Ian Urbina/NYT Continue Journalistic Malpractice Against the Natural Gas Industry – This Time it’s Fracking

Ian UrbinaEven though the New York Times’ own public editor has written two articles criticizing the Times for its slanted and inaccurate coverage of the natural gas drilling industry (see MDN’s coverage here), the Times either doesn’t learn or doesn’t care. Ian Urbina, the same Times writer who has authored previous fictions, has taken another swipe at the industry. This new article, appearing in today’s print edition (posted online last night), goes for the jugular—hydraulic fracturing.

Fracking is a 60-year old technology that forces water and sand into a drilled hole in order to break apart tightly-packed rocks, like shale, to release the gas and oil in them. Along with water and sand, very small amounts of chemicals are used to prevent bacterial growth due to the high heat of drilling. Those opposed to drilling try to instill fear that those chemicals will somehow contaminate groundwater supplies.

As a refresher for those new to MDN, Mr. Urbina’s previous works of fiction have tried to scare Pennsylvanians into believing their drinking water was full of radioactivity from drilling wastewater treated and released into PA waterways (proven to be false), and a weird assertion that the entire shale gas industry is a huge Ponzi scheme like a Bernie Madoff nightmare—that there really isn’t that much gas “down there” after all (MDN article here). Oh, Mr. Urbina’s big “inside” source for that story? An intern who worked on websites at the U.S. Energy Information Administration and who was being fed propaganda from an anti-drilling group. What has happened to the once high standards at the NYT?

This latest fiction tries to make the case that hydraulic fracturing really, honestly, truthfully does pollute underground water supplies after all (really). Mr. Urbina’s smoking gun is a single “documented” case by the EPA from a published report issued in 1987 about a well drilled in 1982 (discovered to be contaminated in 1984):

The report is not recent — it was published in 1987, and the contamination was discovered in 1984. Drilling technology and safeguards in well design have improved significantly since then. Nevertheless, the report does contradict what has emerged as a kind of mantra in the industry and in the government.

The report concluded that hydraulic fracturing fluids or gel used by the Kaiser Exploration and Mining Company contaminated a well roughly 600 feet away on the property of James Parsons in Jackson County, W.Va., referring to it as “Mr. Parson’s water well.”

“When fracturing the Kaiser gas well on Mr. James Parson’s property, fractures were created allowing migration of fracture fluid from the gas well to Mr. Parson’s water well,” according to the  agency’s summary of the case. “This fracture fluid, along with natural gas was present in Mr. Parson’s water, rendering it unusable.”

In their report, E.P.A. officials also wrote that Mr. Parsons’ case was highlighted as an “illustrative” example of the hazards created by this type of drilling, and that legal settlements and nondisclosure agreements prevented access to scientific documentation of other incidents.

“This is typical practice, for instance, in Texas,”  the report stated. “In some cases, the records of well-publicized damage incidents are almost entirely unavailable for review.”(1)

Mr. Urbina implies that because there are court cases where drillers and landowners settle out of court and the records are sealed, that the industry is trying to hide something. His implication is that thousands of of geologists, engineers, heads of energy companies and other industry experts who all say fracking does not contaminate water are lying and engaging in a huge conspiracy to cover up the facts.

Mr. Urbina spoke with an intern unnamed official at the EPA who expresses frustration at not being able to access sealed court records, further “proof” that there’s a cover-up:

Most drilling experts indeed have said that contamination of drinking water with fracking liquids is highly improbable. Even critics of fracking tend to agree that if wells are designed properly, drilling fluids should not affect underground drinking water. Industry officials also emphasize that all forms of drilling involve some degree of risk. The question, they say, is what represents an acceptable level. Once chemicals contaminate underground drinking-water sources, they are very difficult to remove, according to federal and industry studies. One E.P.A. official involved with a current study being conducted by the agency on the risks of fracking on drinking water said the agency encountered continuing challenges to get access to current cases because of legal settlements.

“Our hands are tied,” said the official, who spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.(1)

In a nutshell, here are the dots Mr. Urbina tries to connect, the logic he attempts to pass off as journalism in this article:

  1. The gas industry cannot be trusted—they lie.
  2. There is one documented case where hydraulic fracturing caused chemical contamination of a water well (albeit nearly 30 years ago).
  3. Those who want to investigate a link between fracking and contamination can’t do it because of a few dozen (maybe a hundred?) lawsuits with sealed records.
  4. Sealed records equal “they’re hiding something.”
  5. See #1 above.
  6. Therefore, fracking really does contaminate water wells.

Lee Fuller, executive director of Energy In Depth, an energy industry-backed organization, is an engineer himself with more than 30 years’ experience in the industry. He issued the following statement in response to this latest Urbina article:

“We’re talking about a technology that’s been deployed more than 1.2 million times in more than 25 states over the course of more than 60 years. I think it says an awful lot about fracturing’s record of safety that the best these guys could come up with after studying the issue for an entire year is a single, disputed case from 30 years ago that state regulators at the time believe had nothing to do with fracturing. Three decades later, the technology today is better than it’s ever been, the regulations are broader and more stringent, and the imperative of getting this right, so that we can take full advantage of the historic opportunities made possible by shale, has never been more apparent. Despite the Times’ best efforts, this story does not prove that hydraulic fracturing had anything to do with the contamination of a water well 30 years ago.”(2)

Let’s see, a single “documented” case out of 1.2 million fracked wells? I’ll take those odds any time.

(1) The New York Times (posted Aug 3, 2011) – A Tainted Water Well, and Concern There May Be More

(2) Energy in Depth Press Release (Aug 3, 2011) – EID Statement on (Latest) Joint Effort by NYT/Environmental Working Group Aimed at Attacking Natural Gas