins issuing permits.

Meanwhile, DEC officials are facing mounting criticism for sharing drafts of policy to oversee drilling operations with industry lawyers before making them public. Critics claim the industry unfairly used inside information from the DEC to lobby for changes to regulations prior to their public release. The coalition of activists and government watchdog groups have scheduled a rally and press conference on the New York City Hall steps Tuesday at 12 p.m.

In reassuring the public that shale gas development is safe and beneficial, officials within the DEC’s Mineral Resources Division have publicly denied that hydraulic fracturing uses dangerous chemicals. “The drilling companies in our area do not use the toxic fluids mentioned at the Waxman committee hearings (on the contents of fracking fluid),” Jack Dahl, director of the DEC’s Bureau of Gas and Oil Regulation, told The River Reporter’s Tom Kane in 2008. “The companies we talked to said that they use only water and sand.” Mineral resources staff gave similar assessments at public meetings to educate people about Shale Gas development in 2008 and 2009. Their message then: Shale gas drilling and fracking – the controversial method to extract gas from rock by injecting the well bore with a pressurized chemical solution -- would look no different than conventional development. Due to a “well established regulatory program“ and a “rigorous permitting process” of the agency, impacts from shale gas development would be minimal or environmentally beneficial over the long haul, according to this agency line.

As DEC staff made these public reassurances in 2008 (documented in my book, Under the Surface), the Mineral Resources Division worked with industry representatives to craft a bill that would facilitate the permitting of unconventional shale drilling units, which at the time could not be easily adapted under permitting for the much smaller units designed for conventional wells. With the DEC’s endorsement, the highly technical bill passed easily in both the Senate and the Assembly, although permitting was halted at the last minute under Gov. David Paterson’s administration pending an environmental review.

While the exact contents of fracking recipes are proprietary, industry records and the state’s permitting policy document (the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement now in draft form) show fracking solutions contain hundreds of toxic chemicals including solvents, acids, and glycols, exposure to which can cause health problems ranging from cancer to brain damage.

Critics see denials by Bradley Field, director of the Mineral Resources Division, and his staff of any risks associated with shale gas development as signs of collusion and cronyism systemic to a DEC culture that fails to demand healthy barriers between regulators and an industry positioned to manipulate the system. Field was unavailable for comment this week. (Robert H. Boyle, founder of Riverkeeper and the Hudson River Foundation for Science and Environmental Research, a member of Sustainable Otsego, and a former writer for Sports Illustrated, writes about Division of Mineral Resources Director Brad Field in Metroland)

While DEC Mineral Resources staff report no problems, health officials report plenty of concerns and a lack of wherewithal to handle them. The New York State Association of County Health Officials issued a report earlier this year for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s advisory panel on hydraulic fracturing that cites the potential for community health impacts ranging from disease to social ills in an environment transformed by shale gas drilling. The report noted that nearly 75 percent of local health departments cover territory over either the Marcellus or the Utica Shales. It cites several studies determining impacts from shale gas development in other areas, including the Battlement Mesa Health Impact Assessment, by the Colorado School of Public Health, which takes into account issues ranging from volatile organic compounds wafting from drilling operations posing risks of respiratory, skin and eye ailments, to potential impacts on women and children from repeated benzene exposures. The county health department assessment also references, among others, a report by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions that cites “adverse effects” on communities related to reused drilling wastewater and “the availability and quality of locally grown foods, recreational sites, and jobs.” The New York State county health officials called for an “expert, independent, and evidence-based study of potential public health impacts, preventive approaches to mitigate human health risks, and estimated related costs prior to lifting the moratorium on permits.”

Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, who sits on the governor’s advisory panel, said the state will take the report into account. (Lupardo was among those who voted for a bill that passed the Assembly for a full-scale health assessment before permitting is allowed in New York. A similar bill never made it to the floor in the Senate, controlled by leadership that supports shale gas development, including Deputy Majority Leader Tom Libous. )

“These impacts are going to be around for a long time.” Lupado said. “We need to make sure this is part of the conversation, and not give local health departments the cue that they are going to be left with a lot of unfunded mandates to handle a whole range of issues.”

Libous, who also sits on the governor’s panel, said through his spokesman Emmanuel Priest that the panel would review the report, but he did not elaborate on its significance.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Does Gasland controversy reflect reporting in 21st Century

Vera Scroggins, citizen journalist and anti-fracking activist
Most people following the fracking controversy are familiar with the movie Gasland. It’s told through the first-person narration of Josh Fox, a native of Milanville, Pa. who sets out on a cross-country quest to learn about high volume hydraulic fracturing after a company offers to lease his family’s land to drill for natural gas.

When Gasland aired on HBO in the summer of 2010, it offered the American mainstream public the first feature-length look into shale gas development, and it wasn’t pretty. A hallmark of the movie is a scene where Mike Markham, who lives in a natural gas field in Weld County, Colorado, holds a lighter under tap water to demonstrate the consequences of nearby drilling operations. A cloud of yellow flame explodes in the sink as Markham leaps back.

Gasland was nominated for an Academy Award, not just because of its exposure of an unregulated industry causing undisclosed problems, but because it was a compelling work of art. Fox has since led rallies against fracking (the process of injecting the ground with a chemical solution that makes extracting gas and oil from rock economical) and has become a champion in the movement against the perpetuation of fossil fuel dependency.

Methane migration is a phenomenon of gas moving through the ground into enclosed spaces, creating hazards along the lines demonstrated at the Markham household, or worse. Methane migration is sometimes but not always related to gas drilling, with the burden of proof typically falling to the landowner. Predictably, Fox has been a target of the oil and gas industry for his depiction of methane migration at the Markham home. The time and energy spent to discredit him -- through films such as Truthland and Frack Nation -- are an indication of his influence. Fox, who was a featured speaker at rallies after his film was released, has also drawn criticism from those who argue that fracking has opened access to carbon resources that are less damaging to the environment than coal, and which provide the means for an immediate transition away from foreign oil dependence. I have also heard the argument that true environmentalists (who are also consumers of cheap abundant energy) should be weighing the impacts of unregulated mineral extraction in other countries against what’s happening in their own American back yards.

Among other things, Fox’s critics point to an assessment by the state of Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission that concluded Markham’s water well was polluted by methane unrelated to gas drilling. Did Fox sensationalize, or even misrepresent, the Markham circumstances to serve his purposes? The Colorado agency has a stake in Fox’s portrayal of its regulatory effectiveness, and viewed through Fox’s perspective, the agency’s rebuttal of his work has no bearing on the accuracy of Gasland. That’s because his film is both an expose of the gas industry and the regulatory bodies that oversee it. Both are in collusion and neither is to be trusted, according to Fox. (He cites examples ranging from the Haliburton Loophole – which spells out fracking’s exemption from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, to instances buried in the COGCC rebuttal that document other drilling-related methane migration cases in Weld County.)

Others, such as Andrew Revkin, a long-time science writer for the New York Times and now blogger for the Times’ Dot Earth, have given Fox low grades for his presentation. In Revkin’s view, Fox’s work is lax in distinguishing impacts of fundamentals such as drilling versus fracking - (methane migration is most commonly associated with drilling); or in explaining the differences between risks of pollution related to above-ground storage and handling of fracking chemicals versus subterranean impacts – shortcomings Revkin characterizes as “Josh's conflation of many things.” Fox has attacked Revkin for supporting shale gas as an alternative to coal, and specifically for endorsing a plan by Andrew Cuomo to begin permitting drilling and fracking in certain parts of New York State. (This post was partially inspired by Fox’s debate with Revkin, and subsequent conversations with them.)

The controversy surrounding Josh Fox is about fracking. But it also tells us plenty about the changing form and expectations of journalism. For most of the 20th Century, during the golden age of newspapering, reporters learned their craft on a newspaper’s payroll, where they were naturally selected by the merit of their stories, gauged both by public interest and trust built with readers and sources. After years of proving themselves to be reliable on cop and municipal beats, reporters eventually advanced to investigative stories. Those with established resumes also tended to land the most attractive magazine assignments. (The same pattern held true for broadcast journalism.)

The Internet has given rise to a volunteer corps of citizen journalists and a decline in the number of staff writers and newscasters. While Fox is a professional film maker with resources and some journalistic experience, he is also a principal role model for many citizen journalists who, once merely consumers in the Market Place of Ideas, now have access to participate as vendors. My book, Under the Surface, credit people such as Vera Scroggins, an amateur videographer who lugs equipment over hill and dale, into town and country, recording municipal meetings, interviews with residents, and fracking spills that were beyond the wherewithal of the sparse professional reporting staff in rural northern Pennsylvania, where the fledgling shale gas industry took root in 2009. She posted footage on the Internet, providing a repository of information otherwise unavailable. Participation of people like Vera is a good thing. But there is a cost. Filters for noise and confusion – i.e. credibility -- that professional journalists have traditionally brought to the public are disappearing with the attrition of the professional journalism corps (due largely to the failure of broadcast and print media to economically adapt to the proliferation of free content on the Internet).

There are plenty of citizen journalists who are motivated by political or ideological interests. There is no dishonor in this. Both journalism and activism have traditionally been intertwined, as a free press has always been an agent for reform and even revolution. Editorial comment has long been a vital subset of journalism. But making a distinction between the two functions is, in my view, an essential aspect of the type of transparency that journalists ask of sources and subjects, and that our readers have come to expect.

I have a guiding ideology of my own, and it’s embodied in the school of journalism that celebrates Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer advised:

Always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.

I openly wonder whether this old-school newspaper approach is falling from public favor in the era that has brought us Fox News and a proliferation of advocacy journalism on the Internet.

The controversy surrounding Josh Fox is also about politics. OK. I know what some readers are thinking, because I have heard it many times in this debate: Politics! That surely has no role in the discussion of something as important as our energy future and the merits and drawbacks of hydraulic fracturing. But before we dismiss political thinking as inferior to cold, hard science, keep in mind that scientists do not make the decisions in this country. Politicians do. Science has many masters, and politicians are served by science that supports their ideological worldviews. In a free country these views are (ideally and with some exceptions) representations of the views of the electorate.

We’ve seen since the birth of our country, through the Civil War, labor movement and Civil Rights eras, that political polarization is a painful part of self governance. In that vein I offer (along with the words of Pulitzer) this from Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. Brennan wrote for the court that dismissed libel charges against the New York Times in 1964. The court ruled in favor of the Times 9-0, even though the work in question, an advertisement titled Heed Their Rising Voices, contained factual errors about the arrest of civil rights protesters in Alabama. This, according to Brennan, is why:

A profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.

So let the fracking debate continue. As long as muckrakers are allowed to shed air and light into all corners of public affairs, and average citizens are represented, I have faith the country will follow the right course.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

HCL spill report in PA tells us much by saying very little

When do fracking chemicals have nothing to do with fracking?

Answer: When they are spilled over the Pennsylvania countryside. That happened Wednesday when 4,700 gallons of hydrochloric acid spilled at a well site operated by Chief Oil and Gas in Leroy Township. Except, according to the industry version of the report, it wasn’t a spill. It was “a release.” To handle this release, “appropriate clean up crews were quickly dispatched” to build infrastructure of “precautionary protection.” The result: “The release was quickly contained and cleanup is near completion.”

The scant details available on line today – a day after the spill -- rely heavily on this account provided by unnamed Chief Oil and Gas public relations staff. It notes that “there were no drilling or fracking operations taking place at the time of the release” and ”there was never an issue of safety.”

So what’s significant about this event, other than the sheer volume and toxicity of the spilled acid? Or that, as reported by Chief, “a few dead minnows” were “observed” in the nearby “plungepool”? It is, of course, what the industry-generated report doesn’t tell us: hydrochloric acid (HCL), which can burn through rock and flesh, is used to dissolve material in the well bore to allow a more efficient interface with the surrounding shale. HCL is one of hundreds of caustic and toxic chemicals that are part and parcel to fracking operations. When the anonymous industry report states there were “no drilling or fracking operations taking place” at the spill site in Leroy, it’s somehow excluding the handling and storage of hazardous materials that are central to those operations. In short, the cause and outcome of this particular spill, like the impact of large scale fracking operations over time, are made obscure by industry-speak. This 4,700 gallon “release” is, once again, something to keep in mind when you hear that fracking has never polluted groundwater.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Shale gas debate grows more urgent in New York state The Sky is Pink, raise profile of issues

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s attempt to turn down the heat on the shale gas controversy has only made it hotter.

Last month, Cuomo told Albany’s WGDJ-AM he intended to release the state’s final policy on permitting shale gas wells (the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement) when the legislature is not in session, and he reiterated his plan to allow drilling in towns that favor it while banning it in places where it is opposed.

“I think it’s actually better that we do it when the Legislature is not here, because I don’t want a political discussion,” Cuomo said. “You have enough emotion around this issue already. You have emotion on both sides; you have emotion that is at such a level in some ways it’s governing the conversation. I want to get the conversation back to facts and logic and science and information, and reduce the temperature of the conversation… ”

Instead, he has provoked an urgent and intense rally by national and statewide activists against fracking, advancing New York’s profile as the centerpiece of a national anti-fracking movement. Josh Fox, producer of the academy award nominated film Gasland, recently threw his weight into the debate with the release of an exclusive short film called The Sky is Pink. Gasland, which aired on HBO in 2010, made the image of flaming tap water iconic of the debate over shale gas development. Like Gasland, The Sky is Pink employs the edgy and wry cinematic style popularized by Michael Moore to deliver the following message to the New York governor, and the people who voted him into office: methane migration is persistent, scientifically documented hazard that the industry continually tries to deny.

Fox’s also delivered that message to Andrew Revkin, author of Dot.Earth, the New York Times blog dealing with global environmental issues. Revkin embraces the role of a voice of reason within the environmental movement who relishes solutions as well as problems. Last month, he wrote a post supporting Cuomo’s idea to begin permitting gas wells according to the preferences of local governments as “a wise, measured approach even setting political considerations aside.”

Last week, Fox attacked Revkin’s endorsement of the governor’s plan. Fox and other activists argue that fracking – the essential aspect to produce gas and oil reserves from rock using pressured chemical solutions injected into the ground– is unsafe anywhere.
Fox wrote on Dot.Earth:

“If the New York Department of Environmental Conservation is so confident that the process protects the environment, why not put the first 100 wells in the New York City watershed? Or truck the first 1,000 truckloads of ‘treated’ waste to the reservoir in Central Park? Or perhaps put the first gas refinery and compressor station in Scarsdale or Westchester? Why put it out in an economically depressed area with very little political clout?”

Revkin featured Fox’s criticism in a June 28 post, which he gamely titled ‘Gasland’ Filmmaker Takes on Cuomo and ‘Dot.FlatEarth’. Revkin promised to study the documents that Fox provided supporting The Sky is Pink and respond in a subsequent post.

Meanwhile, Fox has been under fire himself for the technical relevance of shots in Gasland of Mike Markham lighting his tap water on fire – a phenomenon the industry and sometimes regulators claim is not related to gas wells, but a “naturally occurring” phenomenon that predates drilling. Fox’s presentation of this is fair game – journalists must be diligent about the accuracy and fairness of their methods -- and there is debate about the source of methane in Markham’s well, as well as whether Fox is more talented filmmaker than journalist. But I can tell you that the basic thesis of his film – that methane migration from gas wells is a significant and sometimes disastrous byproduct of drilling that the industry tries to dismiss – is sound.

I have examined and reported the results of this while covering the Marcellus Shale development in New York and Pennsylvania for Gannett, and later while writing Under the Surface, Fracking Fortunes and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale. In 2004, Pennsylvania DEP records documented the collection of gas in the basement of the Harper residence, near several gas wells in Jefferson County about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. On March 5, the furnace kicked on, and the explosion leveled the house and killed Charles Harper, his wife Dorothy, and their grandson, Baelee. In July 2008, an explosion killed a resident of Marion Township, Pa., who tried to light a candle in the bathroom. The Pennsylvania DEP’s record of the event—one paragraph long—states that the agency “became aware” of the problem after the fatality, which it linked to gas migrating into the septic system from an old gas well with deteriorated casing.

In September, 2009, the DEP presented its compilation of known cases related to gas wells to the Pennsylvania state’s Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board, a group of state government– appointed industry representatives that advises the agency on technical and policy matters. According to the briefing, methane migration from gas drilling, had “caused or contributed to” at least six explosions that killed four people and injured three others over the course of the decade preceding full-scale Marcellus development. The threat of explosions had forced 20 families from their homes, sometimes for months. At least 25 other families have had to deal with the shut-off of utility service or the installation of venting systems in their homes. At least 60 water wells (including three municipal supplies) had been contaminated.

In New York State, William T. Boria, a water resources specialist at the Chautauqua County Health Department, knew of these kinds of problems, and was frustrated by the state DEC’s unwillingness to track them. Regulators typically passed the problem off on “naturally occurring” problems with little or no checking. Boria reported his agency received more than 140 complaints related to water pollution or gas migration associated with a boom in nearby conventional drilling operations (prior to shale gas development). In a 2004 memo summarizing the issue, he concluded “Those complaints that were recorded are probably just a fraction of the actual problems that occurred.” County health officials tabulated information on 53 of the cases from 1983 to 2008 on a spreadsheet, including methane migration, brine pollution, and at least one in which a home had to be evacuated after the water well exploded. “A representative I spoke with from the Division of Minerals (of the DEC) insists that the potential for drinking water contamination by oil and gas drilling is almost non-existent,” Boria wrote in his memo to a party whose name was redacted. “However, this department has investigated numerous complaints of potential contamination problems resulting from oil and gas drilling.”

Science as well as common sense tells us that drilling opens up new pathways for industrial scale migration of gas moving from deep places where its concentrated under high pressure to shallow, water bearing zones. The probability of this kind of methane migration is a function of the number of holes drilled through aquifers into gas bearing zones (both biogenic and thermogenic) and the reliability of cement casing designed to seal off aquifers from the resulting rush of methane to the surface. Filling the space around the outside of the well bore is an imperfect process subject to both human error and unseen and unexpected geological inconsistencies. Tony Ingraffea, a fracturing mechanics engineer at Cornell University with decades of industry experience, cites industry figures (-- figures also used by Fox-- ) that show six percent of new well casings are faulty, and the rate of failure goes up as wells age. Orphan wells, abandoned by industry when their economic utility is served, are a notorious problem in Pennsylvania.

I’m concerned by industry’s blunt attempts to shirk accountability for any of this -- (The industry-funded movie Truthland being the latest example). Accordingly, I favor aggressive reporting on industry’s persistent and successful insistence on exemptions from disclosure requirements – notably the Safe Drinking Water Act and state and federal hazardous waste laws. These exceptions serve as cover for the notion that drilling and fracking are blameless for methane migration or any other problems. It’s impossible to build an accessible and centralized database to track drilling and fracking problems in the oil and gas industry without reliable reporting standards and enforcement like those that apply to other industries. In short, with no reporting, there is no tracking. With no tracking, quantifying impacts on health and environment is complicated. When there is a problem, the burden of proof rests with landowners, and absence of data denies citizens an important tool for meeting that burden. As Fox points out, it becomes a “he-said-she-said” argument, and the industry has a voice – in both courts and the public domain -- that is much louder and more influential than that of the average citizen.

In my mind, the debate should not be about whether drilling causes flaming faucets and explosions that are already a matter of record (even with all the reporting gaps). The public needs to get beyond this argument to judge whether the merits of full-scale natural gas development over the next generation will outweigh the drawbacks. We are aware of the benefits as spelled out by industry proponents – cheap fuel, energy independence, jobs, an alternative to dirty coal. Now we need a complete and honest discussion about the impacts of shale gas development on environment and health. How to deal with methane migration is an overriding question. It’s one thing to have a property owner willingly and knowingly accept manageable risks associated with gas drilling on his property. It’s another to have an uninformed neighboring party suffer the consequences. How to deal with wastewater is another. It’s hard to determine future impacts when we don’t have the tools to comprehensively and conclusively gauge current and past problems. So that brings us back to transparency and disclosure. That’s where it must start.

For generations the American public (myself included) has been the most voracious consumer of energy on the planet, and we have enabled the industry to develop as it has. We are happy to enjoy the comforts of cheap abundant fossil fuel (made cheaper by lack of regulation) as long as we don’t have to look too closely from where it comes. Good reporting compels us to look. From there, we can move the conversation forward.