AP, NYT Wide of the Target on Water Management, Recycling

Canonsburg, PA – Pennsylvania leads the nation in recycling water used to produce clean-burning natural gas from shale formations – a process that has been refined, enhanced, and expanded widely over the past year. At the same time, Pennsylvania has regulations and laws in place to ensure water is managed effectively and in a way that protects the environment. These policies are clear, straightforward and the toughest in the nation. A recent review of Pennsylvania’s oil and natural gas regulatory program by the non-profit, multi-stakeholder group STRONGER determined that the state’s oversight of Marcellus development is “well-managed.”

While the New York Times raised some valid points in Sunday’s story — particularly on the issue of increased radium testing, something the Marcellus Shale Coalition supports — the paper’s second installment on produced water recycling is woefully unbalanced and inaccurate. Meanwhile, and not to be outdone, the Associated Press, in a story also filed this week, lodges a host of misleading, out of context claims about Marcellus wastewater management.

 AP Assertion: “Pennsylvania’s natural gas drillers are still flushing vast quantities of contaminated wastewater into rivers that supply drinking water…”

  • Fmr. PA DEP Sec. John Hanger: “Here’s the reality: Every drop of tap water that was publicly treated is required to meet the safe drinking water standard.” (Allentown Morning Call, 1/5/11)
  • “The new drilling wastewater rule…singles out drilling wastewater for the strongest requirements.” (John Hanger personal blog, 1/27/11)
  • By design, the AP fails to mention this critical fact in its lead, but mentions these industry-leading regulations later in the story.

NYT Claim: “In Pennsylvania, for example, natural-gas companies recycled less than half of the wastewater they produced during the 18 months that ended in December, according to state records.”

  • But later in the piece, the reporter concedes “the amount reported recycled in the past six months is roughly 65 percent of the total produced, up from roughly 20 percent during the 12 months before that.” As of October 2009, only one Marcellus operator was recycling water across their operations while others were still in the initial phases — so why does the Times focus on recycling data going back 18 months?
  • “According to production reports due Feb. 15 and posted last week…Marcellus Shale operators directly reused 6 million barrels of the 10.6 million barrels of waste fluids produced from about 1,500 different wells between July and December. At least an additional 978,000 barrels were taken to facilities that treat the water and return it to operators for reuse.” (Scranton Times-Tribune, 2/27/11)
  • “The amount reused or recycled is about seven times larger than the 1 million barrels of wastewater Marcellus Shale drillers said they directly reused during the 12 months between July 2009 and June, the first time the drillers’ waste reports were made publicly available on the website.” (Scranton Times-Tribune, 2/27/11)
  • “The majority of companies are working toward reusing 100 percent of their flowback water for several reasons. Environmentally it makes sense, and economically it makes more sense,’ [Penn State hydrologist Dan] Yoxtheimer said.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3/1/11)
  • “Of the 10.6 million barrels of wastewater that gushed from the wells in the final six months of 2010, at least 65 percent was recycled, a dramatic increase from previous years, when little or no recycling took place.” (Associated Press, 3/1/11)

AP Assertion: “They are unable, however, to remove the salty dissolved solids and chlorides that the wastewater picks up as it travels through the shale beds. There have been concerns about the salt levels rising in some Pennsylvania rivers that supply drinking water.”

  • “The water that’s coming out of the tap in Pennsylvania is meeting the safe water drinking standards when it comes to total dissolved solids,” said Hanger. “Every single drop that is coming out of the tap in Pennsylvania today meets the safe drinking water standard.” (KDKA, 1/4/11)
  • “The new permitted limit for discharges of wastewater from gas drilling is 500 mg/L of total dissolved solids and 250 mg/L for chlorides. All new and expanding facilities that treat gas well wastewater must now meet these discharge limits.” (Hanger blog, 1/27/11)

NYT Claim: “More than 90 percent of well operators in Pennsylvania use this process, known as hydrofracking, to get wells to produce. It involves injecting water mixed with sand and chemicals at high pressures to break up rock formations and release the gas.”

  • The fact is 100 percent of shale gas wells in the U.S. are hydraulically fractured to enhance the flow of gas. The 90 percent figure – just one of the many inaccuracies in the story – perhaps refer to the percentage of total oil and natural gas wells fractured in the U.S.
  • In failing to provide proper context, the Times does not indicate the fact that more than 99.5 percent of the fluids used in the fracturing process are water and sand. The small portion of additives used prevent bacteria and corrosion from forming in the well-bore, and reduce friction during fracturing operations.

NYT Claim: “Wells also create waste that is not captured by recycling, because operators typically recycle only for the first several months after a well begins producing gas.”

  • All Marcellus shale natural gas sites in Pennsylvania are equipped with storage tanks that capture residual wastewater after the initial flow-back. Like all wastewater, this water is treated and disposed by reuse and recycling, deep underground injection wells or treatment and surface disposal.

NYT: Within hours, the Times was forced to make at least two factual changes to the story, including at least one direct quote:

  • Original quote from Dr. Radisav Vidic, engineering professor, University of Pittsburgh: “The wastewater that comes up from the well will, without a doubt, increase to some degree in radium and other radionuclides with each new fracking.”
  • Updated: “The wastewater that comes up from the well will likely increase to some degree in many contaminants such as salts and possibly radium and other radionuclides with each new fracking. But the data is very limited on this issue so not much is known.”
  • Original statement regarding abandonment of natural gas wells in Pennsylvania: “Though the amount of wastewater decreases over time, the wells can continue to ooze for decades, long after many of them are abandoned.”
  • Updated: “Though the amount of wastewater decreases over time, the wells can continue to ooze for decades after they have been hydrofracked. There are regulations, however, that govern how gas wells are plugged and abandoned.”
  • Marcellus Sale natural gas wells do not “ooze” for any period of time. All liquids that flow to the surface as natural gas is produced are captured in DEP regulated tanks. When a well no longer produces, it’s plugged according to strict guidelines laid out by the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act, section 601.210 and 25 Pa. Code Sec. 78.91 et seq.