Liar, Liar, Faucet on Fire

I was recently asked for a recommendation on a controversial topic for a college English paper. The request was from a friend who doesn’t know a lot about the oil and gas sector. I recommended that she look at hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).

Part of the assignment required a critical analysis of a source on the topic. The source had to be analyzed and evaluated for credibility. I suggested the 2010 Josh Fox documentary Gasland.

For the record, I consider Gasland to be one of the biggest driving forces behind anti-fracking sentiment in the U.S. The claims in the documentary are so shocking that one can’t help but come away with an extremely negative view of fracking.  

Yet, if you watch it from a critical perspective, you see a pattern of unsupported assertions, hearsay, and in many cases blatant lies. There are many examples of this, and there are many websites that have picked apart and debunked the claims in Gasland. But I am going to focus on just one, because there was an update on the matter last week.

In the film, Fox tells the story of Louis Meeks of Pavillion, Wyoming. Fox asserts that Meeks had his well water tested when it started to smell like gas following nearby fracking by Encana (NYSE: ECA). Meeks claimed that the results showed that the water contained glycol ethers, which Fox warned us are very scary indeed.

Fox tells viewers, to ominous music, that glycol ethers are an anti-freeze, cause testicular toxicity, malformation of embryos, bone marrow depression and destruction of red blood cells. I would like to add, since Fox did not, that they are used in edible items like ice cream and soda, and they are a lubricant in many injectable pharmaceuticals. In fact, the eye drops in my medicine cabinet contain glycol ethers.

So Fox set up a narrative where glycol ethers are very scary chemicals (they aren’t), sometimes used in fracking fluid (yes, sometimes) and appeared in this guy’s well. As an interesting aside, Meeks decided to drill a new water well in this area — known for shallow oil and gas deposits — smelled gas, kept drilling, and at 540 feet down hit a gas pocket that blew out and sent millions of cubic feet of natural gas directly into the atmosphere for three days. A judge ordered Encana to move in and cap it for him (they were likely the only entity in the area with the expertise to do so), but Fox implied that the blowout was somehow Encana’s fault.

This Meeks case has been under investigation for several years. It has been looked at by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Unlike Fox, these agencies engaged in actual science to determine whether contaminants in the water were linked to hydraulic fracturing operations. Last week the DEQ issued its findings. Here are the summary findings from the DEQ: Pavillion Groundwater Report Fact Sheet November 7, 2016. Quoting from the report:

“Evidence does not indicate that hydraulic fracturing fluids have risen to shallow depths utilized by water-supply wells. Also, based on an evaluation of hydraulic fracturing history, and methods used in the Pavillion Gas Field, it is unlikely that hydraulic fracturing has caused any impacts to the water-supply wells.

The presence of bacteria in many of the water-supply wells suggests that this may be a cause of taste and odor issues. Geochemical changes associated with the biodegradation of dissolved organic compounds, including naturally occurring organic compounds, likely have produced constituents associated with poor water palatability, and appear to be linked to declining well yields.”

The report goes on to state that “other than a pesticide (beta-BHC) and a phthalate ester [bis (2-ethylhexyl phthalate)], no organic compounds were identified at concentrations exceeding applicable drinking water standards. Phthalate is used as a plasticizer in flexible PVC plastics and is a common laboratory contaminant.”

In other words, there were a couple of chemicals of concern in the water, but those have a “multitude of possible sources.” Early in Gasland Fox asserts (incorrectly) that all fracking fluid contains 596 different chemicals. While this is another example where he lied to the audience, whichever fracking fluid recipe Encana used in the area should contain some signature chemicals that would have turned up in the well water if that had been the source of the contamination. Yet Fox presented the Meeks case as a damning indictment of hydraulic fracturing in the film.

One of the most dramatic scenes in the movie is a “flaming faucet” from Weld County, Colorado. As with the Meeks case, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had already investigated the landowner’s water well and concluded that it “contained biogenic gas that was not related to oil and gas activity.”     

So, what are we to conclude here? Fox engages in a pattern of deception and misrepresentation throughout the movie. He repeatedly made unsupported assertions and used effective scare tactics throughout. In doing so, he misled millions of Americans and caused a huge backlash against fracking — which was of course the objective.

Let me make it clear, that there are certainly potential risks with fracking. If you frack in a geological fault, you can cause an earthquake. And if you frack a shallow oil or gas well near an aquifer, it could easily lead to contamination — and so isn’t done. But places that do have shallow oil or gas deposits already have to deal with the problem of these deposits naturally seeping into the groundwater.

There are other risks from fracking as well, as there are with any energy technology. Yes, even wind and solar power. It is always a question of understanding the risks, and determining whether the trade-offs are worthwhile.

As for that student with a paper to write, she finished her evaluation of Gasland without much input from me. Her conclusion was that even a superficial analysis of the claims in the film quickly turned up inconsistencies, discrepancies and falsehoods in the story being told. She asked why it is that people are so easily misled. I said “Because they believe what they want to believe. Confirmation bias.”  

Confirmation bias is a risk for everyone, but we try to constantly challenge our own view of the energy sector at the Energy Strategist. Consider subscribing for a unique look at the energy sector that strives not to fall into the trap of following the herd. We provide specific, actionable advice for those seeking to invest in the energy sector, and you can rest assured that we know the difference between science and pseudoscience.    

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