Myths And Facts About Natural Gas

Natural gas can help the U.S. transition away from reliance on coal in the near-term if it is produced responsibly. But conservative media have dismissed the risks involved with the rapid spread of natural gas extraction to push for deregulation, attack the Obama administration, and ignore the need for a comprehensive energy policy to transition to renewable energy.

FACT: Obama Administration Has Embraced Natural Gas

MYTH: Obama Admin. Wants To Shut Down Natural Gas Development

  • Rush Limbaugh: “New natural gas discoveries are taking place in the states in spite of Barack Obama. And yet he wants to learn from none of it. He wants to extrapolate none of it. So I have to conclude that Obama wants us to fail.” [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 6/29/11]
  • MSNBC's Joe Scarborough suggested that Obama is not a “friend of natural gas” because he opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil, not gas. [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 5/17/12]
  • Robert Bradley of the Institute for Energy Research: The Obama administration “has been criticized for doing virtually everything in its power to hinder hydraulic fracturing.” [Washington Examiner, 5/7/12]

Bloomberg News: Boosting Natural Gas Is “Front And Center” For Obama. Bloomberg News reported that “natural gas is now front and center” for the Obama administration, despite skepticism among environmental groups, and that the administration has “eased off” on regulations:

While Obama put his initial emphasis as president on boosting solar panels and wind turbines, natural gas is now front and center even as skepticism about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is rising among Obama's environmental allies such as the Sierra Club.

“They're more responsive, and they're listening more closely to our views,” Jack Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute in Washington and one of the participants in that meeting, said in an interview. “The energy and economic reality is starting to sink in.”

At that April 13 meeting with trade groups representing companies including DuPont Co. (DD),Noble Energy Inc. (NBL) and Caterpillar Inc. (CAT), the Obama administration unveiled an interagency task force to coordinate the development of natural gas. And since then industry has won a series of small battles: officials downplayed reports of water pollution from fracking in Wyoming and Pennsylvania; they turned down a request by environmentalists to ban diesel in fracking; and they eased off on two gas-drilling regulations. [Bloomberg, 5/9/12]

Politico: Industry Group Said They Are Getting Along Well With The Administration. Politico reported:

The administration has fallen short of environmentalists' desires that natural gas operators have to disclose the mix of fracking chemicals everywhere -- including on privately owned lands, where much gas extraction in places such as the Marcellus Shale takes place.

Environmentalists were also unhappy to learn in recent weeks that EPA had given Wyoming leaders a month's heads-up last year before announcing findings linking fracking in Pavillion, Wyo., to groundwater contamination. The delay essentially gave the state and industry time to prepare counterattacks, The Associated Press reported.

Amy Farrell, vice president of regulatory affairs at America's Natural Gas Alliance, said the industry is getting along well with the administration. Farrell participated in some of the OMB discussions, describing the meetings as “very cordial,” and saying much of the focus is on the technical aspects of the proposals and the industry. [Politico, 5/16/12]

Industry Praised Obama Executive Order On Natural Gas. In April, Obama issued an executive order creating an inter-agency working group to coordinate actions on natural gas. The announcement was met with praise from major industry groups:

  • The American Petroleum Institute was “pleased” by the action. [API, 4/13/12]
  • The American Gas Association was “encouraged.” [AGA, 4/13/12]
  • The America's Natural Gas Alliance “appreciated” the executive order. [ANGA, 4/13/12]
  • The Natural Gas Supply Association “welcomed today's executive order, which should create an improved regulatory environment.” [NGSA, 4/13/12]

Obama Is Pushing For Natural Gas As Transportation Fuel. The Wall Street Journal reported on Obama's plan to boost the use of natural gas in trucks and buses:

President Barack Obama on Thursday announced a pair of new measures designed to advance the “all of the above” energy agenda that he laid out in Tuesday's State of the Union address, including an embrace of natural gas as a transportation fuel.


The White House plan, contingent on congressional support, would include tax credits to offset part of the cost of upgrading trucks to run on natural gas, and federal help to spur the creation of five additional natural-gas corridors on heavy trucking routes. Additionally, the Obama administration plans to double down on federal research to find new ways to use natural gas for transportation, as well as supporting the conversion of city bus and truck fleets to run on the cleaner fuel, administration officials said. [Wall Street Journal, 1/26/12]

Obama Admin. Approved Major Natural Gas Project On Federal Lands. The Wall Street Journal reported:

U.S. officials on Tuesday approved a plan by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to drill 3,700 natural-gas wells in eastern Utah, capping a yearslong review of a project that will be one of the largest in the region.

Approval for the Greater Natural Buttes project in the Uintah Basin, announced by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, comes as the Obama administration is supporting natural-gas production as a way to create jobs with a cleaner-burning fuel than coal or oil.

Once Anadarko's wells are up and running, they would be expected to produce about one billion cubic feet of natural gas a day, according to Anadarko, enough to heat or cool about 5.5 million homes. [Wall Street Journal, 5/8/12]

CFR's Levi: The “Best Hope” For Natural Gas Expansion Is Policies That “Obama Has Championed.” In an article titled “The Driller in Chief,” the Council on Foreign Relations' Michael Levi debunked claims that Obama is an enemy of the oil and gas industry. Levi noted that Obama put together an advisory panel “which included prominent shale enthusiasts,” and that climate policies favored by Obama are “the best hope for boosting gas demand”:

A spate of dumb and preventable accidents by poorly regulated shale developers would do far more to set back U.S. oil and gas development than some smart minimum standards set out at the federal level.

This White House has signaled that it prefers precisely such an approach, though precise details haven't yet been forthcoming. Undoubtedly, some in the administration would like to see a dominant role for the federal government and regulations that could hit the industry harder than is needed. So far, however, they appear to be losing. Last year, Obama had his energy secretary appoint a group of industry experts and environmental authorities to advise him on shale. The team, which included prominent shale enthusiasts like Daniel Yergin and John Deutch, produced a string of recommendations that were widely seen as constructive rather than adversarial. Fuel Fix, a news service run by the Houston Chronicle, described them as an "olive branch to industry."

The Obama administration has a particularly strong case to make when it comes to natural gas. Smart developers aren't crying because Obama has put too much gas out of reach -- they're terrified because production is so strong that collapsing prices have crushed their bottom lines. The best way out of this situation is to find new uses for natural gas. Although markets will play a critical role in this endeavor, the most powerful approach is to get government involved. For those who believe in the urgency of fighting climate change, the right step is obvious: Adopt policies that replace coal-fired power with natural gas, which would slash carbon emissions and clean up the air at the same time.

Indeed, the worst political news for the gas industry in the last few years should have been the collapse of a signature Obama initiative: cap and trade. A modest cap-and-trade program would have increased the price of coal relative to that of natural gas and encouraged utilities to switch to the cleaner-burning fuel, just as it has in Europe. The best hope for boosting gas demand going forward is some variation on that theme, be it Clean Air Act rules that favor gas over coal or a clean energy standard that creates preferences for cleaner fuels, including gas. Both are policies that Obama has championed -- and that his adversaries have opposed.[Foreign Policy Magazine, 3/1/12]

EIA: Production Of Natural Gas Is At Highest In Nearly 40 Years. Contrary to claims that the Obama administration has quashed natural gas production, EIA data show that in 2011 natural gas production was the highest on record:

Source: EIA

[EIA, 4/30/12]

FACT: Natural Gas Drilling Has Been Exempted From Key Environmental Laws

MYTH: Fracking Is Overregulated

  • Wash. Times' editorial: “Mr. Obama's call for drillers to disclose the chemicals they employ is largely superfluous because most companies already do so voluntarily.” [Washington Times, 1/30/12]
  • Fox's Monica Crowley: “Hydrofracking has been proven to be environmentally safe,” but the EPA is “going to try to kill this new-found industry.” [Fox Business, The Willis Report, 4/3/12, via Nexis]
  • Fox News contributor Michael Goodwin: “Look, there's no question that the EPA has been looking for ways to stop fracking. The problem is they can't find any evidence of the contamination in the water supply that they keep suspecting is out there.” [Fox Business, Lou Dobbs Tonight, 4/26/12, via Nexis]

Gas Industry Has Been Exempted From Several Environmental Laws. NPR reported that fracking was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act under the Bush administration, and that the gas industry overall has been exempted from several key environmental laws:

It is true that some fed­eral envi­ron­men­tal statutes do not apply to gas drilling. Some of those exemp­tions date back long before Dick Cheney became Vice Pres­i­dent in 2000. But the [“Halliburton Loop­hole”] refers to the Energy Pol­icy Act of 2005, which exempts the hydraulic frac­tur­ing process, also known as frack­ing, from fed­eral over­sight under the Safe Drink­ing Water Act of 1974. Then Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney did have a hand in get­ting the exemp­tion put into the Energy Pol­icy Act. He chaired Pres­i­dent Bush's Energy Pol­icy Task Force, which rec­om­mended frack­ing be excluded. And Cheney is a for­mer Hal­libur­ton exec­u­tive. Hal­libur­ton, by the way, began frack­ing in the 1940's to extract for oil. But the use of frack­ing, com­bined with hor­i­zon­tal drilling, has only recently been used to mine shale gas.

The loop­hole does have an excep­tion. If drilling com­pa­nies use diesel fuel to frack a well, they do have to get a fed­eral permit.

Also amended in the 2005 Energy Pol­icy Act was the Clean Water Act. Con­gress enacted the CWA back in 1972 as a way to reg­u­late dis­charges into the country's rivers and streams. The CWA was amended in 1987 to include storm water run-off. But oil and gas pro­duc­tion are exempted from those reg­u­la­tions. And in the 2005 Energy Pol­icy Act, those exemp­tions included oil and gas con­struc­tion. Envi­ron­men­tal­ists worry about run-off from well pads, pipelines and con­struc­tion sites.


The Clean Air Act, passed by Con­gress in 1970, exempts oil and gas wells from aggre­ga­tion. That means, each well site is con­sid­ered an indi­vid­ual source of pol­lu­tants, and does not take into account all of the well sites in a spe­cific area.

When it comes to the han­dling of waste water, or frack water, that too is exempt from a fed­eral statute called the Resource Con­ser­va­tion and Recov­ery Act. The RCRA tracks indus­trial wastes from “cra­dle to grave.” But when it comes to the oil and gas indus­try, as long as the waste water is on the drill site, or being trans­ported, it is not con­sid­ered haz­ardous. This also applies to drilling mud. That's why trucks car­ry­ing waste water, which con­tains high lev­els of salts, toxic chem­i­cals, as well as radioac­tive mate­r­ial, may be labeled “resid­ual waste.”

The National Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­icy Act, or NEPA, requires fed­eral agen­cies to do envi­ron­men­tal impact state­ments if major indus­trial projects would impact the envi­ron­ment. But the Energy Pol­icy Act of 2005 rel­e­gated oil and gas oper­a­tions to a less strin­gent process.

Finally, the Toxic Release Inven­tory requires indus­tries to report toxic chem­i­cals to the EPA. But the oil and gas indus­try are exempt from this reporting. [NPR, 12/5/11]

Many States Have Loopholes In Chemical Disclosure Laws Due To ALEC Model Bill. A review by InsideClimateNews found that many states do not require companies to disclose the chemical concentrations or chemical names of fracking fluid components to regulators or the public. [Inside Climate News, 2/15/12]

The New York Times reported that these loopholes were included in model legislation sponsored by ExxonMobil within ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), a conservative organization that writes model legislation adopted by states across the country:

Last December, ALEC adopted model legislation, based on a Texas law, addressing the public disclosure of chemicals in drilling fluids used to extract natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The ALEC legislation, which has since provided the basis for similar bills submitted in five states, has been promoted as a victory for consumers' right to know about potential drinking water contaminants.

A close reading of the bill, however, reveals loopholes that would allow energy companies to withhold the names of certain fluid contents, for reasons including that they have been deemed trade secrets. Most telling, perhaps, the bill was sponsored within ALEC by ExxonMobil, one of the largest practitioners of fracking -- something not explained when ALEC lawmakers introduced their bills back home. [New York Times, 4/21/12]

Lack Of Disclosure Of Fracking Chemicals Has Impeded Studies Of Water Safety. ProPublica reported:

The contamination in Sublette County is significant because it is the first to be documented by a federal agency, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. But more than 1,000 other cases of contamination have been documented by courts and state and local governments in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In one case, a house exploded after hydraulic fracturing created underground passageways and methane seeped into the residential water supply. In other cases, the contamination occurred not from actual drilling below ground, but on the surface, where accidental spills and leaky tanks, trucks and waste pits allowed benzene and other chemicals to leach into streams, springs and water wells

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of each contamination, or measure its spread across the environment accurately, because the precise nature and concentrations of the chemicals used by industry are considered trade secrets. Not even the EPA knows exactly what's in the drilling fluids. And that, EPA scientists say, makes it impossible to vouch for the safety of the drilling process or precisely track its effects. [ProPublica, 11/13/08]

EPA Failed To Stop What Some EPA Lawyers Called A “Clear Violation” Of Pollution Laws. The New York Times reported:

Agency lawyers are heatedly debating whether to intervene in Pennsylvania, where drilling for gas has increased sharply, to stop what some of those lawyers say is a clear violation of federal pollution laws: drilling waste discharged into rivers and streams with minimal treatment. The outcome of that dispute has the potential to halt the breakneck growth of drilling in Pennsylvania.

The E.P.A. has taken strong stands in some places, like Texas, where in December it overrode state regulators and intervened after a local driller was suspected of water contamination. Elsewhere, the agency has pulled its punches, as in New York.

Asked why the letter about hydrofracking in the New York City watershed had been revised, an agency scientist involved in writing it offered a one-word explanation: “politics.”


Under federal law, certain basic rules govern sewage treatment plants. At their core, these rules say two things: operators have to know what is in the waste they receive, and they have to treat this waste to make it safe before discharging it into waterways.

But in Pennsylvania, these rules are being broken, according to some E.P.A. lawyers. “Treatment plants are not allowed under federal law to process mystery liquids, regardless of what the state tells them,” explained one E.P.A. lawyer in an internal draft memo obtained by The Times. “Mystery liquids is exactly what this drilling waste is, since its ingredient toxins aren't known.” [New York Times, 3/3/11]

Bloomberg: Industry Lobbyists Recently Collected Victories Over Regulations. Bloomberg reported:

After weeks of these discussions, the White House called [American Petroleum Institute President Jack] Gerard, [American Gas Association President Dave] McCurdy, and officials from America's Natural Gas Alliance, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Chemistry Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce into the White House meeting, held just steps from the Oval Office.

Not in attendance: environmental or health groups.


Over the weeks that followed, the EPA delayed requirements that drillers capture the gas emitted when a well is first tapped until 2015, a key demand of Gerard's group. The Bureau of Land Management eased off on requirements for disclosure of chemicals used in fracking. And the EPA disregarded a plea from environmentalists to outlaw the use of diesel in fracking. [Bloomberg, 5/9/12]

Obama Administration Gave “Significant Concession” To The Industry In Disclosure Rule. From a May 4 New York Times article:

The Obama administration on Friday issued a proposed rule governing hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on public lands that will for the first time require disclosure of the chemicals used in the process.

But in a significant concession to the oil industry, companies will have to reveal the composition of fluids only after they have completed drilling -- a sharp change from the government's original proposal, which would have required disclosure of the chemicals 30 days before a well could be started.

The pullback on the rule followed a series of meetings at the White House after the original regulation was proposed in February. Lobbyists representing oil industry trade associations and individual major producers like ExxonMobil, XTO Energy, Apache, Samson Resources and Anadarko Petroleum met with officials of the Office of Management and Budget, who reworked the rule to address industry concerns about overlapping state regulations and the cost of compliance. [New York Times,5/4/12]

Right-Wing WSJ Editorial Board Praised “Restraint” Of “First-Ever Federal Fracking Rule.” The EPA recently issued a regulation to reduce emissions of smog-forming air pollution from the oil and gas industry. The Wall Street Journal editorial board praised “first-ever federal fracking rule” for showing “restraint.” [Wall Street Journal, 4/20/12]

The West Virginia State Journal reported that the industry did not oppose the rule either:

Although the industry is still evaluating the nearly 600-page rule, most agree with it, [Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella] said.

“All signs indicate that it's going to be reasonable -- we don't anticipate that it will stifle new development,” he said.


“If your concern is purely safety, it addresses that -- there should not be fires. If your concern is public health, this addresses that. If your concern is environmental, it obviously has environmental benefits,” he said. “And although any new regulation clearly has some impact, this isn't going to bring anything to a screeching halt. The final part is, this is reasonable public policy.” [The State Journal, 5/7/12]

Many States Do Not Sufficiently Regulate Well Construction And Wastewater Handling. ProPublica reported in December 2009:

A recent report by the Ground Water Protection Council, a research group that once had energy executives on its board but now consists mainly of state regulators, revealed that only four of the 31 drilling states it surveyed have regulations that directly address hydraulic fracturing and that no state requires companies to track the volume of chemicals left underground. One in five states don't require that the concrete casing used to contain wells be tested before hydraulic fracturing. And more than half the states allow waste pits that hold toxic fluids from fracturing to intersect with the water table, even though waste pits have been connected to hundreds of cases of water contamination.


ProPublica's recent analysis of 22 states that account for the vast majority of the country's drilling found that regulatory staffing has not kept up with the drilling boom, meaning that the nation's ability to enforce rules that provide environmental safeguards is systematically weakening. [ProPublica, 12/31/09]

FACT: Natural Gas Extraction Has Contaminated Water

MYTH: Fracking Poses No Risk To Water Supplies

  • Rush Limbaugh said “the left believes that fracking contaminates groundwater. There's no evidence. They looked at it for two years. There's no evidence whatsoever that fracking contaminates groundwater.” [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 4/26/12]
  • Energy In Depth's Lee Fuller claimed that “a broad chorus of science-based information continues to come in about fracturing's long and clear record of environmental safety” and concerns about water contamination are “baseless.” [Washington Examiner, 8/4/11]
  • Fox's John Stossel: Methane in water “has nothing to do with fracking.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 5/12/11]

Poorly Constructed Wells Have Contaminated Water

Energy Companies Acknowledge That Poorly Constructed Wells Have Contaminated Water. Industry officials contend that fracking per se has not contaminated water because fracking -- the process of injecting water, chemicals and sand at a high pressure to fracture shale rocks and release natural gas -- typically occurs far below aquifers. But conservative media and industry often claim that fracking has never contaminated water, without clarifying that bad well construction during drilling prior to fracking and other industry failures during the suite of activities associated with fracking have contaminated water. The Wall Street Journal reported that even industry officials acknowledge that shale gas extraction has contaminated water supplies:

Some energy companies, state regulators, academics and environmentalists are reaching consensus that natural-gas drilling has led to several incidents of water pollution--but not because of fracking.

The energy officials and some environmentalists agree that poorly built wells are to blame for some cases of water contamination. In those cases, they say, wells weren't properly sealed with subterranean cement, which allowed contaminants to travel up the well bore from deep underground into shallow aquifers that provide drinking water.


One of the largest documented instances of water contamination occurred in Bradford County, Pa.--after wells had been drilled but before any fracking took place. Chesapeake Energy Corp., the nation's second largest natural-gas company, has conceded that poor well construction may have played a role in high levels of natural gas found in local aquifers, according to letters to state regulators.

A state investigation concluded Chesapeake failed to cement its wells adequately, allowing gas to leak from pipes into the groundwater. [Wall Street Journal, 3/25/12]

Duke Study Found Methane Linked To Gas Drilling Had Contaminated Water. The Christian Science Monitor reported:

Methane levels were 17 times higher in ground water near areas where shale-gas “fracking” wells had been drilled in Pennsylvania, compared with areas where no gas drilling had occurred, a new study has found.

Duke University researchers analyzed methane gas in 68 private ground-water wells across five counties in Pennsylvania and New York. The study cited “evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale-gas extraction.”


The peer-reviewed study, which is being published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is one of the first to conclude that hydraulic fracturing is polluting ground water. And it's likely to be used as ammunition in court by those opposing drilling in sensitive watersheds.

The hydraulic fracturing approach has dramatically increased available US reserves of natural gas by unlocking gas that was previously trapped in shale formations from the mid-Atlantic to Texas to Colorado. But environmentalists and local residents have long claimed that fracking pollutes ground water with methane as well as with chemicals in the injection fluids.

The Duke researchers said that the presence of methane likely was due to its escape from faulty drill casings.

While the study found high methane levels, it did not find any evidence that the chemicals injected at deep levels to fracture the shale had moved upward to pollute relatively shallow ground water. [Christian Science Monitor, 5/9/11]

Poorly Handled Wastewater Can Contaminate Water Supplies

Radioactive Wastewater Is Discharged Into Rivers That Supply Drinking Water. The New York Times reported:

The [internal EPA] 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.

That has experts worried. [New York Times, 2/26/11]

Industry Admitted It Contaminated Drinking Water In PA. CBS' local station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania reported:

The president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents natural gas companies, said the group now believes the natural gas exploration industry is partly responsible for rising levels of contaminants found in area drinking water.

The group came to the conclusion after reviewing research from Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

One of the major factors that led to the conclusion was the discovery of bromide in the water. It's a salt that is also found in drilling wastewater.

Now, the DEP is calling on Marcellus Shale drillers to stop taking wastewater to 15 treatment plants in the state. [CBS Pittsburgh, 4/19/11]

Industry Has Fought Efforts To Safely Dispose Of Wastewater. ProPublica reported:

One of the most challenging environmental problems associated with drilling is disposing of its wastewater, which is typically laced with heavy metals, chemicals and hydrocarbons. Usually the waste is collected in open, dirt-brimmed waste pits where it sits until it's hauled off to treatment facilities or injection wells. In the meantime, the fluids can evaporate or seep into the earth, or overflow if rain or snow overfills the pit.

A 1992 congressional report found that one of “the greatest opportunities” to prevent this type of pollution is something called a closed loop system, a series of pipes that gathers the waste as it comes out of a gas well, separates some of the water for reuse, and confines the concentrated leftovers in a steel tank.


Yet the industry continues to fight laws that would lead to increased use of closed loop systems. [ProPublica, 12/14/09]

Fracking Itself Likely Contaminated Water In Wyoming

EPA Study: Chemicals Likely From Fracking Contaminated Wyoming Town's Water. The Associated Press reported:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday for the first time that fracking -- a controversial method of improving the productivity of oil and gas wells -- may be to blame for causing groundwater pollution.


The EPA's found that compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath Pavillion, a small community in central Wyoming where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals. Health officials last year advised them not to drink their water after the EPA found low levels hydrocarbons in their wells.

The EPA announcement could add to the controversy over fracking, which has played a large role in opening up many gas reserves, including the Marcellus Shale in the eastern U.S. in recent years.

The industry has long contended that fracking is safe, but environmentalists and some residents who live near drilling sites say it has poisoned groundwater.

The EPA said its announcement is the first step in a process of opening up its findings for review by the public and other scientists.

“EPA's highest priority remains ensuring that Pavillion residents have access to safe drinking water,” said Jim Martin, EPA regional administrator in Denver. “We look forward to having these findings in the draft report informed by a transparent and public review process.”

The EPA also emphasized that the findings are specific to the Pavillion area. The agency said the fracking that occurred in Pavillion differed from fracking methods used elsewhere in regions with different geological characteristics.

The fracking occurred below the level of the drinking water aquifer and close to water wells, the EPA said. Elsewhere, drilling is more remote and fracking occurs much deeper than the level of groundwater that would normally be used. [AP, 12/8/11, via USA Today]

FACT: Current Fracking Practice Is New And Rapidly Expanding

MYTH: Fracking Has Been Used Without Incident For Over 60 Years

  • Some mainstream media outlets have uncritically repeated variants of the claim that “fracking has been used safely for more than 60 years.” [New York Times, 5/6/11] [AP, 12/15/11, via USA Today] [Tulsa World, 1/12/12] [Chicago Tribune, 4/29/12, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch]
  • Robert Bryce wrote in an op-ed at the Wall Street Journal that “Although hydraulic fracturing has been used more than one million times in the U.S. over the past 60 years, environmental activists are hoping to ban the process or have it regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.” [Wall Street Journal, 6/13/11]
  • Thomas Stewart, in an op-ed at The Columbus Dispatch, said: “there is absolutely nothing new about either of these technical processes -- more than 1 million wells in the U.S. have been safely stimulated using hydraulic fracturing in the past 60 years.” [The Columbus Dispatch, 10/7/11]
  • Fox's Tobin Smith: “The small group of environmental activists tells the impressionable administration that even though we have done one million of them all over the United States for 60 years that somehow we will contaminate our drinking water. When you talk to any geologist they tell you they are separated by him permeable rock for up to two miles, sometimes bigger.” [Fox Business, America's Nightly Scoreboard, 6/15/11, via Nexis]

Panel: Current Fracking Practice “Has Only Been Done For Something Less Than A Decade.” A panel commissioned by President Obama and headed by John Deutch, an MIT professor who serves on the board at natural gas company Cheniere Energy Inc., stated: “Advocates state that fracturing has been performed safety without significant incident for over 60 years, although modern shale gas fracturing of two mile long laterals has only been done for something less than a decade.” [Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, 8/11/11] [Wall Street Journal, 8/11/11]

Even Fracking Proponents Acknowledge That Current Fracking Is Different In Technique And Scale. In a flawed editorial downplaying the risks of fracking, even the Wall Street Journal editorial board acknowledged that current fracking practice is different both in technique and scale than prior hydraulic fracturing:

The U.S. is in the midst of an energy revolution, and we don't mean solar panels or wind turbines. A new gusher of natural gas from shale has the potential to transform U.S. energy production--that is, unless politicians, greens and the industry mess it up.

Only a decade ago Texas oil engineers hit upon the idea of combining two established technologies to release natural gas trapped in shale formations. Horizontal drilling--in which wells turn sideways after a certain depth--opens up big new production areas. Producers then use a 60-year-old technique called hydraulic fracturing--in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into the well at high pressure--to loosen the shale and release gas (and increasingly, oil). [Wall Street Journal, 6/25/11] [Media Matters, 6/28/11]

Fracking Fluid Contaminated Well In 1987. The New York Times reported:

“There have been over a million wells hydraulically fractured in the history of the industry, and there is not one, not one, reported case of a freshwater aquifer having ever been contaminated from hydraulic fracturing. Not one,” Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, said last year at a Congressional hearing on drilling.

It is a refrain that not only drilling proponents, but also state and federal lawmakers, even past and present Environmental Protection Agency directors, have repeated often.

But there is in fact a documented case, and the E.P.A. report that discussed it suggests there may be more.


The report is not recent -- it was published in 1987, and the contamination was discovered in 1984. Drilling technology and safeguards in well design have improved significantly since then. Nevertheless, the report does contradict what has emerged as a kind of mantra in the industry and in the government.

The report concluded that hydraulic fracturing fluids or gel used by the Kaiser Exploration and Mining Company contaminated a well roughly 600 feet away on the property of James Parsons in Jackson County, W.Va., referring to it as “Mr. Parson's water well.”


Dan Derkics, a 17-year veteran of the environmental agency who oversaw research for the report, said that hundreds of other cases of drinking water contamination were found, many of which looked from preliminary investigations to have been caused by hydraulic fracturing like the one from West Virginia. But they were unable to learn more about them. [New York Times, 8/3/11]

FACT: Renewables Are Needed To Sufficiently Reduce Carbon Emissions

MYTH: Natural Gas Explosion Solves Our Energy Problem, Makes Renewables Irrelevant

  • The Heartland Institute's James Taylor used natural gas production to claim that “There is no need for federal or state restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions.” [Forbes, 1/25/12]
  • CFACT's Paul Driessen wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Times: “cheap natural gas also makes it much harder to justify building redundant wind turbines and solar panels [...] Fracking could help provide a far more secure, affordable, dependable and clean future than ever would be possible with wind or solar power.” [The Washington Times, 3/23/12]
  • Fox's Eric Bolling said “we should make natural gas our clean fuel of the future.” [Fox News, America's Newsroom, 5/7/12]

Environmental Groups Recognize That Natural Gas Is More Environmentally-Friendly Than Coal. Several environmental groups have recognized that natural gas has lower carbon emissions than coal, as well as lower emissions of several other air pollutants that threaten human health. The president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Frances Beinecke, wrote in July 2011 that “Natural gas clearly has a role to play in our energy future--especially if it is used to replace dirty coal power," while noting that safeguards must be put in place first. [NRDC, 7/11/11]

Similarly, the Environmental Defense Fund's statement on natural gas policy states:

Natural gas is an important and growing part of our nation's energy portfolio. It emits less greenhouse gases than coal when combusted and avoids mercury and other dangerous air pollutants that come from coal. It could be a win-win if -- and this is a big if -- we do it the right way. [EDF, accessed 5/14/12]

The following chart created by John Nelson with data from OECD/NEA shows that electricity generated from gas has significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than electricity generated from coal. However, renewable and nuclear energy have significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gas:

[Washington Post, 2/22/10]

But If Natural Gas Expansion Comes At The Expense Of Renewables, The Climate Is Imperiled. The Guardian reported:

Natural gas is not the “panacea” to solve climate change that fossil fuel industry lobbyists have been claiming, according to new research from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Gas is likely to make up about one-quarter of the world's energy supply by 2035, according to the study, but that would lead the world to a 3.5C temperature rise. At such a level, global warming could run out of control, deserts would take over in southern Africa, Australia and the western US, and sea level rises could engulf small island states.

Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA, told a press conference in London: “While natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, it is still a fossil fuel. Its increased use could muscle out low-carbon fuels such as renewables and nuclear, particularly in the wake of Fukushima. An expansion of gas use alone is no panacea for climate change.”

Governments are likely to come under pressure to reduce support for low-carbon energy and opt for gas instead, as oil and gas companies have been urging, in a move that could imperil the fight against climate change, the IEA warned. [The Guardian, 6/6/11]

Report: Without Climate Policy In Place, “More Abundant Natural Gas Does Not Reduce CO2 Emissions.” From an issue brief prepared by Resources for the Future and the National Energy Policy Institute:

We find that more abundant natural gas supplies result in greater natural gas use in most sectors of the economy. More importantly, we find that with appropriate carbon policies in place -- such as a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax -- natural gas can play a role as a bridge fuel to a low-carbon future. Having low-carbon policies in place is crucial. Without such policies, more abundant natural gas does not reduce CO2 emissions. Although greater natural gas resources reduce the price of natural gas and displace the use of coal and oil, they also boost overall energy consumption and reduce the use of nuclear and renewable energy sources for electric power generation. As a result, projected CO2 emissions are almost one percent higher.

With a carbon cap-and trade system in place, however, we find that greater natural gas supplies contribute to achieving carbon-reduction goals. With more abundant natural gas, the use of natural gas in electricity generation increases significantly and overall natural gas consumption remains robust, which lessens slightly the burden on other measures to reduce CO2 emissions. In addition, the price of CO2 allowances falls slightly, which lessens the economic cost of reducing CO2 emissions. Thus, it is this ability to lower the costs of climate policy that makes natural gas an attractive bridge fuel to a low-carbon future. [Resources for the Future and National Energy Policy Institute, December 2009, emphasis added]

CFR's Levi: We Need To Support Zero Carbon Sources “Even If The Market Currently Prefers Natural Gas.” From a post by Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Low natural gas prices are apparently deterring deployment of renewable and nuclear energy, and hence learning and innovation in those sectors. This is a problem regardless of whether gas is scarce or abundant, since reasonably ambitious climate policies will require sequestration of carbon dioxide (including from gas use) or a strong shift to renewable and nuclear power within a couple decades or so. But it is an even bigger problem if natural gas supplies turn out to underwhelm, since in that case, the need to shift to zero-carbon sources would become even more pressing and sudden. This simply reinforces the case for ensuring that prudent deployment of and innovation in zero carbon energy receives solid public support even if the market currently prefers natural gas. [Council on Foreign Relations, 2/7/12]

MIT Study: Natural Gas Development Should Not Stop “Investment In ... Renewables.” A recent MIT study stated that “Natural gas can make an important contribution to GHG [greenhouse gas] reduction in coming decades, but investment in low-emission technologies, such as nuclear, CCS [carbon capture and storage], and renewables, should be actively pursued to ensure that a mitigation regime can be sustained in the longer term.” The report further recommended that support for these technologies should be provided through “RD&D and targeted subsidies of limited duration.” [MIT Energy Initiative, 2011]