Ignoring Reality, Stossel Dismisses Fracking Health Hazards

Leading up to his May 12 Fox special report on energy, Fox Business host John Stossel appeared on several Fox programs to deride critics of the natural gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Stossel baselessly claimed that methane in drinking water “happens naturally” and “has nothing to do with fracking,” when, in fact, there is overwhelming evidence that hydraulic fracturing can cause toxic chemicals to leak into groundwater, release radioactivity, and pollute the air.

Stossel Defies Reality To Claim Methane In Drinking Water “Has Nothing To Do With Fracking”

Stossel: Flammable Water “Had Nothing To Do With The Fracking.” On the May 11 edition of Fox News' America Live, guest host Alisyn Camerota interviewed Stossel about his upcoming Fox Business special report on energy. During the segment, Stossel noted concerns many Americans have expressed with nuclear energy, gasoline, and natural gas. A preview of his report was played that included footage from the documentary Gasland in which tap water is lit on fire. The film claims the tap water contains high levels of methane due to leaks from fracking. Stossel dismissed the claims, saying: “Although this documentary Gasland makes it seem like that came from natural gas drilling, environmentalists investigated that, and it turns out there is natural methane in the ground. ... It had nothing to do with the fracking.” In fact, it was not environmentalists, but oil and gas industry officials who investigated the claims and declared that the natural gas in the water supply was not related to fracking. [Fox News, America Live, 5/11/11; API fact sheet, 6/22/10]

Stossel: “There Are These Powerful Clips Of People's Drinking Water Catching Fire ... But It Turns Out, In Many Cases, That's Not From Fracking.” Stossel repeated his claims during a segment on the May 11 edition of Fox Business' Lou Dobbs Tonight. From the broadcast:

DOBBS: How much do we have in the way of energy reserves in this country?

STOSSEL: Well, we have oil from shale, and Canada has huge amounts. And with natural gas, more than a hundred years, so we're in good shape -- unless the wacko environmentalists say this fracking is going to poison our drinking water. And there are these powerful clips of people's drinking water catching fire. But it turns out, in many cases, that's not from fracking. [Fox Business, Lou Dobbs Tonight, 5/11/11]

Stossel: Methane In Drinking Water “Happens Naturally” And “Has Nothing To Do With Fracking”: “Weird Stuff Happens.” On the May 12 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, Stossel again discussed his upcoming Fox special report about energy. After a clip from Gasland was aired, showing a man lighting his own tap water on fire, Stossel again dismissed the documentary's claims about the health hazards posed by fracking, saying, “Weird stuff happens.” From the broadcast:

BRIAN KILMEADE (co-host): So John, everybody -- all the environmentalists say, let's just go solar, let's go wind. But that's not going to suffice, is it?

STOSSEL: Well, it will give us enough electricity for 1 or 2 percent of us -- is that enough? No -- the only thing is natural gas, coal, oil, and nuclear, and now people are running from nuclear. You know, that's OK, because natural gas got really cheap recently, because they found a new way to get it. And I love it.

KILMEADE: Fracking?

STOSSEL: My building is switching over. We're going to save money. Fracking -- it's these chemicals that go in the ground, break up the rocks.

STEVE DOOCY (co-host): Wait a minute. There's a new documentary that says that that's really dangerous.

STOSSEL: Yeah, there's all this whole movement attacking it. And I've watched Michael Moore's movies and these other lefty documentaries and found them unconvincing. But this movie about how we get natural gas these days and what that might do to your drinking water was much more convincing. Here's a clip.


STOSSEL: So that certainly scares you, but look, it turns out --

DOOCY: That's the water faucet?

STOSSEL: That's the water faucet. He has methane in the water.


STOSSEL: Because it happens naturally. It turns out it has nothing to do with fracking. Some people have gas in the ground that gets in their well water and they can, you know, it's a big country. Weird stuff happens. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 5/12/11]

CO Oil And Gas Commission Indeed Claimed Methane In CO Water Featured in Gasland Clip Was “Biogenic” ...

API: Colorado Oil And Gas Conservation Commission “Specifically Excluded Natural Gas Drilling As A Cause Of Flammable Water” In Cases Shown In Gasland. Contrary to Stossel's claim that “environmentalists investigated” the water supply shown to be contaminated in Gasland and determined "[i]t had nothing to do with the fracking," it was, in fact, officials of an oil and gas commission who conducted the investigation. The American Petroleum Institute (API) published a “Gasland Fact Sheet” in June 2010 that claimed:

Myth 1: In three interrelated segments of GasLand, Colorado residents claim that natural gas wells located near their property have caused their tap water to explode. In one scene that has gone viral in an online trailer, Mike Markham of Fort Lupton, Colo., demonstrates this by lighting his tap water on fire.

Fact 1: The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) devoted significant staff and financial resources to thoroughly investigate these cases, and specifically excluded natural gas drilling as a cause of flammable water in each. The commission determined that, in reality, the source was naturally occurring methane. Specific documentation for Markham's case includes the following:

  • According to COGCC: “Dissolved methane in well water appears to be biogenic [naturally occurring] in origin. ... There are no indications of oil and gas related impacts to water well.” (complaint resolved 9/30/08, signed by John Axelson of COGCC)
  • According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), natural sources of methane include wetlands, gas hydrates, permafrost, termites, oceans, freshwater bodies, non-wetland soils and other sources, such as wildfires [API fact sheet, 6/22/10, emphasis original]

... But A Recent Duke Study Linked Fracking With A Pattern Of Contaminated, Flammable Drinking Water

Duke Study Links “Natural Gas Drilling And Hydraulic Fracturing With A Pattern Of Drinking Water Contamination So Severe That Some Faucets Can Be Lit On Fire.” A peer-reviewed study from Duke University published on May 9 found a strong link between fracking and drinking water contaminants. As ProPublica reported:

For the first time, a scientific study has linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire.


The research was conducted by four scientists at Duke University. They found that levels of flammable methane gas in drinking water wells increased to dangerous levels when those water supplies were close to natural gas wells. They also found that the type of gas detected at high levels in the water was the same type of gas that energy companies were extracting from thousands of feet underground, strongly implying that the gas may be seeping underground through natural or manmade faults and fractures, or coming from cracks in the well structure itself.


The researchers did not find evidence that the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing had contaminated any of the wells they tested, allaying for the time being some of the greatest fears among environmentalists and drilling opponents.

But they were alarmed by what they described as a clear correlation between drilling activity and the seepage of gas contaminants underground, a danger in itself and evidence that pathways do exist for contaminants to migrate deep within the earth. [ProPublica, 5/9/11]

Reports Have Previously Shown That Fracking Poses Health Risks And Pollutes Water And Air

NYT: EPA Study Documents Show Natural Gas And Fracking Pose “Dangers To The Environment And Health ... Greater Than Previously Understood.” A review of EPA documents conducted by The New York Times concluded that fracking produces wastewater full of toxic chemicals, and even radioactivity, that sewage plants fail to fully treat. It also found that natural-gas drilling damages air quality by releasing toxic gases. From the February 26 article:

With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.

While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.

The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.

Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.

The Times also found never-reported studies by the E.P.A. and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.

But the E.P.A. has not intervened. In fact, federal and state regulators are allowing most sewage treatment plants that accept drilling waste not to test for radioactivity. And most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008.

In other words, there is no way of guaranteeing that the drinking water taken in by all these plants is safe.


[S]ewage treatment plant operators say they are far less capable of removing radioactive contaminants than most other toxic substances. Indeed, most of these facilities cannot remove enough of the radioactive material to meet federal drinking-water standards before discharging the wastewater into rivers, sometimes just miles upstream from drinking-water intake plants.


Air pollution caused by natural-gas drilling is a growing threat, too. Wyoming, for example, failed in 2009 to meet federal standards for air quality for the first time in its history partly because of the fumes containing benzene and toluene from roughly 27,000 wells, the vast majority drilled in the past five years.

In a [sic] sparsely populated Sublette County in Wyoming, which has some of the highest concentrations of wells, vapors reacting to sunlight have contributed to levels of ozone higher than those recorded in Houston and Los Angeles. [The New York Times, 2/26/11, emphasis added]

CAP: NY Fracking Wastewater Contained “Level[s] Of Radium-226 ... Thousands Of Times The Limit Safe For People To Drink.” From a March 21 Center for American Progress article:

Pennsylvania is an excellent example of the promise and peril of fracking. The size and extent of the natural gas development boom in Pennsylvania -- 57,469 producing wells at the end of 2010, up by more than 8,000 in four years -- poses new challenges and necessitates new safeguards to protect public health and the environment.

Examples of the problems stemming from the boom in hydraulic fracturing include the contamination of drinking water in Dimock Township, a mud spill in Sproul State Forest, and a 32-mile fish kill in Dunkard Creek that wiped out at least 16 species of freshwater mussels and 18 species of fish.

Total dissolved solids, or TDS, a measure of all elements dissolved in water including carbonates, sulfates, and nitrates are found in high concentrations in fracturing wastewater. Pennsylvania's waterways cannot dilute all of these pollutants. In 2008 and 2009, TDS levels exceeded drinking water standards in the Monongahela River, the source of drinking water for some residents of Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania's water treatment plants are not equipped to remove them from the water supplied to residents.


In 2009, ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism group, found similar problems in New York. ProPublica reported that the state's Department of Environmental Conservation tested 13 samples of drilling wastewater and found “they contain levels of radium-226, a derivative of uranium, as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink.” [Center for American Progress, 3/21/11]

Vanity Fair Report On PA Drilling Town: “People's Water Started Turning Brown And Making Them Sick [And] One Woman's Water Well Spontaneously Combusted.” In June 2010, Vanity Fair published an article about Dimock, PA, which has been an important center of drilling operations for Cabot Oil & Gas. From the article:

Dimock is now known as the place where, over the past two years, people's water started turning brown and making them sick, one woman's water well spontaneously combusted, and horses and pets mysteriously began to lose their hair.


Drilling operations near [Dimock couple Craig and Julie Sautner's] property commenced in August 2008.


Within a month, their water had turned brown. It was so corrosive that it scarred dishes in their dishwasher and stained their laundry. They complained to Cabot [Oil & Gas], which eventually installed a water-filtration system in the basement of their home. It seemed to solve the problem, but when the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection came to do further tests, it found that the Sautners' water still contained high levels of methane. More ad hoc pumps and filtration systems were installed.


“It was so bad sometimes that my daughter would be in the shower in the morning, and she'd have to get out of the shower and lay on the floor” because of the dizzying effect the chemicals in the water had on her, recalls Craig Sautner, who has worked as a cable splicer for Frontier Communications his whole life. She didn't speak up about it for a while, because she wondered whether she was imagining the problem. But she wasn't the only one in the family suffering. “My son had sores up and down his legs from the water,” Craig says. Craig and Julie also experienced frequent headaches and dizziness.


The Sautners now rely on water delivered to them every week by Cabot. The value of their land has been decimated. Their children no longer take showers at home. They desperately want to move but cannot afford to buy a new house on top of their current mortgage.


In Dimock, where more than 60 gas wells were drilled in a nine-square-mile area, all kinds of ugly things transpired after Cabot came to town. A truck turned over and caused an 800-gallon diesel-fuel spill in April 2009. Up to 8,000 gallons of Halliburton-manufactured fracking fluid leaked from faulty supply pipes, with some seeping into wetlands and a stream, killing fish, in September 2009. Many Dimock residents were having the same problems as the Sautners. A water well belonging to a woman named Norma Fiorentino blew up while she was visiting her daughter. [Vanity Fair, 6/21/10]

Even Natural Gas Companies Reportedly Admit Responsibility For “Rising Levels Of Contaminants” In PA

Natural Gas Companies Reportedly Admitted Industry Is “Partly Responsible For Rising Levels Of Contaminants” In PA Drinking Water. On April 19, CBS Pittsburgh reported that officials with the Marcellus Shale drilling industry admitted after reviewing research that “the natural gas exploration industry is partly responsible for rising levels of contaminants found in area drinking water.” [CBS Pittsburgh, 4/19/11]

Stossel Has A History Of Mocking Clean Energy, Global Warming And Defending Oil And Gas

Stossel Was Keynote Speaker And Fundraiser For Energy Industry Event. In April 2010, Stossel delivered the keynote speech at the Institute for Energy Research*, which received $337,000 from ExxonMobil between 2002 and 2007. Guests were encouraged to become “Platnium,” “Gold,” and “Silver” sponsors of the event, donating between $2,500 and $7,500, in exchange for a private reception with Stossel. [Media Matters, 4/1/10]

Stossel Has A History Of Attacking Clean Energy And Global Warming While Defending Oil And Gas Industries. In January 2010, Stossel said on Fox & Friends that energy independence is “silly” because buying oil is “trade” and the United States doesn't have “iPod independence.” In 2007, while he was a co-anchor of ABC's 20/20, Stossel claimed that global warming “may be a good thing.” In 2006, Stossel attacked former Vice President Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth with a stream of false claims about global warming. In 2004, Stossel used a report on novelist Michael Crichton's book State of Fear to hype Crichton's view that global warming is “just another foolish media-hyped scare.” [Media Matters, 1/21/10, 2/26/07, 6/29/06, 12/16/04]

*A previous version of this item misidentified the Institute for Energy Research as a lobbying group. IER is a “public foundation under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.”