Wall Street Journal Spins Fracking Study To Downplay Risks

A Wall Street Journal editorial obscured the fact that a Duke University study strongly suggested methane from a natural gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, contaminated water supplies.

WSJ Dismisses Duke University Findings On Methane Contamination

WSJ Suggested There Is No Evidence The High Methane Concentration Was From Fracking Operations. The editorial said of the Duke study: “They had no baseline data and thus no way of knowing if methane concentrations were high prior to drilling”:

A second charge, based on a Duke University study, claims that fracking has polluted drinking water with methane gas. Methane is naturally occurring and isn't by itself harmful in drinking water, though it can explode at high concentrations. Duke authors Rob Jackson and Avner Vengosh have written that their research shows “the average methane concentration to be 17 times higher in water wells located within a kilometer of active drilling sites.”

They failed to note that researchers sampled a mere 68 wells across Pennsylvania and New York--where more than 20,000 water wells are drilled annually. They had no baseline data and thus no way of knowing if methane concentrations were high prior to drilling. They also acknowledged that methane was detected in 85% of the wells they tested, regardless of drilling operations, and that they'd found no trace of fracking fluids in any wells. [Wall Street Journal, 6/25/11]

In Fact, Duke Geochemical Analysis Strongly Suggested The Wells Are Source Of Water Contamination. The Journal editorial failed to mention that “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,” as reported by ProPublica:

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.


To determine where the methane in the wells they tested came from, the researchers ran it through a molecular fingerprinting process called an isotopic analysis. Water samples furthest from gas drilling showed traces of biogenic methane--a type of methane that can naturally appear in water from biological decay. But samples taken closer to drilling had high concentrations of thermogenic methane, which comes from the same hydrocarbon layers where gas drilling is targeted. That--plus the proximity to the gas wells--told the researchers that the contamination was linked to the drilling processes.

In addition to the methane, other types of gases were also detected, providing further evidence that the gas originated with the hydrocarbon deposits miles beneath the earth and that it was unique to the active gas drilling areas. Ethane, another component of natural gas, and other hydrocarbons were detected in 81 percent of water wells near active gas drilling but in only 9 percent of water wells further away. Propane and butane were also detected in some drilling area wells.[ProPublica, 5/9/11]

  • Duke Study: Composition Of Methane Near Active Wells Is Consistent With Deep Methane Sources. From the study itself:

These δ13C-CH4 data, coupled with the ratios of methane-to-higher-chain hydrocarbons, and δ2H-CH4 values, are consistent with deeper thermogenic methane sources such as the Marcellus and Utica shales at the active sites and matched gas geochemistry from gas wells nearby. In contrast, lower-concentration samples from shallow groundwater at nonactive sites had isotopic signatures reflecting a more biogenic or mixed biogenic/ thermogenic methane source.


Overall, the combined gas and formation-water results indicate that thermogenic gas from thermally mature organic matter of Middle Devonian and older depositional ages is the most likely source of the high methane concentrations observed in the shallow water wells from active extraction sites. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 4/14/11]

WSJ Falsely Suggested Duke Researchers Concealed Sample Size. Contrary to the Journal's claim that Duke authors Rob Jackson and Avner Vengosh “failed to note” that they “sampled a mere 68 wells,” the op-ed from which the Journal quotes clearly states, “Our team examined 68 private groundwater wells in Pennsylvania and New York”:

Our team examined 68 private groundwater wells in Pennsylvania and New York. We found the average methane concentration to be 17 times higher in water wells located within a kilometer of active drilling sites. Some concentrations were dangerously high. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/10/11]

WSJ Fudges Facts On Fracking Exemption

WSJ Attempted To Rebut Fact That Fracking Was "'Exempted' In 2005 From The Federal Safe Water Drinking Act." From the editorial:

Environmentalists claim fracking was “exempted” in 2005 from the federal Safe Water Drinking Act [sic], thanks to industry lobbying. In truth, all U.S. companies must abide by federal water laws, and what the greens are really saying is that fracking should be singled out for special and unprecedented EPA oversight. [Wall Street Journal, 6/25/11]

Greenwire: 2005 Law “Specifically Excluded Fracturing.” From a February 24 Greenwire report:

Industry has contended that the bill does not “exempt” hydraulic fracturing from the law, because EPA had not previously regulated fracturing under SDWA (Safe Drinking Water Act). But the 2005 bill specifically excluded fracturing stating that the regulation “excludes ... underground injection of fluids ... pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations.”

Also, EPA complied with a 1997 appeals court order instructing it to require that Alabama regulate fracturing under SDWA. The 2005 legislation ended that requirement for EPA and prevented the precedent from being used elsewhere. However, outside Alabama, EPA had imposed no restrictions on fracturing under SDWA before the exemption in the 2005 bill.

The energy bill, called the Energy Policy Act of 2005, originated from a 2001 White House energy plan, developed by a task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who headed Halliburton at the time of the Alabama ruling. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2004 that Cheney's office was involved in discussions about how fracturing should be portrayed in the 2001 report and that it resisted EPA's attempts to include concerns about its effects on the environment. [Greenwire, 2/24/11]

  • 2005 Law: Term “Underground Injection” Excludes Fluids “Pursuant To Hydraulic Fracturing Operations.” From the 2005 Energy Policy Act:

Paragraph (1) of section 1421(d) of the Safe Drinking Water Act (42 U.S.C. 300h(d)) is amended to read as follows:

``(1) Underground injection.--The term `underground injection'--

``(A) means the subsurface emplacement of fluids by well injection; and

``(B) excludes--

``(i) the underground injection of natural gas for purposes of storage; and

``(ii) the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.'' [Energy Policy Act of 2005, Section 322]

Bush EPA Official Said The Exemption Should Be Reexamined. From a May 20 Greenwire report:

The U.S. EPA official who oversaw the George W. Bush administration's 2004 study of hydraulic fracturing says its conclusions about safety have been exaggerated for years.

The study found that in certain circumstances, fracturing presented “little or no threat” to drinking water. But Ben Grumbles, who ran EPA's Office of Water, says the study didn't deem all “fracking” to be safe, and it didn't justify exempting all forms of it from drinking water protections.

“EPA, however never intended for the report to be interpreted as a perpetual clean bill of health for fracking or to justify a broad statutory exemption from any future regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” Grumbles wrote in an article (pdf) this week for the nonprofit he now runs, the Clean Water America Alliance.

The former assistant EPA administrator also says that after five years and a nationwide surge in drilling, it might be time to take another look at the exemption, which was included in a 2005 energy bill.

“A lot has happened since 2005 and, in my view, it makes sense to review the Safe Drinking Water Act landscape as well as the relevance of Clean Water Act programs,” he said. [Greenwire, 5/20/11]