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Dueling Marcellus Shale videos — Part 2

By - Last modified: March 19, 2013 at 9:31 AM

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Tim Stuhldreher

Last week, I blogged about “dueling videos” — online pieces released by the Marcellus Shale Coalition industry group and anti-fracking activist Josh Fox.

The coalition's video, "Methane: A Natural Element," argues that methane migration into Pennsylvania groundwater is unrelated to gas drilling. Fox's "The Sky Is Pink" asserts that "there's no safe drilling" and accuses the industry of waging a disinformation campaign.

Last week, I said I would use this week's blog to describe a conversation I had with a U.S. Geological Survey groundwater expert. And I do eventually want to get to my chat with Dennis Risser, a scientist at the USGS' Pennsylvania Water Science Center.

But first, I want to tell you about my conversation with Fred Baldassare, former stray-gas inspector for the Department of Environmental Protection and one of the geological experts featured in "Methane: A Natural Element."

I asked Baldassare about the statement that stuck out the most for me in the coalition's video, which is this one, spoken by the narrator:

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

That's pretty unequivocal, isn't it? To me that's saying there are no documented cases of methane migration due to natural-gas drilling. I don't know how else you can interpret it.

And such an assertion, Baldassare told me, is false.

"The Dimock case was the result of gas well-drilling activity," he said. "No doubt about it."

In Dimock, wells drilled by Cabot Oil & Gas were linked to well water contamination. Baldassare was involved in DEP's Dimock investigation. He had no doubt after reviewing the data in 2009 and stands by that conclusion today, he said.

Now, the video's broader point — that there are natural sources of methane migration into groundwater — is entirely accurate, Baldassare said. It's been an issue for decades, long before the drillers arrived, just as the video depicts, he said.

Moreover, other industrial activities have caused methane migration problems, including coal mining and landfills, he said. The Marcellus Shale industry, for its part, follows much stricter standards than it did even a few years ago, when Dimock happened, he said.

All of which is fair enough. But look again at the narrator's statement. It's absolving the Marcellus industry of all blame, and saying experts "know" this. That just isn't true.

I emailed the Marcellus Shale Coalition about this. The coalition stands by the video's content, spokesman Patrick Creighton responded.

"Are we aware of any instances where hydraulic fracturing has caused gas to migrate from the Marcellus to potable water sources? No," he wrote.

That's an interesting way of putting it, because it's not really the fracking that's in question, but the drilling and casing. I emailed back, asking for clarification, but hadn't heard anything further as of Monday.

This has nothing to do with Baldassare, it's important to note. He was not involved in crafting the script, nor did he "sign off" on the video or the editing of his appearance in it.

Baldassare had a lot to say, and I'll have more from our interview next week, including his comments about Josh Fox. (Hint: They were not too complimentary.) Till then, I'll leave you with the two videos, in case you missed them the first time around:

And if that isn't enough on methane migration for you, the Penn State Extension is holding a webinar featuring Baldassare on the topic at 1 p.m. Thursday.

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

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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