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CPBJ Extra Blog

Dueling documentaries

By - Last modified: March 12, 2013 at 9:45 AM
Tim Stuhldreher
Tim Stuhldreher

Fight fire with fire. Or in this case, fight Web video with Web video.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition last week released "Methane: An Element of Nature," an 11-minute video on the controversial issue of methane migration.

In it, a number of gas and geology experts make the case that methane in Pennsylvania water is a problem that predates and is unrelated to the growth of deep-well natural-gas drilling.

About one-quarter of private water wells in the Marcellus area have methane in them, the video says, citing a Penn State study.

"Some have wondered if producing natural gas from the Marcellus is introducing more methane into our landscape and aquifers," the video's narrator says. "But geologic experts know that's not the case."

Instead, the video blames methane contamination on a mixture of natural processes and poorly drilled water wells. In one scene, geologist and groundwater specialist Brian Oram and water well driller Greg Sorber contrast the low-quality casings allowed for water wells — Pennsylvania has no standards governing them — with the multiple layers of steel and specialty cement that enclose a gas well bore.

The video clearly aims to counter anti-fracking activists' claims that drilling for natural gas puts nearby water supplies at risk of methane contamination.

Activist Josh Fox's movie "Gasland" contains a famous scene in which Colorado resident Mike Markham sets his tap water on fire. Fox tied the incident to natural-gas drilling nearby, a connection vigorously disputed by his critics, including the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission.

In "The Sky Is Pink," an online followup to "Gasland" that Fox released last June, he expands on his contention that gas companies cannot case wells sufficiently to keep methane from seeping upward from stratum to stratum.

The industry's own documents show that 6 percent of well casings fail immediately and half fail within 30 years, Fox says. Unless they can maintain their integrity forever, groundwater is at risk, he says.

"There's no safe drilling and they know it," he says.

"Methane: A Natural Element" joins other documentary efforts made from a pro-drilling perspective. The anti-"Gasland" documentary "Frack Nation" got a warm reception on Capitol Hill last month and is being shown this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The Tea Party Patriots of Central PA held a screening Monday in the Harrisburg area, featuring a Q&A with director Phelim McAleer.

There's also the 34-minute "TruthLand," whose website is copyrighted by Energy In Depth, "a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America." It, too, will be seen at CPAC.

In next week's blog post, I'll describe a conversation I had with a U.S. Geological Survey groundwater expert about the Marcellus Shale Coalition's video. In the meantime, here are "Methane: An Element of Nature" and "The Sky Is Pink":

Tim Stuhldreher covers banking, finance, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at You can also follow him on Twitter, @timstuhldreher.

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