The claim that not one single water well has been harmed by hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is the anthem of the oil and gas industry as it presses its case to perforate the shale formations of the world without regard for the vital water resources also to be found there. The current administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Lisa Jackson, sings from the same sheet music. But even in a world where public statements have little relationship to reality, this is a remarkable Big Lie.
According to the CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson, “To our knowledge, there have been a million wells fracked, and no documented cases of contamination of groundwater from hydraulic fracturing.” He was speaking to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in January of 2010. And Lisa Jackson echoed Exxon to a House committee in July of this year when she said, “I’m not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water, although there are investigations ongoing.”
The propaganda techniques on display here are time-honored. (So is the offer to sell you an interest in the Brooklyn Bridge, or to hold some money for a Nigerian banker, but where some scams become well known and thus discredited, this one is famous and still creditable. Go figure.)
I have written here a time or ten about the problems associated with hydraulic fracturing. See, for example;
- Fracking Natural Gas: Unreality TV;
- Natural Gas, or Drinkable Water? Choose One;
- Are You Fracking (and) Kidding Me?
- Risky Business: Another Well Blows;
- A Frack Job for Marcellus; and
- 60 Minutes on Natural Gas: A Couple Minutes Short.
These stories cited the investigative work of Pro Publica, 60 Minutes, The New York Times, the Academy-Award-nominated documentary Gasland along with many other sources of examples of people whose wells have been contaminated by the practitioners of hydraulic fracturing. In the face of this avalanche of problems, how can anyone say, with a straight face, that not one well has been harmed? And how can such a statement be reported as if it were serious?
If you have to defend the indefensible, the first thing you do is re-define the indefinable. Tillerson’s claim related specifically to contamination of groundwater by fracturing: he thus eliminated from consideration contamination of surface water, soil or pollution of air by the operations required to prepare for and support hydraulic fracturing. Lisa Jackson limited her remark to “the fracking process itself,” with the same effect. (The other thing you do, in a position like theirs, is use weasel words: “to our knowledge,” and “documented cases,” for Tillerson, and “I’m not aware,” and “proven case,” for Jackson. But let’s stay focused on the content, not the technicalities that prevent a conviction for perjury.)
The industry’s offenses in other areas — the consumption of millions of gallons of water for each operation, along with a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals whose identity is a guarded secret, blowouts, overflows and leaks at the wellheads, and contamination of surface waters with not only the chemicals used but with salinity and radioactivity dredged up from underground — are so well publicized that denial would earn immortality on late night comedy shows.
But the industry insists that since it fracks at depths of several thousand feet, and since aquifers exist at depths of several hundred feet, the aquifers are safe from fracking. Since no one knows, or can know, exactly what’s going on hundreds or thousands of feet underground, the statement has a gloss of plausibility primarily because it is so hard to contradict.
But someone did contradict it. Someone with the resources to conduct a long and impartial investigation. Someone in a better position that anyone to know what is happening. That someone is the Environmental Protection Agency, the very agency headed by Lisa Jackson, who apparently does not know what her own agency has determined to be the truth.
In a 1987 (!) report, unearthed by the Environmental Working Group and Earthjustice (who ever thought of looking in the files?) the EPA stated in that report, to cite one example:
“In 1982, Kaiser Gas Co. drilled a gas well on the property of Mr. James Parsons. The well was fractured using a typical fracturing fluid or gel. The residual fracturing fluid migrated into Mr. Parson’s water well (which was drilled to a depth of 416 feet), according to an analysis by the West Virginia Environmental Health Services Lab of well water samples taken from the property.”
Bingo. There’s your one, documented, proven, to-your-knowledge case. (There were others, before and since, but many of the victims are silent because, in order to get settlements of their claims, or lucrative leases of their land, they had to sign confidentiality agreements.) The mother of all fracking lies has been put to rest, by the EPA no less. Will they be too embarrased to use it again?
Don’t count on it. The other time-honored and well-rewarded stratagem for perpetrators of Big Lies is repetition. Look up “weapons of mass destruction,” “clean coal,” and “climate change is a hoax.”
[For updates on this and other Daily Impact stories, and for short takes on other subjects, check out The Editor’s Log.]