Key Context & Facts on Patriot-News’ Shale Series

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The Patriot-News’ multi-day series on shale development – which launched on Monday – rehashes a handful of old stories and previously debunked claims. The MSC was a participant in this wide ranging series and spoke with the lead reporters Candy Woodall and Wallace McKelvey over the past several months in an effort to provide fact- and science-based information to ensure accurate reporting. Unfortunately, the papers’ first series of articles failed to provide readers with the objective facts that they deserve, and we deemed it necessary to deliver this noticeably missing information.

What follows are key facts and context excluded from the paper’s reporting. As additional series articles post this week, the MSC will continue to update this blog to provide additional facts.

CLAIM: Pa. regulators “relied heavily on energy companies to largely police themselves,” “ignored citizens’ constitutional right to clean air and water,” and “went virtually unregulated for years.” (PennLive, 10/19/15)

FACT: This claim is absolutely absurd and flies directly in the face of the facts. Patently false and highly-charged accusations like this underscore this series’ deep flaws and inherently biased structure.

  • Ed Rendell & John Hanger: “As the two people who enacted four regulatory packages strengthening drilling regulation and led the enforcement of the rules in Pennsylvania until January, we strongly disagree that there is lax regulation and oversight of gas drilling there. Pennsylvania has the strongest enforcement program of any state with gas drilling. Period.” (New York Times letter, 3/5/11)
  • 2010 Pa. DEP report: “No other state has added more staff, done a more comprehensive strengthening of its rules or more aggressively enforced its rules than Pennsylvania has.” (Times-Tribune, 8/3/10)
  • Independent Reviews Touts Pa.’s Regulations: The State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER) – a nonprofit environmental review organization – conducted a programmatic review of DEP’s Oil and Gas bureau in 2010 and 2013, concluding that Pa.’s regulatory program is “well-managed, professional and meeting its program objectives.”
  • Industry-Supported Fee Increases: In 2010, Pa. DEP – with the support of the industry – increased well permit fees from $100 per well to a sliding scale based on the total depth and length of the well (avg. permit application fees are $3,000). The significant increase allowed the agency to nearly double the number of regulators to more than 200. In early 2014, Pa. DEP proposed – and the industry again supported – another well permit fee increase to $5,000 per well, which will generate an additional $4.7 million and allow the agency to hire 25 new inspection employees in its oil and gas division. Pa.’s well permit fees are the highest among energy-producing states.
  • DEP Inspections: State regulators perform thousands of well site inspections annually. (Pa. DEP)
    • Thus far in 2015 (1/1/15-10/9/15), 10,472 inspections performed at 5,167 facilities.
    • In 2014, 11,297 inspections at 5,010 facilities.
    • In 2013, 12,391 inspections at 5,559 facilities.
    • In 2012, 12,701 inspections at 4,861 facilities.
    • In 2011, 10,561 inspections at 3,938 facilities.
    • In 2010, 4,990 inspections at 1,944 facilities.
    • In 2009, 2,094 inspections at 874 facilities.

CLAIM: Shale activities impacted groundwater in Butler County. (PennLive, 10/19/15)

FACT: Exhaustive, fact- and science-based reviews by Pa. DEP and EPA – as well as independent experts – found that shale development did not impact drinking water in the Woodlands.

  • DEP Findings: The DEP tested the water wells in response to complaints by Woodlands residents that began in February 2011, but couldn’t link contaminants in the water to the Rex Energy gas well drilling, said DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday. “Our investigation included sampling conducted by the department both before and after hydraulic fracturing,” Mr. Sunday said. “Pre-drilling surveys also informed our investigation, which considered any events that took place related to Rex’s drilling activity. We have been more than thorough in our investigation.” (Post-Gazette, 5/9/12)
  • EPA Findings: All the contaminants were naturally occurring in the mineral-rich bedrock of western Pennsylvania. For that reason, the state of Pennsylvania and the U.S. EPA absolved Rex Energy of any responsibility for the water problems. “At the Woodlands, the EPA did a follow-up investigation that concurrently concluded that the water supplies in this area were not affected by oil and gas activities,” said Amanda Witman, a spokesman for Pa. DEP. (Buffalo News, 5/17/14)
  • Exhaustive EPA Fracking Study: A multi-year EPA study on hydraulic fracturing determined that the highly-regulated technology has “not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.”
  • Nat’l Ground Water Assoc.: The NGWA – the largest association of groundwater professionals in world – reported “no widespread water quality or quantity issues have been definitely documented that are attributable to the hydraulic fracturing process.” (NGWA, 2/19/14)
  • Energy Sec. Moniz: “I still have not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater.” (Washington Examiner, 8/1/13)
  • Dept. of Energy: A landmark 18-month Dept. of Energy study found “no evidence that chemicals or brine water from the gas drilling process moved upward to contaminate drinking water,” affirming that hydraulic fracturing is a safe, well-regulated process. (AP, 9/16/14)

CLAIM: Conventional wells require far less water in order to extract the fuel. (PennLive, 10/19/15)

FACT: That’s a true statement, but it only tells a fraction of the broader story. It’s like saying that newspapers that print only three days a week require less ink than those that print daily. Consider that horizontal shale wells dramatically reduce aboveground land disturbance, which is a huge net environmental winner, and further that the water used in the process is overwhelmingly – 90+ percent – recycled and reused thanks to technologies pioneered by Pa. shale producers.

  • Bloomberg News Editorial Touts Pa.’s Strong Water Regulations: “Pa. has the right approach. Before withdrawing water in that state, drillers must win approval for a water-use plan that discloses how much water a well will use, from where and what effect that will have on local sources. To be approved, these plans must include wastewater recycling. Other states…should follow Pa.’s lead.” (2/20/14)

** UPDATE: Oct. 21, 2015 **

Below are a series of claims and suggestions – along with critical, yet overlooked, facts and context – from the latest stories in the ongoing PennLive series focused on shale development. It’s fitting that today is national “Back to the Future Day” (the White House event got in the action), given that so many of PennLive’s latest assertions are years old and mostly debunked.

CLAIM: In separate articles, PennLive relies on a single and highly-questionable 2011 (again, think “Back to the Future”) study led by then-Duke University professor Rob Jackson suggesting that shale development impacted groundwater quality in northeastern Pa. “[The study] did detect higher levels of ethane, methane and propane in some drinking water wells near drilling sites” and “well sites in the Northeast showed signs of gas migrating underground.” (PennLive, 10/20/15; 10/21/15)

FACT: While shallow methane is naturally present across much of the region (and has been for centuries) and migration can occur, the facts – as confirmed by numerous independent experts, organizations and regulatory bodies – show that the process of hydraulic fracturing has not caused groundwater problems. Relevant context:

  • Peer Reviewers Find “Lack of Data” to Support Duke Study Claims: According to three peer reviewers, there is a “lack of data to support a relationship between methane contamination of drinking water wells and hydraulic fracturing” and the researchers “misrepresent potential risks” of modern hydraulic fracturing technology.
  • Funded by Anti-Shale Park Foundation: PennLive leans heavily on Rob Jackson’s 2011 Duke study but fails to acknowledge his financial relationship with the harshly anti-shale Park Foundation. More on Jackson and the Park Foundation from E&E News:
    • In the fight against shale gas drilling, it seems all roads lead back to a low-slung brick building in Ithaca, N.Y. Inside is the office of the Park Foundation, where a staff of eight has underwritten the rock stars of the anti-drilling movement. … Duke University professor Rob Jackson got $50,000 to continue his work on methane in drinking water. … “In our work to oppose fracking, the Park Foundation has simply helped to fuel an army of courageous individuals and NGOs,” said Adelaide Park Gomer, foundation president and Park heir, in a speech late last year. Since 2008, the foundation has given at least $2.8 million to groups and publications fighting shale drilling. … But the foundation’s focus increasingly has become the fight against drilling. Drilling rigs have roared across Pa. as companies rush to tap the Marcellus Shale. They haven’t been able to cross into NY, and Gomer wants the temporary moratorium made permanent. Gomer’s speech last year was titled, “New York Should Become the First State to Ban Fracking.”
  • “Studies Show Naturally Occurring Methane in Northeast Pa. Water”: A pair of studies released today by the U.S Geological Survey found low-to-moderate concentrations of naturally occurring methane in private water wells in Wayne and Pike Counties– a region of the state without Marcellus Shale drilling. … “In the case of Wayne and Pike counties, the methane we’re measuring is all naturally occurring,” says [USGS’ Ronald] Sloto. (StateImpact, 11/13/14)
  • Weeks-Old Syracuse Study: An extensive study conducted by a Syracuse University professor has shown that central New York water quality has not been negatively affected by intense “fracking” operations in northern Pennsylvania and southeastern Ohio. … [Don] Siegel’s study falls in line with similar studies on the matter performed by the EPA and USGS. Siegel and his team tested more than 21,000 samples of groundwater over the course of their study with some of the samples coming from depths that exceeded federal requirements by more than 500 feet. … Siegel’s study found that “natural geological formations” in the area were responsible for the anomalies. Siegel explained that the results from the study were “neither unusual nor surprising and are consistent with previous results in both areas…taken both before and after unconventional gas development began.” (Daily Orange, 9/27/15)

CLAIM: “Drillers were permitted to bring wastewater to municipal treatment facilities that weren’t equipped to handle it. That water, full of carcinogens and even radioactive material, then ended up in streams across the region.” (PennLive, 10/21/15)

FACT: While the paper uses the past tense – were – they unfortunately failed to provide important context. Specifically, MSC members voluntarily stopped delivering flowback and produced water to municipal wastewater treatment facilities in early 2011. What’s more, DEP tests found that wastewater from natural gas drilling “raise no red flags for radioactivity.” In fact, regional shale producers pioneered large-scale water recycling technologies and have successfully reached an industry-wide average recycling rate of 90%.

  • 2011 MSC Letter on Water Management: On behalf of the Board of Directors of the MSC, I write to you today to express our commitment to meet the call of the DEP to halt the delivery of flowback and produced water from shale gas extraction to the facilities that currently accept it under special provisions of last year’s TDS regulations. … This decision is a further reflection of our Guiding Principles for responsible natural gas production – including our focus on state of the art environmental protections and increased transparency in our operations throughout the Commonwealth. (MSC letter, 4/20/11)
  • Pa.: No Red Flags Over Radioactivity in 7 Rivers: Tests of water in Pa. downriver from sewage treatment plants that handle wastewater from natural gas drilling raised no red flags for radioactivity, the state DEP said Monday. All of the samples, taken in November and December, showed levels at or below the normal naturally occurring background levels of radioactivity, the agency said. All samples also showed levels below the federal drinking water standard for Radium 226 and 228, it said. (AP, 3/7/11)
  • DEP Study: Shale Presents “Little Potential” Radon Risk: In January 2015, the DEP announced results of its TENORM study, which analyzed naturally occurring levels of radioactivity associated with oil and gas development. It found that there is little potential for harm to workers or the public from radiation exposure due to oil and gas development.

CLAIM: “This year, Gov. Wolf has tethered his $1 billion education funding proposal to the financial health of the industry via a proposed severance tax on drillers.” (PennLive, 10/20/15)

FACT: Given current market conditions, there couldn’t be a worse time to increase Pennsylvania’s energy taxes, let alone to the nation’s highest rate. Further, the governor’s proposal for even higher energy taxes would not be directed exclusively to fund schools and it is projected to generate far less revenue than claimed.

  • Higher Energy Tax Math Doesn’t Add Up: The claim that even higher energy taxes will raise $1 billion in additional revenue has been thoroughly debunked by the Associated Press and Philadelphia Inquirer, among others, because the projections are based on deeply flawed and politically-motivated assumptions that regionally produced natural gas receives national pricing rates.
  • Democrat State Rep. Jaret Gibbons: “This amendment [to increase energy taxes] would have placed a massive burden on an already struggling Marcellus Shale industry, and I couldn’t take part in passing something that would create one of the highest severance tax rates in the nation. Natural gas prices are at an all-time low, and I feel this is not the time to further burden an industry that provides invaluable jobs to our state and region with a severance tax of this magnitude.” (SNL Financial, 10/14/15)
  • IUOE Local 66 Business Manager Jim Kunz: “Political agendas and differences aside, there could not be a worse time for an excessively higher energy tax.” (Post-Gazette op-ed, 7/27/15)

CLAIM: “Act 13’s most important provision is an impact fee on drillers.” (PennLive, 10/21/15)

FACT: While the impact tax on shale development has generated more than $850 million since the bipartisan law was enacted, Act 13 also overhauled and strengthened a number of Pennsylvania’s energy regulations, some of which are of the nation’s most rigorous.

  • Industry Voluntary Adheres to Enhanced Setback Requirements: Act 13 specifically enhanced setback requirements from 300 to 1,000 feet from water wells and springs and 500 feet from structures. While the Pa. Supreme Court rolled back these enhancements, industry remains committed to adhering to the more stringent setbacks because it’s the right thing to do.
  • Industry-Supported Baseline Water Testing Expansions: Pennsylvania has established, under [Act 13], that operators who drill gas wells within 2,500 feet of private or public water supply are presumed to be responsible for impacting these water supplies should a complaint arise from the land owner or water purveyor. This encourages the operator to prepare third party baseline testing of all water supplies within 2,500 feet to illustrate the existing conditions of the water supplies. The operator is fully responsible for completing pre and post testing to prove that no impact on water supplies has occurred. (10/12/12)
  • Continued Operational Transparency: MSC members committed to disclosing chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing on a per-well basis in the national, publicly-accessible, FracFocus database. Act 13 codified that requirement into law. (10/12/12)
  • Act 13 Enhanced Permitting Regulations: Act 13 did not change the 45 day period which DEP must issue a permit decision by; in fact, Act 13 actually authorized DEP to extend the permit review by an additional 15 days, if necessary.

CLAIM: “Another controversial element of Act 13 is the so-called ‘medical gag rule’ that prohibits medical professionals from revealing information about fracking chemicals they receive from drilling companies.” (PennLive, 10/21/15)

FACT: This claim is verifiably false. PennLive’s Matt Miller reported such in March of 2015 in U.S. appeals court backs dismissal of doctor’s challenge to ‘medical gag rule’ on fracking chemicals . Act 13 specifically grants medical professional complete access to the full list of proprietary additives used in natural gas development process, and state and federal courts agree.

  • Former Pa. Dept. of Health Secretary: “Act 13 contains the most progressive disclosure requirements in the nation related to the chemicals and composition of fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing process. … One of the strong benefits of Act 13’s disclosure requirements is its proactive approach to ensuring that health professionals have access to all information they may need to provide care for their patients. Unfortunately, mischaracterization of the non-disclosure agreement has led to some confusion within the public health community that a health professional’s ability to care for their patients may be impeded. I assure you that this is not the case. … I believe Act 13 provides the important tools necessary to properly care for patients, including full consultation with the patient and others associated with the patient’s care.(4/17/12)
  • Medical Society: “We are gratified by the strong public assurances from the Dept. of Health, Speaker Smith and House Majority leader Mike Turzai that their intent in drafting the law was for physicians to be able to speak freely with their patients, other health care providers involved in the care of their patients, and appropriate public health officials. Those statements clearly demonstrate their commitment to the health and welfare of all Pennsylvanians. … As the unconventional gas drilling industry matures in Pennsylvania, and our understanding of this technology evolves, we’re confident that the administration and legislature will continue to be responsive to physicians’ concerns for protecting patient health and preserving the patient-physician relationship.” (StateImpact, 4/19/12)

CLAIM: Based exclusively on 29 select former state government employees, PennLive claims a “revolving door” between industry and former officials “raises an obvious question of ethics.” (PennLive, 10/21/15)

FACT: A claim like this demonstrates bias, is leading and premised on one’s opinion which is better suited for the editorial pages rather than the “news” section. That said, it’s entirely common across virtually any industry – be it energy, transportation, healthcare, etc. – for former government employees to apply their subject matter expertise in the private sector, or likewise for private sector citizens to work in government, leveraging their subject matter expertise.

PennLive focuses on several individuals – of the thousands of current and past DEP employees – who may now work as part of the broader energy industry. The paper, however, ignores the clear fact that individuals in the environmental community have worked for various advocacy organizations as well as in top state government positions. In fact, the reporters would be well-served (once again) to read their own newspaper, which reported in 2011 that PennFuture had a “Cozy Deal” with the Rendell Administration.

  • George Jurgovic: The paper’s “revolving door” article relied heavily on quotes from former DEP southwest regional office director George Jurgovic. But following PennLive’s own logic – given that Jurgovic worked at PennFuture prior to DEP and then returned to the organization in 2011 – isn’t their key source part of that “revolving door”?
  • Cindy Dunn: In early 2015, Gov. Wolf nominated PennFuture CEO Cindy Adams Dunn as DCNR secretary. Prior to serving as CEO of PennFuture, Dunn served as a DCNR deputy secretary during the Rendell and Corbett administrations.
  • John Quigley: Also in January 2015, Gov. Wolf named John Quigley – who was serving as a PennFuture consultant – as DEP secretary. Prior to joining PennFuture, Quigley served as DCNR secretary in the Rendell administration.
  • John Hanger: In late December 2014, Gov. Wolf appointed John Hanger to be his top policy advisor to assist the governor in implementing “plans for a severance tax on Marcellus Shale drilling and reinstating a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing in state parks and forests.” Hanger – who also served as DEP secretary from 2009-2010 in the Rendell administration – was PennFuture’s founding president and served in the role from 1998-2008. 

CLAIM: The paper suggests that former DEP secretary Mike Krancer was an outlier in maintaining tight and proven state-based regulation of shale development and hydraulic fracturing. “[The agency] has disrespected the role of the states, almost on a chronic basis. We, on occasion, had to assert our independence, if you will, and our competence,” Krancer said. (PennLive, 10/20/15)

FACT: Again, PennLive fails to add relevant context, particular that as DEP secretary under Gov. Rendell, John Hanger as well as Gov. Rendell himself have stated that Pennsylvania regulators are best-situated to regulated the industry.

  • DEP Sec. John Hanger: Question: Should the federal government regulate fracking? Hanger: “I laugh when people ask that question because, basically, if the BP oil spill showed anything, it’s that you can’t rely on the federal government to regulate the oil and gas industry. … I think local people have much more ability to impact their governor. They pick their governor, they elect their state legislature. I think generally it’s better to have these questions decided close to home. It’s Pennsylvania’s water, it’s Pennsylvania’s air, it’s Pennsylvania’s land.” (ProPublica, 2/10/11)
  • Ed Rendell: “As we have shown in Pennsylvania, we can manage the risks of natural gas drilling. We enacted tough construction and water disposal regulations in 2010 and have had no major problems since then.” (NY Daily News column, 3/27/13)

CLAIM: “OSHA inspects less than 3% of shale drilling sites in Pa.”

FACT: Workplace safety is the oil and gas industry’s foremost priority. There’s nothing more important than the health and safety of employees, contractors, and local communities.

  • Understand the Science: The reporter clearly implies that each of the 9,500 wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 2004 constitute a single worksite. However, thanks to horizontal drilling technology advancements, multiple wells are drilled from a single pad (“work site”), allowing for significantly greater production with much less surface disturbance. According to Pa. DEP, there are 3,205 well pads (a.k.a. “work sites”) in Pennsylvania. Thus, the paper wildly over-estimates the total number of “work sites” by 250% or more.
  • Top OSHA Official: “This industry has stepped up to the plate” in improving workforce safety. (E&E News, 12/3/14)
  • “Safety is Top Concern for Industry”: “Safety is the top worry for natural gas industry players, according to a recent survey. … When asked to address concerns on a 5-point scale, with 5 signifying “very important,” the industry survey showed ‘safety’ as the top concern.” (E&E News, 10/21/15; full study release)
  • CDC: “Most segments of oil and gas extraction report a lower nonfatal injury rate than the average for private industry.” (CDC, 9/21/15)
  • Former Pa. Dept. of Health Secretary: “Recently published news concerning shale-related health questions and the work of the Pa. Dept. of Health has included dangerous allegations that are misleading the public.” (Patriot-News op-ed, 7/22/15)

** UPDATE: Nov. 7, 2015 **

CLAIM: Anti-shale plaintiff’s attorney, litigant manufacture new versions of old claims about in “hopes for new trial” suggesting energy producer “never revealed its subcontractors were using tracers or listed the multiple tracers being used and released at the drilling site.” (PennLive, 10/21/15)

FACT: While no one doubts the historically low-quality of Loren Kiskadden’s water well (which sits directly under a junkyard), the clear fact remains that four government agencies — including the U.S. EPA, Pa. DEP, U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services —  unanimously concluded that shale development was not the cause. While PennLive based its biased reporting on trial attorney claims of “new evidence,” the facts clearly show that the use of tracers was disclosed to Kiskadden nearly two years ago. What’s more, DEP concluded once again on Nov. 2 that Kiskadden’s water issues are likely a result “from his own scrapping activities, his family’s scrap facility, or other nearby uses.” But why let fact-based data and science get in the way, right PennLive?

  • No “New Evidence”: As the Post-Gazette reports, the trial lawyer’s so-called “new” evidence, for which PennLive based its biased story, is actually old as court documents show that the tracer use was disclosed to Kiskadden more than two years ago, water well tests found no evidence of the tracer, and a hydrogeologic connection does not exist between the well site and Kiskadden’s water well. (Post-Gazette, 11/7/15)
  • More Pa. DEP Data: “To the extent a response is required, the record shows that Mr. Kiskadden did not meet his burden to prove a hydrogeological connection between the Yeager Site and his water supply, but, instead, created a lengthy record based on detections of constituents that could have come from his own scrapping activities, his family’s scrap facility, or other nearby uses.” (DEP filing, 11/2/15)

Throughout the week, the MSC will continue to fact check the series on this blog and throughout Twitter and Facebook.