Friday, January 25, 2013

Why the fracking waste problem defies a simple answer Recycling sounds good, but what does it really mean?

High volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) is the technological centerpiece to a new era of domestic oil and gas production. It’s also central to the controversy over the risks and merits of using unconventional means to extract gas and oil from mantels of bedrock spanning hundreds of thousands of square miles under dozens of states. What once were thought of as mere rocks are now widely promoted as the key to America’s energy future.

So this is nothing new to students of America’s energy dilemma, although fiction and non-fiction films – most notably Gasland, Promised Land, and Frack Nation – reinforce themes of bad guys and good guys in the industry or the movement that is trying to stop it. And then there’s the work of Kirsi Jansa, an independent journalist with a neutral eye and even hand who has created Gas Rush Stories, a series of short films highlighting the perspectives of different stakeholders in Pennsylvania shale gas development. While some of the material Jansa works with is not new – health claims related to dirty water or shale gas as an economic engine – I find her reporting worthwhile, especially when it takes viewers to places they may not have been to yet, such as a Pennsylvania plant that treats flowback. With Jansa’s permission, I have embedded that episode below, and I will talk a little more about why I think it’s a significant contribution to the shale gas discussion later in this post.

First a quick review: HVHF, commonly known as fracking, involves pressurized chemical solutions to crack bedrock along horizontally drilled well bores, some extending a mile or more in various directions from the center of a well pad. Fracking is sometimes confused with drilling, because activists tend to use the word as a hook in their broad condemnation of all aspects of shale gas development. But to be clear, fracking – also called well stimulation -- is one step in a multistep process to retrieve gas from bedrock, and it’s distinctly separate from drilling.

Industry proponents also use the word narrowly to serve their own rhetorical purposes. They like to limit the discussion of fracking to what happens once the fracking fluids pass through the water table and enter the production zone, where they are blasted into bed rock with underground charges that perforate the production lining. The industry’s use of the term tends to discount the vast logistics of getting the water to the site, mixing the chemicals, pumping them into a well bore, or collecting and disposing of millions of gallons of waste – flowback – produced with each well. This waste is a combination of chemicals, many of them toxic, injected into the well with water, and stuff like brine, heavy metals, and radionuclides that flow to the surface after 500 million years trapped in the Devonian Epoch.

There is consensus, if not scientific certainty, that chances are negligible that fracking fluids penetrating bedrock like the Marcellus or Utica shales a mile or more deep in New York and Pennsylvania will migrate into water tables near the surface any time soon. This is something industry representatives like to emphasize. But they seldom acknowledge, much less emphasize, the part of fracking – the logistical part – that involves the greatest risk of polluting fresh water zones. That’s when products and byproducts are trucked, stored, mixed, and handled above the surface and injected into the well, or regurgitated with the brine and collected and shipped off for handling and disposal. When things go awry here problems are blamed on “human error” or “mechanical failure.” From a PR standpoint, that makes sense, because it suggests these things can be controlled or prevented, and things that can be controlled or prevented are less scary than the notion of suspect technology interfacing with poorly understood natural systems.

Every shale well produces several million gallons of waste. There are tens of thousands of wells being produced over the short term in Pennsylvania alone, with similar rates of development targeted for the other dozen or more states over shale reserves. The industry is exempt from federal hazardous waste laws, so it is relatively free to handle and dispose of waste without the restrictive reporting measures that apply to other industries using the same chemicals or producing similar kinds of waste.

Sometimes haulers take waste to treatment plants, where it is diluted and discharged into rivers, an option that has been known to cause problems. With the onset of the Pennsylvania Shale Gas Boom from 2008 through 2010, levels of total dissolved solids – which include chlorides and other constituents of production waste -- spiked in major Pennsylvania watersheds, including the Monongahela and Allegheny river systems. The spikes coincided with the disposal of drilling waste to municipal treatment plants that were not equipped to treat it. After TDS in the Mon hit crises levels, the Pennsylvania DEP drafted new rules, under Chapter 95 of Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Laws, to discourage the disposal of drilling waste at treatment plants by setting TDS ceilings for incoming shipments. But many plants ended up grandfathered into the old standard, and the industry found other ways around the new rule, and the problem persisted. After repeated calls for the industry to voluntarily stop taking drilling waste to plants ill equipped to handle it, TDS levels have recently dropped dramatically in the Mon River. But they remain a problem in the Alleghany. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania DEP is scaling back a proposed law to impose tougher water quality standards. Specifically, the DEP has dropped Chapter 93 Water Quality Standards for the discharge of molybdenum, sulfates, chlorides, and 1-4 dioxane, in response to industry complaints that restricting the discharge of these pollutants would hurt business.

There is an alternative to discharging flowback through treatment plants: Disposal wells. Specifically, waste from the burgeoning Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania is being shipped to Ohio and injected into depleted oil and gas cavities deep in the earth. It’s an option with it’s own set of PR and mechanical issues, including questions about seismic tremors and long-term geological stability.

And there is another alternative: Recycling. Recycling is the industry’s simple and promotionally effective answer to a complex problem. But recycling is complicated, starting with the lack of a statutory definition for what it actually is or should be. It is voluntary and unregulated. With no regulatory baseline, it’s a catchy word that projects an air of environmental stewardship, while actually meaning whatever the industry wants it to mean. Very much like the term “all natural” on food products intends to give us a good feeling without really telling us anything about them. Recycling, sometimes called closed loop drilling, suggests that all the flowback is collected in steel tanks and then purified, sometimes on site, for reuse. There is little public explanation of how the process eliminates or neutralizes chemicals that are classified as hazardous material when they are mixed with the water, or how the heavy metals, residuals, and brine that come out of well bores are either rendered harmless in this process or are also recycled and put to good use. The industry typically cites the need to protect trade secrets as an excuse for non-disclosure.

The fact that the process is ill-defined, variable, and obscure does not mean that material coming from the wells is not faithfully and effectively dealt with. But there is no way of independently verifying it. In all cases, we are asked to trust the industry. In more than 20 years of environmental reporting, I have learned that some companies are more trustworthy than others.

This brings us to the work of Kirsi Jansa, a Finnish journalist who has attempted to document the flow of wastewater as part of Gas Rush Stories. In Episode 9, she takes viewers on a tour of Reserved Environmental Services, a Pennsylvania company that handles fracking waste. I find Jansa’s work to be a fair attempt to get answers without building a case for or against the industry, and very different from partisan films such as Gasland and Frack Nation that have gained far more publicity. Jansa asks relevant questions and faithfully documents the answers – in the case of Episode 9 the answers come from her tour guide, plant operator Andy Kicinski. Jansa’s minimalist style lets her sources do the talking while offering viewers little in the way of rhetorical lines with which to connect the informational dots. But her work does raise provoking questions, at least in my mind. Where does the residual waste end up? Why is the finished water non-potable? Why do some haulers bring in waste for disposal rather than recycling, and where does that go?

While reporting for Gannett, I interviewed treatment plant operators and found they were free with information to a point that stopped short of technical specifics. So after viewing Jansa’s film, I followed up to see if I could connect a few of the dots. I was interested, among other things, in how the contaminants removed from the flowback were handled when they were concentrated through the recycling process.

Jansa’s answer from Kicinski squared with my own reporting: Flowback distillate is classified as residual waste, which, unlike hazardous waste, can be disposed of by conventional means. She also explained her futile attempts to document the disposal of another kind of shale waste – tailings that are produced from the drilling process. That includes drilling mud used to lubricate drill bits and float tailings to the surface. It really isn’t mud, but a viscous solution engineered to exacting chemical specifications that contans barium and other toxic chemicals. Jansa’s source had to eventually decline the interview because of a non-disclosure agreement with its customers.

“I've been a journalist for almost 20 years and have never worked on an issue where it is so hard to get information and find answers,” Jansa told me. “But then I've never worked on a topic where so much money is involved either.”

As I have stated in previous posts, I take no side on the merits and risks of shale gas development. But I am all for transparency and full disclosure and I approach the concentration of wealth and power with healthy skepticism. That’s an old-school journalistic ambition that is well served by the work of people like Jansa.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Frack Nation hits old themes like pickaxe on bedrock

Frack Nation, a movie to debut next week on AXS cable television purportedly to “tell the truth” about hydro-fracking, features several scenes of Julie and Craig Sautner. Those following the fracking debate might recognize the Sautners. They are the couple from Dimock Pennsylvania who routinely show up at anti-fracking rallies near and far with a turbid jug of water and harsh words about how drilling polluted their well. Their complaint is as much about what they see as the industry’s sustained attempts to avoid owning up to the problem as the problem itself.

I watched Frack Nation, by Phelim McAleen, as part of some homework I was completing for an interview today for WESA’s Essential Pittsburgh. More on Frack Nation in a moment, but first some context for the story line that is not included in this pro-fracking film:

It’s a matter of record that the Sautner’s well went bad shortly after drilling began near their house in Susquehanna County in 2008, that the Pennsylvania DEP recognized that the drill operator, Cabot Oil & Gas, was responsible for the problem; and that Cabot installed a basement full of filtration equipment to attempt to restore Sautner’s water. I covered these events personally, both as a reporter for Gannett and later in the narrative of Under the Surface. It’s also a matter of record that water wells can go bad on their own, but nearby well bores drilled through water tables into pressurized systems increase the chances, as does the handling and mixing of gross quantities of chemicals and waste water above the aquifer. It’s also a matter of record that human error or mechanical failure occasionally cause spills or, as the industry prefers to call them, “releases”.

The Sautners were unsatisfied with the inconsistent and largely ineffective results of the collection of tanks and filters that Cabot installed in their basement to purify their water. They grew more unhappy with Cabot’s assertion that the company was blameless, and it was providing assistance to the family merely as “a good corporate neighbor” rather than as a responsible party. So the Sautners joined a lawsuit with 15 other Dimock families who had encountered various problems with their water wells coinciding with nearby drilling operations. The plaintiffs included Norma Fiorentino, whose water well exploded shortly after Cabot sunk a gas well on neighboring property. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection tracked that problem, in part, to explosive concentrations of methane leaking from several faulty gas wells in the area – a finding Cabot refuted.

Meanwhile, some Dimock residents who experienced water problems were less antagonistic to the industry, including some who (unlike the Sautners) were getting compensation for both gas wells on their property and problems with their water wells.

This would have been a natural story line for McAleer, or anybody else who wanted to faithfully recount this compelling tale. But the way McAleer portrays the Sautners represents the broader shortcoming of Frack Nation. He systematically discredits them, along with various regulators, residents, celebrities and anybody else who publically calls into question gas industry’s motives and methods, as hypocrites, liars, and lunatics. Shale gas development is good, and the intentions and methods of the industry are pure.

In McAleer’s view, it’s that simple.

McAleer’s primary target is Josh Fox, whose 2010 film Gasland received acclaim ranging from an Emmy award to an Oscar nomination. Gasland is also one-sided. It focuses on the untold (as of 2010) risks associated with shale gas development, and the lack of oversight that allows the industry to flourish, sometimes at the expense of residents who are promised one thing and get something else.

Both Fox and McAleer are guilty of cherry picking sources and evidence to build their arguments. But at the time of its release, Gasland broke original ground in provoking and articulating challenges to the industry’s public relations campaign to pitch America’s emerging shale gas boom as clean, well regulated, and problem free. McAleer’s Frack Nation, by comparison, hammers away with the same old industry themes that hit home like a pickaxe on bedrock.

If there was anything promising that struck me about Frack Nation, it was the undeveloped implication that the controversy over fracking has split communities. McAleer passes on the chance to address this head on, however, and instead portrays the Sautners as part of a renegade minority. To advance this, he features a grass roots group of residents who are industry supporters – called Enough Already – who mount a protest to counter the claims of injustice by the Sautners and others who go unnamed. Enough Already is McAleer’s silent-turned-vocal majority.

This division gets more at the heart of the real story, in my mind, and it’s a place I attempt to take readers in Under the Surface. But rather than exploring this in a vivid, fair, and compelling way, McAleer, when he is not obsessively discrediting Fox and the Sautners, veers off into conspiratorial territory. He focuses one scene on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interest in discouraging shale gas development in America to preserve Russia’s interests in developing and exporting its own vast reserves. Perhaps the anti-fracking movement in America – with its collection of liberals, hippies, elites, and celebrities-- is subversively connected to Russian interests, viewers are invited to wonder. Sound familiar?

Dimock is not the first drilling community to be split by problems, as examples range from Dish Texas to Pavilion Wyoming. But it is one of the first communities where problems received widespread media attention after Norma Fiorentino’s water well exploded on January 1, 2009. The focus grew stronger when officials from the EPA arrived in the small town to test the water of the Sautners and others. The agency took samples from 64 homes near drilling operations and concluded that levels of pollution in five of the wells – roughly 8 percent -- were high enough to pose health risks, but those risks were mitigated by treatment systems installed in or planned for the homes. At the time of the testing last year, the agency found the Sautners’ water to pass spec. McAleer seizes on this with a candid clip of Craig and Julie Sautner reacting with an angry outburst of frustration and disbelief. (He captures and dwells on the Sautners’ anger in a way that serves his portrayal of them as unreasonable, unlikeable, and unbelievable.) He omits any history or context of the problem, or an explanation that groundwater systems are dynamic, or recognition that a problem that comes and goes is possibly much different than no problem at all. (The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is now assessing health risks of exposure to contaminants in the Dimock groundwater and has not yet released its report – another detail omitted from McAleer.)

In the penultimate scene, McAleer stakes out Julie Sautner and successfully provokes her rage. The police arrive. It’s not pretty, but McAleer, the one with the camera, the editing studio, and an agenda, holds all the cards.

McAleer claims to “tell the truth” about fracking. That’s an ambitious goal, and the movie falls well short in depth and sophistication that the topic deserves. It’s all fine to rebut and challenge Josh Fox. But McAleer could have done this far more effectively and helped his own credibility by recognizing some of the merits in Fox’s film and using them to advance the discussion. Instead, he reduces parts of his presentation to a Limbaugh brand of contempt while rehashing the tired industry line that fracking is problem free and the industry is the victim of mean and green liberal forces.

Still, this will be a movie that will be savored by people who are rock sure that fracking does not and cannot cause problems, and that the industry needs only to be left alone – or “turned loose” in McAleer’s words -- to stimulate wealth and comfortable living for all.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Activists attack fracking plan with DEC’s own red tape 200K comments on final day puts pressure on NY agency

With one deadline past and another imminent, staffers at New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation attempting to resolve New York’s fracking conundrum find themselves in a familiar position: under pressure.

On the final day for public comment on draft regulations for development of shale gas reserves under upstate New York, members of a well-organized anti-fracking campaign delivered more than 200,000 written comments. Activists carted boxes into the agency’s headquarters in Albany hours before the 5 p.m. deadline. DEC staffers now have 50 days to process and respond to this latest deluge of criticism before they can finalize a plan.

Following the direction of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens, officials have been attempting to complete policy for shale gas development in New York. The focus is on high volume hydraulic fracturing, known commonly as fracking – a process to shatter subterranean mantels of bedrock with pressurized chemical solution to release oil and gas. Advances in fracking technology are enabling exploitation of reserves that were previously inaccessible, and also raising concerns about social and environmental impacts from a new era of mineral extraction on a scale previously unseen. Until New York’s policy is complete, permits to develop the Utica and Marcellus shales extending under upstate New York are on hold.

As of Monday, the DEC had received 1,373 comments, said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the agency. Today’s special delivery capped off a week of protests that served as a political show of force by both grass roots and institutional fracking opponents, lead by activists well versed in the procedural, political, and scientific aspects of the hotly debated issue. On Monday, Climate Change headliner Bill McKibben spoke on the hazards of fossil fuel extraction and consumption and global warming in front of a sold-out crowd in The Egg, a 1,500-seat performing arts venue in Rockefeller Plaza. On Wednesday, more than 1,500 chanting protesters with signs and banners crammed a quarter-mile stretch of the plaza’s underground concourse, which connects the state Capitol and Legislative Office Building to the convention center where governor Cuomo delivered his State of the State address. The demonstration included an appearance and performance by 93-year-old folk legend Pete Seeger.

Today, the comments were delivered to the DEC with a delegation that included Sandra Steingraber, a biologist, activist and author who has been tutoring followers on the technical aspects of the regulations and encouraging them to respond, and Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, who are among celebrities who have served as figureheads for the movement.

While there is bound to be a percentage of comments that are redundant or irrelevant, the agency will still have to read them, sort them, and respond appropriately by Feb. 27. That means that staffers will have to read and sort some 4,000 comments a day. That’s 400 an hour, more than six a minute, or one every 10 seconds. That's assuming 70-hour workweeks with no breaks to answer the phone, eat, or go to the bathroom. Of course, one person will not be processing all the requests. But it’s a daunting challenge even for a qualified team of officials, and it raises the questions of what kind of resources the DEC will be able to summon to meet the deadline. Within this mass of paperworks will be comments that require extra thoughtful analysis and perhaps, if taken in good faith, warrant change to the draft document. In addition to the boxes of comments, the agency will have to respond to “some very detailed technical comments” from environmental groups, including the National Resource Defense Council, Earthjustice, Riverkeeper, Catskill Mountainkeeper, and Sierra Club being submitted this afternoon, said Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with Earth Justice.

“Failure to comply with these requirements is grounds for legal challenge,” Goldberg said.

The sheer volume of responses will pose a significant logistical problem for the agency, which has to respond to all of them before finalizing regulations. The agency issued the draft regulations on Nov. 29 to qualify for a 90-day extension to keep the rule making process from expiring. By law, the agency also had to allow a 30-day period -- from Dec. 12 until today -- for public comment. If the regulations are not finalized by Feb. 27, the agency will have to restart the rule making process and reopen it for public comment.

The regulations, however, are just one piece of New York’s monumental and unprecedented policy overhaul to try to come to terms with shale gas development. The regulations represent the battle of today. A larger and more critical piece, and surely to become the battle of tomorrow, is a review of environmental and health impacts on which the regulations are based. That review, called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), has been in draft form since 2008 and there is no deadline for its completion. In theory, the state could begin issuing permits for shale development after the final version of the SGEIS is released, even if the regulations are not finalized.

That also would provoke an all out effort, including law suits, by the coalition of groups leading the anti-fracking campaign who have faulted the process every step of the way. A salient complaint is that the regulations were issued prior to the final SGEIS on which they were based, forcing the public to evaluate regulations without access to the SGEIS and relevant health and environmental considerations.

In response to a request from leaders of environmental groups, and in anticipation of law suits, Martens announced last fall that the state was hiring outside consultants to review the work of the DEC to ensure that it had sufficiently accounted for public health impacts of fracking. Like the final SGEIS, the scope and results of that review have not been made public.

Even as the regulations are being developed, Cuomo’s administration has indicated through prepared statements that it is undecided on whether it will allow shale gas development. It is a subject that Cuomo rarely addresses publically. He did not mention it in this week’s State of the State address, even though fracking represents the biggest environmental policy fight in the state’s recent history.

Update: John Campbell, Gannett’s Albany reporter, reported today that if DEC officials intend to finalize the regulations by Feb. 27, administrative law requires them to release the final SGEIS (which includes a summary of the health assessment) at least 10 days prior. A mid-February release of the SGEIS would be a clear sign that the agency intends to push forward against the resistance with its plan to open New York of shale gas development. That would be a victory for those who have been supporting development for economic reasons. If the agency lets that window pass, it would signal the opposite.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Promised Land review stirs passion over fracking debate One reviewer takes aim at another with pie, misses mark

We could expect this. The release this week of “Promised Land,” the Matt Damon movie about shale gas development in rural Pennsylvania, has inspired the industry to run pro-drilling commercials inside theaters to counter anti-fracking rallies outside theaters and the influence that industry fears the film will have on viewers. But could we expect a pie fight?

“Promised Land” (my review here) is the latest in a cascade of films about drilling – in the categories of fiction, non-fiction and propaganda – vying for the hearts and minds of audiences. Because of the ideological sensitivities inherent to the debate over fracking – the controversial process to extract oil and gas from rock -- and global dependence on fossil fuels in general, movies such as Gasland, Frack Nation, Gas Odyssey and Truthland aim for nerves and they tend to hit their marks with partisan viewers. But “Promised Land” is unique because it will draw audiences who might actually care less about fracking than what they expect to be a good Matt Damon flick. It’s just the sort of mainstream audience that the polar extremes want to win over. This gets interesting from the start, because a fictional firm called Global Energy is the villain of “Promised Land.” Consequently, there is fear among industry supporters – given the star power and down-home appeal of the film’s setting and characters -- that it will misinform or unfairly influence movie goers.

Prospective audiences are naturally swayed by reviews, and here the fight begins. It is often not pretty, and in at least one notable instance, it gets barnyard ugly. That would be the critique by Chip Northrup, the Texas oil and gas man turned-anti-fracking activist, of the work of Michael Wines, who wrote a piece about “Promised Land” for the New York Times earlier this week. Wines wrote about why, in his view, the movie was not grounded in the real world. Specifically, he piqued Northup’s ire by dismissing the movie’s relevance to the battle playing out in upstate New York. This is one of many places where a vocal anti-fracking movement has capitalized on the state’s on-going attempts to come to grips with an industry unlike anything regulators have seen in terms of scope, intensity, and impact on economic and natural landscapes. Wines suggests the anti-frackers are getting in the way of a good thing in upstate New York.

Truthful or not, the opponents of hydraulic fracturing are winning. Otsego County, like much of south-central New York, sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation, a gas-rich sheet of rock that underlies much of the Appalachian Basin. In Pennsylvania, where fracking is already under way, some landowners have made a comfortable living by allowing drilling on their property.

But the critics’ case against the process — that land and groundwater can be poisoned by the chemical cocktail that is forced into the earth to fracture the shale and free the gas — is carrying the day. The number of Otsego towns with bans or moratoriums on fracking has risen in just 18 months to nine, from five, including the city of Oneonta and the surrounding town. And the share of the land under lease to gas companies for future exploration has dropped as well.

Wines then juxtaposes views of people who would gain from gas development with those trying to block it. He articulates the merits – economic development – without elaborating on risks aside from his general reference to “the critics’ case.” He further provokes anti-fracking displeasure by featuring in his article criticism from gas proponents who had not seen the movie.

Perhaps if Wines were writing for a publication other than the New York Times, his interpretation might not have drawn notable backlash. But because the assessment appeares in one of the most influential media outlets in the world, Wines becomes a strategic target for anti-frackers, and specifically Northrup, who has become a significant voice in the debate due to his broad and credentialed knowledge of industry. Northrup responds with his own informed assessment, which he then proceeds to undermine with a lowbrow pie-throwing antic.

In a blog post for Shale Shock Media, Northrup reasonably argues that Wines misses a central point to both the movie and the situation unfolding in upstate communities. That is Home Rule, a battle where municipalities are challenging the state for jurisdictional control over shale gas development. Home Rule gets legally complicated. States have traditionally overseen gas and oil development partly because, the reasoning goes, resources and related infrastructure underlying multiple towns cannot be developed efficiently and economically with a patchwork of local ordinances and bans. The public good of bringing the gas to market, in theory, is weighed against the disruption development presents to given areas, much like major infrastructure projects, and the state is in a better position to make this calculation than towns. Towns in New York and Pennsylvania are challenging this on Constitutional grounds. So far they have successfully argued in lower courts that the state does not have the right or authority to limit a municipality's control over land use policies that pertain to shale gas exploration and development within its borders. It is an issue that will have a significant bearing on the outcome shale gas resources over the long term.

In “Promised Land,” the essence of Home Rule is portrayed with eloquent if abstract simplicity. After being approached by landmen seeking property rights, residents gather at a town meeting and decide to put the matter to a vote. This sets the stage for the ensuing battle that becomes the film’s central theme – a battle between divisive outside forces to influence the decision of local residents.

Northup fairly points out that Wines neglected to give fair treatment to this aspect of both the film and the real-life situation in Upstate New York alluded to in the film.

His interviews consisted primarily of sound bites from some local gas bags, who had not bothered to actually see the movie. So they did not talk about the movie, nor did Mr. Wines. The plot of which centered around a town’s right to exercise land use laws. You know, like the Town of Middlefield, not far from Oneonta, which has defended its land use laws in court. Or the Town of Otsego, right up the road, which was the first town to ban shale gas drilling in New York. Or the City of Oneonta itself (which has banned shale gas drilling) where Mr. Wines was when he was conducting the interviews. Towns like the one portrayed in Promised Land.
So far, so good. And then this:

So the piece read as a bit of a hack job – and now I can see why. The reporter is evidently a bit of a hack from way back. Under the heading, really truly can’t make this stuff up. . . . behold a memorable moment in Michael Wine’s brilliant career in journalism:

This is followed by a piece summarizing an incident 12 years ago when Wines was hit in the face with a pie made out of horse sperm by pranksters who had deemed him to be the “worst Journalist in Russia.” Northrup links to a lengthy article that ran in eXile Magazine, an alternative publication in Moscow, detailing how the sperm was gathered and how the pie was cooked. Wines at the time was working as Moscow Bureau Chief for the New York Times when eXile staff arranged and executed the prank.

Pieing is a weird tradition intended to bring somebody – usually an authority figure -- down a notch or two in the public eye. It’s not unheard of in academia, and it has been employed from the halls of Oxford to the steps of the Capitol in the service of public protest. It may get a lot of views online, but in my view, represents a Three-Stooges approach to polemics with corresponding political effect.

To be clear, Northrup did not physically hurl a pie at Wines. That happened 12 years ago under the direction of a group with questionable motives. Nonetheless, Northrup’s celebration of the event – along with a picture of Wines’ pie-smeared face in his recent blog post -- is clearly a metaphorical pie toss that Northrup assumes will somehow call into question Wines’ credentials. Casting Wines in the light of ridicule might meet the approval of anti-frackers who are regular readers of Shale Shock. But by making a classless event from long ago and far away the centerpiece of his argument against Wines’ assessment of “Promised Land,” Northrup will likely lose more points than he scores with mainstream fans of Damon. Northrup is a tall, gregarious, raw boned, Texas country boy. It’s a role he relishes in his pubic appearances, and he is obviously not bashful about barnyard humor. But subjecting readers to this kind of detail of an event of questionable relevance is surely ill advised if he wants the anti-fracking movement he represents to be heard outside of the echo chamber.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Leaked record, DEC response show NY fracking quandary Questions persist over scope and relevance of health study

Several media outlets were able to make some hay recently with a leaked document suggesting that New York state regulators were ready to embrace shale gas development without further assessing its impact on public health.

Danny Hakim of the New York Times, Jon Campbell of Gannett and Karen Dewitt of WXXI were among Albany bureau reporters who got a hold of the document written by health and environmental officials in early 2012 as part of a broader policy package. The eight-page draft includes justifications for allowing high volume hydraulic fracturing to stimulate production of shale gas wells in New York without a comprehensive evaluation of health consequences. Specifically, it dismisses the type of analysis that activists are demanding – an exhaustive statistical breakdown, called a Health Impact Assessment, to quantify risks from various exposure scenarios. The DEC is against that kind of review, according to the leaked document, because it would “involve making a large number of assumptions about the many scenario-specific variables that influence the nature and degree of potential human exposure and toxicity.” Rather, the report concludes, with proper oversight “the Department expects that human chemical exposures during normal HVHF [High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing] operations will be prevented or reduced below levels of significant health concern.”

In short, the leaked document shows that the DEC was pursuing the exact approach that activist feared. “The position that the impacts of fracking can be regulated to ‘below levels of significant health concern’ is pure fantasy, and it is understandable why (Gov. Andrew Cuomo) did not press forward with these baseless conclusions last year,” Roger Downs, conservation director of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter told Campbell.

Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the DEC, said the document that made news this week was outdated and no longer relevant in light of new developments. Specifically, the agency has since commissioned three independent health experts to assess whether the DEC’s work sufficiently addresses health concerns. More on that in a moment.

The leaked document is especially important in the context of controversy over whether the state has done enough homework to fully understand health risks associated with the controversial process, informally known as fracking, that injects high volumes of chemical solution into well bores to break bedrock and release gas. Fracking’s impact on public health is one of many issues the DEC has addressed in a 4,000-page draft document called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS). It has been a work in progress since 2008. Critics have submitted more than 80,000 comments suggesting improvements. Some question whether state officials are fully accounting for health risks, ranging from exposure pathways from air and water pollution to community stresses related to boom/bust cycles of mineral extraction.

At the urging of environmental agencies late last year, the DEC commissioned three experts to assess whether the SGEIS adequately covers health issues. The panel was not asked to design an original study, but to critique the agency’s existing work. The experts have since submitted their opinions to the Department of Health, I have been told by sources, and staffers are now incorporating them into the SGEIS.

The document leaked to reporters Tuesday was written by unidentified staffers. It was to be added to the SGEIS in response to comments calling for a more thorough health analysis. Some will likely interpret the document’s defensive tone as yet more evidence that the outcome of the shale gas policy is preordained – and the health review will provide no more than a last-minute rubber stamp. It smacks of the message delivered through staff at the Division of Mineral Resources since the beginning of the shale gas boom in 2008. Bradley Field, head of that division, has long maintained that natural gas extraction is problem free; the DEC has never had any problems with conventional gas development; and unconventional development is not significantly different from a regulatory or safety standpoint -- claims that his critics find absurd.

But Field will not be making the final call on whether and when New York state permits drilling into the Utica and Marcellus shales – two of the largest reserves in the world. Governor Andrew Cuomo will.

The leaked document – and the DEC’s assertion that it is no longer relevant - represents a broader pattern over the last five years. Despite a continued push from the Mineral Resources Division, the governor and various advisors are ambivalent about committing upstate New York to large-scale mineral extraction and its potential to fundamentally change the character of many communities. Facing pressure from an influential anti-fracking campaign, including grass roots and institutional efforts, and as the prices of natural gas remains low, they are delaying that decision for as long as possible.

Cuomo has already limited some of his options. Through rhetoric and action, he is discouraging coal burning power plants and saying no to nuclear power. Can he also say no to shale gas and keep his political credibility in the absence of what would have to be unprecedented and revolutionary development of renewable fuel sources to fill the gap? At 55, Cuomo has a long political future, including a possible shot at the White House. Will the fracking decision become a political weight or buoy in his aspirations to become a national standard bearer for his party? For what it’s worth, and perhaps it’s not much, Cuomo’s policy seems out of step with Barack Obama’s “all-of-the-above” approach to developing domestic energy.

Since Cuomo took office two years ago, the messages over fracking have been mixed, and the confusion over the leaked document is only the most recent example. Early last summer – shortly after the document was written -- Cuomo proposed that the best approach to New York’s dilemma was to split the baby. Shale gas permits would be initially granted in places that want it, and withheld in places that do not. Additionally, the state would ban fracking altogether in certain watersheds, including those that supply New York City and Syracuse. It was a politically expedient answer, with messy and legally cumbersome technicalities. If this is the path forward, the state will have to figure out how it can legally prohibit the rights of some landowners to develop their mineral sources but not others, or how it can grant permits to proceed with an industrial process in one watershed that is deemed unsafe in another. Before it gets even that far, it will have to figure out a fair and accurate way to determine what areas want it and what areas do not. Will that require referendums? Local resolutions?

If shale gas development is left to natural selection of town government, what happens when push comes to shove in places over a particularly key section of the resource or strategic infrastructure rights of way where lack of access in one part hinders the development of other parts? These are questions that will apply not just in the near term, when the stakes are relatively low along with the price of gas. Policy must be strong enough to withstand a time of reckoning when the value of the resource doubles or triples, which is feasible given the historical fluctuation of gas prices and plans to increase markets with exports.

There is something else that has become an important aspect of New York’s policy story: Transparency. The fact that the leaked report was news at all is a consequence of the administration’s reluctance to respond to questions and certain freedom of information requests, leaving reporters digging extra hard to satisfy a public that is starving for information. Neither Cuomo nor his staff have responded to questions or offered records that would outline the scope of work assigned to the three health reviewers, for example.

Disembodied informational tidbits tend to raise more questions then they answer, and become news even without context needed to assess their relevance. Perhaps the DEC document leaked this week is outdated and irrelevant, as DeSantis says. If that is the case, it suggests the agency has taken an abrupt turn in a few short months. If it’s not the case, then the response is thin political cover from fallout from the legislative and judicial battle that will surely ensue once the SGEIS is released.