Biased. Irresponsible. Unfathomable. And just plain wrong.
Those were the words Michael Krancer and John Hanger -- the current and former secretaries, respectively, of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) -- used to describe recent stories in the media over hydraulic fracturing to the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) Natural Gas Subcommittee last week.
Both men derided a Duke University study released in May, and an article published in February by the New York Times. They warned the committee that reports like these were continuing to drive the debate over the safety of shale gas.
"I do not think this is good science, I think it's biased science," Krancer said of the Duke study, which was released on May 9. "It's a biased sample, statistically inappropriate off the bat. They went to an area that they knew had issues. The study was more of a media event than a scientific study."
The Duke study claimed high levels of leaked methane had been collected from water wells near hydraulically fractured gas drilling sites in the Marcellus Shale play (see Shale Daily, May 11).
Krancer said he wasn't sure if residents in the studied area had approached Duke or vice versa, but was quick to point out that geologists did not perform the study. He also criticized the study for only taking a small amount of samples, just 68.
"It appears that the methane they're talking about is from shallow [wells], not deep [wells]," Krancer said. "They tried to make a connection but we're not seeing it. The essence of the study is about well casing and cementing. It deals with an area of wells that were prior to our new well casing and cementing regulations. But the study doesn't even mention our new regulations."
Krancer also said the Duke study was "even more distressing" because the DEP has asked the school for its data and sample locations, but has been turned down.
"You'd think we had asked for [Duke head basketball coach] Mike Krzyzewski's game plan for his next basketball game," Krancer said. "All of a sudden they have become very secretive. That raises credibility issues."
Hanger, a Duke alumnus, said the study also confirmed that no fluids from hydraulic fracturing had returned to the surface.
"That's a very important finding," Hanger said. "For some reason the authors did not want to give a lot of visibility to that finding. It's fair to note that because it does go to motive to some extent. But it's a solid finding. And it shows that in the few cases where gas has migrated as a result of core drilling, it was in particularly geologically tricky areas."
SEAB Committee Chairman John Deutch urged Krancer to continue to press Duke to release their data and sample locations.
"I think it was a very important and significant piece of work that deserves to have follow-up work done on it," Deutch said. "The evidence they offer about deep gas migration is indeed relevant and unusually well supported in their document. What is not proven in their document is an important hypothesis -- that if you had proper well cementing and casing, this wouldn't happen. So there is much work to be done."
Deutch added, "Rather than attacking the study, I would lay out a very simple, straightforward set of follow-up questions, which would lead to more information and confirm different hypotheses about why this happened."
Krancer said he didn't reject any data "but probably the ball is in Duke's court. We've asked them to share this data with us and we were told no. To me that is unfathomable."
Said Deutch: "It is unfathomable to me too, but I urge you to consider asking for this. It is not a casual piece of work."
Hanger said Pennsylvania has made major changes to its water policies with the advent of the Marcellus Shale discovery.
"We had a relatively small, decades-old industry that previously created relatively small volumes of water," Hanger said. "That water was partially treated and, in some cases, discharged directly to rivers and streams, typically without treatment for [total dissolved solids]. When the Marcellus development began, Pennsylvania understood those practices needed to change."
Hanger lauded Krancer for moving forward with the stricter regulations over total dissolved solids (TDS) that were enacted in August 2010 (see Shale Daily, May 26; May 20; April 20). He said that for about one month there have been no discharges into surface water.
Both the former and current secretaries also voiced their displeasure over Ian Urbina's article "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells' Tainted Water Hits Rivers," which was published by the New York Times on Feb. 26 (see Shale Daily, March 1).
"To call that article 'influential' is wrong," Krancer said of Urbina's piece, which accused the DEP of not effectively regulating radium in wastewater disposal. "It was interesting, it was good fiction and it sold a lot of newspapers, which was good for the publishers and the stockholders of the New York Times."
Krancer said he was fascinated that Urbina apparently didn't know about the DEP's in-stream monitoring system, which 10 days after the article was published yielded data showing water downstream of treatment facilities had radioactivity either at or below "background levels" (see Shale Daily, March 8).
"The bottom line is our test results shut him up," Krancer said.
Meanwhile, Hanger said he was "quoted but not interviewed" for the New York Times article. "The words were mine, but I can't remember where I said them and in what context. They were obviously useful to the reporter for the narrative that he wanted to use. The article caused more misunderstanding than understanding."
But Hanger and Krancer said there were plenty of articles in the mainstream media where the natural gas industry was put in a positive light. Krancer called a December 2010 article by James Fallows in Atlantic Monthly "one of the best articles I've ever read."
"Sometimes the public discussion becomes skewed by fiction, innuendo or fear," Krancer said. "I'm not sure exactly where or why that's the case. It could be because this potential energy source has moved from what was viewed as a bridge fuel.
"Some people believed we needed to be solely focused on wind and solar, but now of all a sudden it [gas] could be the fuel of the 21st century. Anybody who read [Fallows'] article realizes that's not going to be the case anytime real soon. It might be the case in the future, but in the meantime we need a diverse energy portfolio."
Hanger concurred. "When I was secretary, operational problems, spills and leaks probably correctly attracted media attention. In some cases they are major events. Minimizing these events is very important, but I tell people it will never go to zero. It will never be perfect.
"There's been a huge amount of irresponsible communication, but not all of it has come from the media. It has come from a variety of different sources. Once in a while it has actually come from the industry, or from environmental groups. But this is too big and too important to continue to play these kinds of games."
Krancer said the Duke study recommended passage of the federal FRAC Act, but said it was a strange jump in logic because the legislation has nothing to do with well casing and well cementing.
"One of the editors [of the Duke study] is an avid enemy of fracking and has lobbied for the FRAC Act," Krancer said. "He has gone on the record as saying he supports efforts to make shale gas become largely unnecessary."