Hate mail: Scott Tong responds to listener letters

A miniature mailbox sits on the counter of the Ewell Post Office on August 22, 2011 in Ewell, Smith Island, Md.

It seemed like such a good idea at the time: peruse listener comments and reactions to our fracking coverage, and respond. The benefits are obvious: Engage listeners. Lure web eyeballs. Pull back the Marketplace curtain, bring 'em into the kitchen. Learn what self-selected listeners think about an important issue.

The thing is, after this exercise, all I come away with is one image, from 10th grade psychology class. Remember this double image?

 

What do you see: an old hag, or a young lady? Every time I look, I see the young women looking off to the left. Then I blink, look away, refocus, and maybe I recognize that old woman looking down at her sizeable nose. We see what we see, the same way many see fracking. The Church of Always and the Church of Never look at the same exact thing, and see something entirely different. Not that anyone's surprised. That's how theology works.

COMMENT: YOUR EXPERT IS NO EXPERT

Steve Everley at Energy in Depth, representing gas drilling companies, frowned upon our coverage of fracking and dead cows. In a blogpost mentioning a real-life case of cows and spilled frac fluids in Louisiana, I linked to a Cornell study mentioning the incident. The study authors are Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald. Everley writes in an email (cited with permission):

In response to the claim that shale development is killing cows, you write that it is “true” based primarily on the Bamberger/Oswald study from Cornell. I noticed that you did link to our rebuttal, but I think it’s worth noting that this isn’t just industry responding to it. The response itself is built off what credible experts said about the study, none more prominent than Dr. Ian Rae with the U.N. Chemicals Technical Options Committee. Rae said it was “an advocacy piece”   and “does not qualify as a scientific paper,” adding that the authors of the Cornell study “cannot be regarded as experts” in this subject they’re discussing.

Response: Attacking the expert, as we all know, is the Phillips-head screwdriver in the rhetorical toolbox. It’s used all the time. Often, whack-a-source works. Often it’s legitimate.

Bamberger and Oswald’s study references a fracking case in the public record, a documented incident. It happened. So the author’s qualifications under attack by EID are a bit of a sideshow. But let's go there anyway. The Bamberger/Oswald article is peer-reviewed, which according to the University of Texas Library means:

Peer Review is a process that journals use to ensure the articles they publish represent the best scholarship currently available. When an article is submitted to a peer reviewed journal, the editors send it out to other scholars in the same field (the author's peers) to get their opinion on the quality of the scholarship, its relevance to the field, its appropriateness for the journal, etc.

I reached out to the authors. Here is Robert Oswald’s response:

A peer reviewed paper is a paper that is sent to, in this case, a scientific journal. The journal then sends the paper out to two or three experts in the field (in our case three experts). They write detailed anonymous critiques of the paper and the paper is then sent back to the author. The reviewers can recommend that the paper be published without changes, that the paper be modified according to their suggestions, or rejected. In our case, three expert reviewers wrote detailed critiques and we modified the paper to address their concerns. The paper was then sent back to the reviewers for final approval.

And Oswald’s response to his critic, Dr. Rae:

Case studies have always been considered scientific papers rather than advocacy pieces, unless of course one considers case studies of a disease as advocating against the disease under study. He also notes that the study keeps the identity of the subjects confidential and mistakenly suggests that the lack of this information suggests that the refereeing process evidently was not very stringent. As Dr. Rae is clearly not an expert in medical research, he may not have known that this is common practice in the medical literature and that his point has no relevance to the high standards of peer review to which the paper was subjected. Dr. Rae does note that we are not experts in environmental science, which is absolutely true. Of course, the paper is not about environmental science but rather an analysis of veterinary cases, which we do know a bit more about. But of course, Dr. Raes critique has nothing to do with the main point to which the good people at Energy in Depth were responding. They were responding to the case in Louisiana. As it turns out, this case is very well documented and the references to the incident are included in our paper.
 

One observation about industry spokespersons: EID's Everley notes a particular point is not their representation of reality; it's actual reality. I hear this all the time. Coordinated messaging campaign?

COMMENT: THAT FAUCET ON FIRE IS BOGUS, DUH

Here’s another missive from Steve Everley at EID, about a famous scene in the anti-fracking documentary Gasland: Water from a Colorado homeowner's faucet + cigarette lighter = very big flames. Everley writes:

Regarding the “tap water catching fire” in Gasland, you write that such a claim is “disputed” and that the industry has criticized it. Again, really appreciate you highlighting our response, but before we ever really gained much traction in a response, Colorado regulators  had already investigated the “flaming faucet” in Gasland and determined that it was “not related to oil and gas activity.” 

Response: Here we go, water on fire. A common refrain among drilling proponents is that flammable methane found in drinking water occurs naturally. It was there before the drillers came. Indeed, Colorado regulators found two of the three Weld County, Colo., homeowners profiled in Gasland indeed experienced water-on-fire problems unrelated to drilling, including the guy on film. So far, so good.

However. Behind Gasland door number 3 is Colorado homeowner Aimee Ellsworth. From the same exact report the industry group EID cited:

We concluded that Aimee Ellsworth’s well contained a mixture of biogenic and thermogenic methane that was in part attributable to oil and gas development.
Amy Mall at the Natural Resources Defense Council points out regulators have uncovered other cases of non-naturally occuring flammable H2O. She cites this case and this one from Colorado, plus incidents in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

So, if we took all the documented cases and added them up, would that make for a scary risk? A trivial one? Looping back to the young lady/old hag painting, it likely depends on how you see fracking in the first place.

COMMENT:  ON FRAC FLUIDS POLLUTING WATER, "NOT YET" DOES NOT MEAN NO.

Web commentator Michaelmarketplace writes:

Scott, you asked, "Has frac fluid ever entered groundwater? No, said just-departed EPA head Lisa Jackson in April 2012." You then back this statement with a quote from Administrator Jackson: “In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” Saying that “In no case have we made a *definitive* determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater” is not to say that EPA has determined that frac fluid has not ever entered groundwater: it is only to say that it has not (yet?) drawn such a link definitively. In fact, EPA has an ongoing scientific study of the matter, and the results will not be known until 2014:
http://www.epa.gov/hfstudy/ http://1.usa.gov/XGfIzB

Response: Fair enough. We’ll make that change online.

COMMENT: YOU'RE BEING PAID OFF, I’M ONTO YOU

In my on-air review of Promised Land, I said: “But in many parts, industry has fracked without incident for decades." The line has listener Max Obuszewski steamed. He writes:

What is the basis for such a statement? What study has Tong examined? This report was so bad, American Public Media needs to ascertain whether or not Scott Tong has any kind of financial interest in fracking or "good old boy" corruption network interest in pushing disinformation upon the audience.

Response: Deep breath. I'm not sure Mr. Obuszewski actually seeks an answer on the financial interest issue, but here's mine. No industry links I know of, and I'll go so far as to check the kids' college funds in that regard. We on the editorial side are walled off from the corporate underwriting folks but I'll ask them, too. And, upon thinking about it, I can tell you I snagged a turkey sandwich from the American Petroleum Institute speech last month. So you got me.

As far as “the basis for the statement” on fracking incidents, i.e. Show Your Work, here's a bit of the editorial long division.

First off, fracking goes back at least to 1947.

And, by the Energy Department’s tally,  more than half a million Americans gas wells are producing, as of 2011.

In a separate study, MIT researchers counted 42 incidents of something going wrong, out of tens of thousands of wells drilled. Here’s visiting engineering professor Anthony Meggs, from the study press release:

Meggs said that in the small number of cases where there has been contamination, the problem has stemmed from improper cementing of the well casings. “The quality of that cementing is the area where the industry, frankly, has to do a better job,” he noted. But even so, he said, the study found only 42 documented incidents of such problems, out of tens of thousands of wells drilled. “It is not trivial,” he said, “but neither is it all-encompassing.”

At this point, let’s make one thing clear: the process of extracting unconventional gas or oil involves several stages and several verbs: drilling, casing, cementing, trucking, perfing, fracking, flowback(ing?), disposing. The MIT study examined the whole, multi-stage process.

If we isolate just the hydraulic fracturing stage, that is we define "fracking" narrowly, state oil and gas regulators put it this way:

There have been no documented cases of drinking water contamination that have resulted from hydraulic fracturing operations to stimulate oil and gas wells in the State of Alabama.
 There have been no verified cases of harm to ground water in the State of Alaska as a result of hydraulic fracturing.
To the knowledge of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission staff, there has been no verified instance of harm to groundwater caused by hydraulic fracturing in Colorado.
There have been no instances where the Division of Oil and Gas has verified that harm to groundwater has ever been found to be the result of hydraulic fracturing in Indiana.
In Kentucky, there have been alleged contaminations from citizen complaints but nothing that can be substantiated, in every case the well had surface casing cemented to surface and production casing cemented.

In that report you’ll find similarly worded statements from Louisiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming regulators.

Again, this is the fracking safety record, narrowly defined. To no one's surprise, drilling proponents trot out these statements -- knowing the information asymmetry they have over the public and reporters -- giving the impression the whole process is bulletproof. It’s a bit like saying the Washington Nationals have won the 7th inning of every game. It may be true. It may be relevant. But – sadly for Nats fans who recall a certain late-inning disaster from last fall – it’s just one stage of the process.

And finally, a word from the Department of Energy’s shale gas advisory board:

The Subcommittee shares the prevailing view that the risk of fracturing fluid leakage into drinking water sources through fractures made in deep shale reservoirs is remote.

Does this make the practice perfect? By no means. Are regulators considering updated rules for an updated technology? You bet. Is the EPA conducting a very thorough study of this? Uh-huh. Does Marketplace report on suspected frac fluid water pollution, quakes in frac zones, controversial fossil-fuel subsidies that speed up the return on drilling investment, fossil fuels and climate emissions, fears about the resource-curse? Yeah. Does the industry represent itself well in the public square? You make the call. The point is to put the relative risk of an industrial sector into some perspective.

COMMENT: YOU LEFT OUT THE INSIDIOUS OPEC INFLUENCE. HOW CONVENIENT

In a web comment, mlgore notes our coverage of the fracking film Promised Land starring Matt Damon left out a key point about one of the movie's financial partners:

Mr. Tong has done a disservice to this article and it's readers by failing to include the fact that Mr. Damon's new film was partially financed by Image Nation Abu Dhabi. And by the way, Image is wholly owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, a MAJOR oil producing OPEC member. So no matter what side of the fracking fence one's politics resides, a political film that attempts to discourage gas exploration, funded by OPEC, seems a tad bit ironic to me ... But that's just considering the facts

Response: The narrative of OPEC protecting its turf is a compelling one; Middle Eastern oil money up to no good. When news of Abu Dhabi money first broke, conservative political websites made hay,  perhaps to undercut the film at the box office. They didn't need to. It bombed on its own.

The problem with 3-4 minute public radio stories is, we have to leave a lot of information out. It's painful making cuts. In this case, though, it was not. In reporting the story, I ran the Image Nation Abu Dhabi question by Dubai-based energy analyst Robin Mills. He deemed it a non-issue. From his email:

I think this controversy overstates the degree of coordination between the different branches of government and state companies in the Gulf. Of course the national oil companies do the bidding of the state, but that doesn't mean that all parts of the government operate to some kind of master plan. The movie was always going to get made anyway, with a big name such as Matt Damon and a controversial topic. Abu Dhabi has used hydraulic fracturing recently in one of its own shale prospects. The UAE is a net importer of gas - not exporter - so it actually benefits from increased shale gas production around the world. And it has invested billions of dollars in its clean energy unit Masdar - solar, wind and so on - hardly the action of a state trying to keep the world hooked on hydrocarbons.

For more OPEC mythology, feel free to click our story here.

COMMENT: UM, WHERE’S YOUR BRAIN?

Ace Frahm shared this comment on our website:

If I knew nothing else about this situation, I could not help but notice this story seems to follow the common patterns of corrupted journalist seen today:
1. Lobbyist front group makes false claims to press.
2. "Journalist" asks no questions, challenges nothing, writes down claims as though he is just a stenographer.
3. "Journalist" presents industry's false claims as "fact" to large audience by repeating them without doing any research that could have disproven false claims.

Response: Given the charges, allow me to make three points:

1. Meow. Thanks for your comment.

2. As far as this "journalist" not doing research, Ace Frahm's mind clearly appears made up. Other listeners may choose to refer to the research citations in the above answer. As well as this and this and this and this and this and this.

3. Ace Frahm’s description of “false claims” by industry returns me to the old hag/young lady painting. Seeing isn't believing, believing is seeing. The disconnect here is, the scale and pace of fracking is outpacing the experts -- geologists, seismologists, hydrologists, regulators, financial analysts, economists and corporations -- and their ability to measure and monitor it, yet a number of our listeners on both sides have somehow figured out what's true and false.

We all know what's going on here. Think about your own reaction to: Israel, abortion, tax cuts, evolution, the New York Yankees. How many facts and figures will change your mind and mine? Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein offers a few fancy words to articulate some of this. First: "biased assimilation."

If the statement is in agreement with the individual’s bias, the individual finds validation and holds the belief even more strongly. If the statement disagrees with what he or she already believes to be true, studies have shown that generally the person will not change opinions, but rather will still find validation in his or her own belief, rejecting the statement as questionable for one rationalization or another.

Next up: I'll take "group polarization" for $200, Alex:

Corroboration: Most people start out tentative about facts, simply because they lack information. After affirmation from others, however, they become more confident.
    Exchange of information: In any group with an antecedent position, most evidence will tend to support that position.

 

    Concern for reputation: People want to be held in esteem, and thus don’t want to be seen as more skeptical than the rest of the group. So, they adopt the strength of conviction of their peers

Trust me, the Nationals are making it to the World Series. And, for good measure, Sunstein describes "informational cascades":

“Early adopters” can have an undue influence over the public’s general acceptance or rejection of a statement of fact. He described a recent experiment in which nine different websites offered free downloads of songs by unknown bands. On eight of the nine websites, however, users were able to see the download preferences of the “previous users” in the worlds created those who were running the test. Overwhelmingly, usage patterns of the users aligned with the preferences of the previous users, and indeed, the users’ musical tastes were overwhelmingly shaped by the opinions with which they happened to be presented.

COMMENT: FRAC FLUIDS ARE SO NOT SECRET

In response to our animated schematic on fracking works, Matt Pitzarella of the gas-drilling firm Range Resources took exception to my description of frac fluids as “secret.” He writes:

I’m curious, if the cocktail is “secret” as your video says, what should we make of state regulations in Texas, Ohio, Colorado, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that require full disclosure on a per well basis? That of course is on top of the Federal Worker’s Right to Know Act and the Community Right to Know Act, which also require disclosure. There’s also FracFocus.org which was set up by the Groundwater Protection Council and was developed in partnership with the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, which is ran by state environmental regulators with involvement from the US DOE and EPA.

Response: Pitzarella has point, kind of. Yes, there are several levels of frac fluid disclosure on the books. I will change the wording of our animation to reflect that.

Having said that, the details do matter when having nothing to hide involves hiding. There are exemptions to disclosure, on grounds of corporate trade secrets. One ongoing legal study suggests disclosure rules are, at the very least, lacking when it comes to policing the exemptions. In advance of publication, an author of the upcoming legal study shares these points:

** Fracking occurs in 29 states. 17 have disclosure laws.

** FracFocus is a good first effort, but it’s not comprehensive. Nor is it a searchable database.

** No one independently reviews FracFocus submissions. And since there’s no public review of challenge process, it’s easy for companies to assert over-broad trade secrets.

** Companies fail to disclose chemicals 22% of the time, Bloomberg has found.

** 29% of the unique numeric chemical identifiers oil and gas companies reported to the Texas frac registry referred to chemicals that do not exist, according to a report from the Environmental Defense Fund.

COMMENT: DON’T CALL IT A FRAC “COCKTAIL” WHEN IT’S MOSTLY WATER

Pitzarella of Range Resources has another beef with my video – thanks, Matt, at least someone's seen it -- which refers to a frac fluid combination as a “cocktail”:

I take some issue with the video repeatedly calling it a cocktail, when even your story accurately describes it as water. Range for instance pumps 99.92% water and sand on average and 3 or 4 chemicals that are also used in drinking water treatment and infrastructure maintenance. People don’t call tap water a “secret cocktail,” do they?

Response: I started wondering if one drop of Tabasco sauce in a baby’s milk bottle might similarly be less than 1 percent as I dialed Kate Konschnik at Harvard Law’s environment program. First, Konschnik noted Range Resources is a leader in the industry as far as disclosure. Then she ran her own numbers, citing a GAO study finding the average hydraulic fracturing well uses 3 million to 5.6 million gallons of water. Konschnik writes:

If the average hydraulic fracturing fluid is only .08% by volume chemicals, that still means that in the Marcellus, on average, 4,480 gallons of chemicals are being injected into each well. 
As to the nature of the chemicals being used, it is true that some of the chemicals used are the same chemicals used to treat drinking water.  As U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Minority Staff wrote in an April 2011 report on behalf of Reps. Waxman, Markey, and DeGette, “some of the hydraulic fracturing products were common and generally harmless.” However, the most widely used chemical, according to the disclosures made by 14 companies to the Congressmen, included methanol, which is a hazardous air pollutant and on the candidate list for potential regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.  All told, “[b]etween 2005 and 2009, the oil and gas service companies used products containing 29 chemicals that are (1) known or possible human carcinogens, (2) regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health, or (3) listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.  These 29 chemicals were components of more than 650 different products used in hydraulic fracturing.” 

All right, that's it for now. Stand by for updates and keep the hate mail coming. I know you will. For now, back to the stenography.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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