The gas fracturing fracas: What we still need to know

(Photo/Krista76, Flickr)
(Photo/Krista76, Flickr)
It’s turning into an epic battle of wills and words over a series of articles on the evidence of water contamination by a gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing.

Instead of hashing out the complex pro-energy and pro-environmental positions on the issue, the Independence Institute’s Dave Kopel, and Abrahm Lustgarten of the nonprofit investigative journalism outlet ProPublica have treated readers to pissing matches over what “anecdotal” means. Meanwhile, online commenters have tapped into their worst instincts — blaming the messenger.

The tit for tat began with Lustgarten’s exhaustive investigative reporting on concerns that natural gas drilling is endangering U.S. water supplies. Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West figure prominently in the risky process (check out the sidebars in the above linked story that includes
industry documents, EPA studies and additional reporting).

Kopel weighed in on the matter in his Jan. 10 Rocky Mountain News media criticism column, where he took Lustgarten to task over “shaky facts.”

Lustgarten responded in-kind — in a piece published in The Colorado Independent on Wednesday as a followup to his Dec. 31 overview gas fracking story also posted here with permission from ProPublica.

For all the fireworks, this debate has been informative. Two news titans are battling over a little understood process that may present significant risk to precious Colorado commodities — water and fossil fuels.

Especially salient to the debate are new rules ratified by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association in December that require firms engaged in fracking to disclose the chemicals used in the process.

Why the new rules? It might have a lot to do with the Ritter administration finally seizing control of the commission after decades of fox-in-the-hen-house domination by the energy sector itself. Although he criticized Lustgarten for being a shill for environmental interests, Kopel neglected to disclose his employer’s own reputation for backing the extractive energy sector over environmental protections.

Yet the dueling writers missed another important dimension to the issue. Colorado Republican lawmakers are drafting a bill to water down the proposed COGCC chemical regulations, said the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent. But nary a whisper on that important development from either of the fracking story duo.

Kopel took his fight to the conservative blog the Volokh Conspiracy, with some solid arguments about Lustgarten’s conflation of the groundwater contamination risks inherent in oil drilling with natural gas extraction — two entirely different processes.

But the wheels fall off the debate due to rude commenters and devolves into a messy, in-the-weeds-and-not-terribly-informative screed on how great Halliburton is and the fuzzy math of what is assumed to be a “liberal” (gasp!) reporter.

In all the hue and cry, the most important finding in the ProPublica story is being overlooked — the utter lack of energy sector transparency about just what the heck they have been pumping into the ground all these years.

From Lustgarten’s Nov. 13 story, Buried Secrets: Is Natural Gas Drilling Endangering U.S. Water Supplies?, we get a glimpse of the very real health threats from the secret chemical stew used in fracking:

The most stringent reforms are being pursued in Colorado. Last year it began a top-to-bottom re-write of its regulations, including a proposal to require companies to disclose the exact makeup of their fracking fluids — the toughest such rule in the nation.

In mid-August, the Colorado debate intensified when news broke that Cathy Behr, an emergency room nurse in Durango, Colo., had almost died after treating a wildcatter who had been splashed in a fracking fluid spill at a BP natural gas rig. Behr stripped the man and stuffed his clothes into plastic bags while the hospital sounded alarms and locked down the ER. The worker was released. But a few days later Behr lay in critical condition facing multiple organ failure.

Her doctors searched for details that could save their patient. The substance was a drill stimulation fluid called ZetaFlow, but the only information the rig workers provided was a vague Material Safety Data Sheet, a form required by OSHA. Doctors wanted to know precisely what chemicals make up ZetaFlow and in what concentration. But the MSDS listed that information as proprietary. Behr’s doctor learned, weeks later, after Behr had begun to recuperate, what ZetaFlow was made of, but he was sworn to secrecy by the chemical’s manufacturer and couldn’t even share the information with his patient.

Behr has fortunately since recovered but is demanding answers about the fracking process risks, while BLM-approved gas leases are on a record-setting fever pitch.

Yet, Kopel concludes in the blog post that the “organization’s implausible efforts to defend the validity of a wildly inaccurate article would make me hesitate to rely on anything from ProPublica.”

C’mon, Dave, you’re better than that. Such overblown rhetoric and line-in-the sand distinctions hinder the constructive debate that is needed by residents in drilling regions, energy sector workers and environmental regulators.

Gentleman, let’s suck it up and get back to the business of serving readers by addressing two central questions whose answers are not obvious:

What are the known, quantifiable risks of water contamination by natural gas hydraulic fracturing?

And what are the research deficits in determining these risks within acceptable degrees of scientific confidence?