Fact-Checking the Dispatch’s Series on Shale

EID kicks things off in Ohio with closer look at Columbus paper’s multi-part series on the Utica

When it comes to the potential for the Utica Shale to generate thousands of jobs for Ohioans, billions in revenue for landowners and taxpayers, and billions more in cost-savings for Ohio residents on their energy bills, let’s just say the cat — meow! — is now officially out of the bag. Earlier this week, a piece in the Wall Street Journal described Ohio’s portion of the Utica “as North America’s next big energy field.” The week before, Reuters suggested it could prove to be “one of the biggest sources of crude oil in the United States.”

Closer to home, the Columbus Dispatch filed a series of stories this week examining several different aspects of shale development in Ohio – from the technologies needed to access the energy, to the steps producers and regulators are taking to ensure water is properly managed, tracked and safely disposed of at each stage of the process. On balance, the series was, well, balanced – with lots of input from the environmental community, but also plenty of insight from the folks on the ground charged with regulating and overseeing activity.

Of course, that’s not to say that every single assertion was put in its proper context – as it was, some important facts didn’t find their way into the final copy. Here below, EID’s Ohio team takes a closer look at the Dispatch series, identifying a few areas where some additional information could help inform a more accurate representation of the risks, rewards, challenges and opportunities of leveraging this resource for Ohio.

Dispatch: “[Critics] say the chemicals used in fracturing, and the heavy metals in wastewater, are a threat to groundwater and streams.” (“’Fracking’ Future,” Columbus Dispatch, Sept. 25)

Facts:

  • Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) sets the record straight: “Historically, since we have been tracking since 1983, we’ve done over 1,000 groundwater investigations in Ohio and there is not one incident in Ohio that hydraulic fracturing has caused ground water contamination.” (ODNR’s Tom Tomastik, as quoted by WYTV, June 9, 2011)
  • U.S. Department of the Interior weighs in: “We have not seen any impacts to groundwater as a result of hydraulic fracturing.” (BLM director Robert Abbey, testimony before Congress, June 2011)
  • U.S. EPA confirms: “I am not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself affected water.” (EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, testimony before Congress, May 2011)

Dispatch: “In Pennsylvania, more than 3,800 gas wells have been drilled into the Marcellus shale since 2005. The wells produced 79 billion cubic feet of gas in 2009, enough to supply the state of Montana for a year.” (“’Fracking’ Future,” Sept. 25)

Facts:

  • Although nearly 3,900 Marcellus wells have been developed in Pennsylvania since 2005, less than half are currently producing natural gas today – a function not of geology, but of a lack of available infrastructure to transport that natural gas to markets.
  • According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the state’s 1,632 producing Marcellus wells produced more than 432.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas during just the first six months of 2011. (“Marcellus gas production continues steady growth in PA,” Scranton [Pa.] Times-Tribune, Aug. 18, 2011)
  • All told, Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania alone are expected to generate nearly 2.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day in 2011. (Penn State report, May 2010). Using the Dispatch example, that’s enough natural gas to supply the state of Montana for 12 years, not one.

Dispatch: “[Beth] Voyles said fracturing chemicals seeped into the ground and evaporated into the air from a 15-million-gallon wastewater pond that a drilling company carved into a hill just east of her farm. … Voyles, 53, said the air is polluted and nearby drilling caused her well and a spring used by the family to run dry. The family’s champion barrel horse and prized boxer both died in 2010. She said the horse died after losing more than 100 pounds, and tests showed that the boxer had been poisoned by ethylene glycol.” (“’Fracking’ Future,” Sept. 25)

Facts:

  • Pennsylvania DEP lays out very different story in letter to Ms. Voyles: “[O]ver a period of three months, on 24 separate occasions, the Department visited your property and detected no malodors..” (DEP letter to Ms. Voyles, Sept. 22, 2011)
  • More context from PA DEP: “Additionally, last summer, the Department conducted a short-term study of ambient air concentrations of target pollutants near certain Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations in southwestern Pennsylvania [including your property] … Results of the ambient air sampling did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” (DEP letter to Ms. Voyles, Sept. 22, 2011). According to DEP, the Voyles’ property is located less than 800 feet from a junkyard.
  • DEP reiterates findings in letter to Ms. Voyles’ neighbor: “The methane gas in your water well was clearly identified through isotopic analysis to be drift gas, not natural gas that would be coming from a gas well. … The three hydrocarbons detected at low levels are common reagents in laboratories, are used as solvents and cleaning agents and can be found in groundwater throughout Pennsylvania where there has been residential or industrial development.” (DEP letter to Mr. Loren Kiskadden, Sept. 9, 2011)
  • Voyles’ own veterinarian disputes her statement: “On November 10, 2010, you voluntarily supplied Range Resources with lab results from both your dog and horse veterinarians. Upon review of these results, Range contacted the canine and equine veterinarians. … [I]t was stated by the veterinarian that the test results were inconclusive for anti-freeze [ethylene glycol] poising. … The veterinarian indicated that the horse had toxicity of the liver, which he felt was not related to [ethylene glycol] poising.” (Range letter to Voyles, Jan. 14, 2011)
  • Range doesn’t even use ethylene glycol in its fracturing operations, and tests for metals came up clean: “[F]ollowing conversations with the veterinarians, Range ordered additional testing of your water supplies, including testing for heavy methals such as arsenic, mercury and lead. … Upon review of the information provided [by independent, state-certified Microbac Laboratories], the test results … indicate that both of your water supplies meet all of the EPA minimum primary drinking water standards for all parameters tested. Based on your concerns, we had also tested for ethylene glycol which was not detected in the water from either of your water supplies … In addition, [neither] methane, ethane nor oil and grease were detected in either of your water supplies.” (Range letter to Voyles, Jan. 14, 2011)

Dispatch: “Some cities and states, including Pittsburgh and New Jersey, have halted oil and gas drilling in Marcellus shale while local and federal agencies investigate health and safety concerns.” (“’Fracking’ Future,” Sept. 25)

Facts:

  • Neither Pittsburgh nor New Jersey has “halted” oil and natural gas exploration within its territory – since none was actually happening there in the first place.
  • That said, in Pittsburgh, the current Democratic mayor opposes non-binding resolution passed by the city council: “Mayor Luke Ravenstahl also opposes a ban, in part because drilling would create jobs, tax revenue for the state and spinoff revenue — such as earned-income tax — for the financially strapped city, his spokeswoman, Joanna Doven said.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Aug. 17, 2011)
  • And in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed legislation in August calling for a permanent ban on hydraulic fracturing. According to state reports, the legislature has not taken action on a Christie proposal to institute a temporary, 12-month moratorium to give the state more time to examine other research available on the topic. (Associated Press, Aug. 25, 2011)
  • Interestingly, even as a handful of areas with no potential for shale development have considered banning something that does not and will not exist, states like New York are moving ahead with new regulations that will allow responsible shale development to proceed. (NY Times, June 30, 2011). Earlier today, New York’s DEC issued several hundred pages of draft regulations outlining how the state intends to regulate Marcellus exploration there.

Dispatch: “The U.S. EPA is investigating whether drilling poses any threats to drinking water. … Agency officials say they hope to have final recommendations by 2014.” (“’Fracking’ Future,” Sept. 25)

Facts:

  • In 2004, EPA released the findings of a five-year investigation into whether the application of fracturing in coalbed methane formations – which reside thousands of feet closer to water aquifers than shale formations – had any negative implications for ground water. The study was commissioned by EPA during the Clinton administration.
  • EPA’s conclusion: “[A]lthough thousands of CBM [coalbed methane] wells are fractured annually, EPA did not find confirmed evidence that drinking water wells have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing fluid injection into CBM wells.” (EPA Fact Sheet, June 2004)
  • EPA explains its methodology: “In addition to reviewing more than 200 peer-reviewed publications, EPA also interviewed 50 employees from state or local government agencies and communicated with approximately 40 citizens … EPA made a draft of the report available for a 60-day public comment period in August 2002.” (EPA Fact Sheet, June 2004)
  • In 2010, Congress asked EPA to undertake a new study, specifically focused on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water. It’s a study that is supported in full by the industry, recognizing that a science-based, peer-reviewed research paper could play a critical role in unraveling some of the mythology that has come to surround the shale development process.

Dispatch: “A U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee staff report in April identified 2,500 products drilling companies use in fracking.” (“’Fracking’ Future,” Sept. 25)

Facts:

  • The report cited by the Dispatch was issued by the staff of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) — not the staff of the full Energy and Commerce Committee.
  • The Waxman report stays conspicuously silent on the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, choosing not to cite or even acknowledge letters from more than a dozen top environmental regulators in the states testifying to the fact that fracturing technology has never been found to adversely affect potable drinking water underground.
  • To Waxman and his staff, the mere existence of a chemical (in and of itself) constitutes a hazard to human health, even if no evidence exists indicating that these materials have any ability to access underground sources of drinking water.
  • But, as Energy In Depth told reporters when the Waxman report was released: “The only way that’d be relevant in a public health context is if those materials were somehow finding their way into potable water supplies underground. Naturally, this report has no ability to show that, precisely because they aren’t, don’t, and according to regulators, never have.” (EID, as quoted by Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2011.

Dispatch: “’I can’t find anything (in the lease) that says how close they can come to my residence,’ said Marilyn Byers, who owns a 72-acre cattle farm just north of Loudonville. ‘There is nothing to protect our drinking water because we all have wells.’” (“Driller snapping up rights leases in Ohio,” Sept. 26)

Facts:

  • Ohio law has always specified the minimum distance that must be maintained between a well and a residence. For most areas, that minimum “setback” requirement is 100 feet. In areas with greater population density, the minimum requirement is 150 feet – and those setback rules not only apply to the wellhead, but to the tank battery as well. (SB 165 analysis, p. 27; Ohio Legislative Service Commission, June 2010)
  • OOGA’s Tom Stewart: “Since 1965, I am not aware of any reported incident involving the drilling of a well that occurred beyond Ohio’s existing 100 foot setback regulation. Ohio’s 100 foot setback is well within the norm established by many other states. In fact, it exceeds by 100 feet the standards in Texas and Oklahoma. Ohio’s setback distances, as applied to the 76,898 wells that have been drilled since the regulation went into effect, have a sterling track record.” (Stewart testimony before Ohio Senate, 2010)

Dispatch: Deep underground injection of wastewater is “a solution that doesn’t sit well with environmental advocates … Teresa Mills, director of the Buckeye Environmental Network, said she fears that brine will contaminate groundwater, if it doesn’t already. ‘First of all, we don’t know all the chemicals that are going down there,’ Mills said. ‘It’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and nobody follows it once it’s down.’” (“’Fracking wastewater floods Ohio,” Sept. 25)

Facts:

  • Injection wells have been used to dispose of fluids underground since the days of Constantine. According to EPA: “The use of injection wells was documented as early as A.D. 300.  However, large-scale commercial use of injection wells in the U.S. began in the 1930s.” (EPA, History of the UIC Program, accessed Sept. 2011)
  • The use of injection wells is strictly regulated by EPA, with authority granted to the agency under the Underground Injection Control program of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The state of Ohio issues permits associated with underground injection, but the standards in place for construction, maintenance, and continuous monitoring of those wells are enforced by the federal EPA.
  • More information on the stringent regulations governing Class II underground injection wells, starting on page 76 of this document from EPA.
  • ODNR: “We have not had any subsurface contamination of groundwater since we took over the program in 1983.” (ODNR’s Tom Tomastik, as quoted by the Columbus Dispatch, Sept. 25)

Dispatch: “Critics of shale-gas influence point to a paragraph lawmakers inserted into the 551-page Federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 that exempts hydraulic fracturing, known as ‘fracking,’ from the Safe Drinking Water Act.” (“Critics: Ohio, industry too cozy,” Sept. 27)

Facts:

  • The process of hydraulic fracturing has never in its 60-year history been regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 included language that simply reaffirmed this history, while also acknowledging the important role that states play in the direct regulation and oversight of the fracturing process.
  • As cited above, a number of aspects of the oil and natural gas production and wastewater disposition process are, in fact, regulated by the federal government. For more information on the specific statutes that apply to oil and gas development, see this fact sheet.
  • The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was the model of a bi-partisan energy bill, passing Congress with nearly three-quarters of the U.S. Senate in support (74 “yea” votes), including the top Democrat on the Energy Committee; current Interior secretary Ken Salazar, then a senator from Colorado; and President Obama, then a senator from Illinois. In the U.S. House, 75 Democrats joined 200 Republicans in supporting the final bill, including the top Democratic members on both the Energy & Commerce and Resources Committees.

Dispatch: “A month later, a Cornell University study used the GAO data to question industry statements that natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal in terms of its contribution to climate change.” (“Critics: Ohio, industry too cozy,” Sept. 27)

Facts:

  • The Cornell report has been debunked by several prominent government, academic and credible third-party sources since its release in April.
  • Carnegie Mellon University: “We don’t think [Cornell] is using credible data and some of the assumptions they’re making are biased. And the comparison they make at the end, my biggest problem, is wrong.” (CMU researcher Paula Jaramillo, as quoted by POLITICO, Aug. 24, 2011)
  • U.S. Department of Energy: “[Cornell researchers] found a large fraction of produced gas from unconventional wells never made it to end users, assumed that all of that gas was vented as methane, and thus concluded that the global warming impacts were huge. As the [Dept. of Energy] work explains, though, 62% of that gas isn’t lost at all – it’s ‘used to power equipment.’” (CFR blog, May 20, 2011)
  • Even other Cornell professors take issue with Cornell GHG report: “Their analysis is seriously flawed in that they significantly overestimate the fugitive emissions associated with unconventional gas extraction … [T]he assumptions used by Howarth et al. are inappropriate and…their data, which the authors themselves characterize as ‘limited’, do not support their conclusions.” (Cornell professor Lawrence M. Cathles, in paper submitted to Journal of Climate Change, June 2011)
  • Some environmental groups also take issue with Cornell report: “This paper is selective in its use of some very questionable data and too readily ignores or dismisses available data that would change its conclusions.” (Dave McCabe, Clean Air Task Force, April 2011)

Comments

  1. Congratulations to EID for doing such a fantastic job of using facts to dispel myths and untruths. Keep up the terrific work!!

    As a financial professional working mainly in the oil and gas industry, I support and applaud your efforts.

    Best regards,

    Sam McNeil
    512-814-7411

Trackbacks

  1. […] wells aren’t just regulated ODNR – they’re regulated federally by EPA as well. As we wrote last week in our rebuttal to the Dispatch series, injection wells have been used in the United States since the 1930s – not […]

  2. […] we noted in our fact-check on the recent shale series in the Columbus Dispatch, the process of hydraulic fracturing has never […]

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