Despite the intense smear campaign that’s been waged by activists and their allies in the national media, the truth about hydraulic fracturing, a horizontal drilling technology that extracts previously unattainable natural gas deposits from underground shale rock, continues to surface.
An independent study released by researchers at the University of Texas’ Energy Institute last week found “little scientific evidence” to support the oft-cited and oft-reported allegation that shale gas operations have contaminated underground drinking water sources. “The bottom line was, in the areas we investigated … we found no direct evidence that hydraulic fracturing itself was contaminating groundwater,” said Charles Groat, professor of geology at the University of Texas at Austin. The study also found that methane detected in some water wells in the Marcellus Shale region are most likely traced to natural sources present before gas extraction began, leading university researchers to suggest requiring groundwater sampling before drilling begins in order to judge the accuracy of any later questions about contamination.
Which brings us to the headline-grabbing report, released by the EPA last December, implicating shale gas drilling as the likely source of groundwater contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming. Though anti-shale activists prematurely declared the end of hydraulic fracturing as we know it, a closer look at EPA’s own data indicates the agency’s conclusions are partially based on invalid laboratory results. And then there’s EPA administrator Lisa Jackson’s on-air admission just weeks before the Pavillion report was released that “we have absolutely no indication now that drinking water is at risk”.
Leading a hearing before the House Science Committee earlier this month, Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) noted contradictory language between the EPA’s draft report and the press release it issued on Pavillion. While the report doesn’t use the word “likely” to draw a causal relationship between drilling and contamination, the press release is peppered with the word. The report used language such as “best supports” and “best fitting” – which, as Rep. Harris rightly noted, indicates that there is not enough evidence to draw a conclusion one way or another.
Of course, it’s not surprising that these blaring inconsistencies went largely unnoticed and unreported. In analyzing media coverage of shale gas, the University of Texas study found that more than 60 percent of articles or broadcast news stories on the shale plays were negative, while fewer than 20 percent of newspaper articles on the topic even mention scientific research. Fair coverage on national television and radio registered at 18 percent, while a mere 3 percent local TV and online news reports cast the technology in a positive light. It’s easy to see why the study’s survey respondents, composed of 1,500 residents in Texas where the Barnett Shale is located, were misinformed about the amount of water used for shale development and the scientific risks involved with the process.
Before shale’s sworn enemies dismiss this study as one borne from industry coffers, it’s important to note that it was funded completely by the university “so it was not dependent on sources either from the energy community or the environmental community.” In fact, the Environmental Defense Fund was consulted on the overall scope and design of the study.
America is long overdue for a serious, sensible approach to domestic energy production, particularly given a recent report indicating that states with robust oil and gas development are faring the recession far better than their counterparts.