Times-Tribune digs into DEP data

By - Last modified: May 21, 2013 at 9:34 AM

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Tim Stuhldreher
Tim Stuhldreher

Today's numbers are 83 and 161.

The first number, 83, is the minimum number of times oil and gas drilling incidents in Pennsylvania affected water supplies between 2008 and 2012, according to an article in Sunday's Times-Tribune of Scranton.

At least 161 "homes, farms, churches and businesses" had their water supplies damaged in that period, the article reported.

The newspaper's data comes from the state Department of Environmental Protection, and it wasn't easy to get. The paper had to take DEP to court, and it wasn't until an appeals court ruled against the agency that it relented.

The Times-Tribune's exhaustive article shows that much remains unclear about the natural gas industry's environmental impact. DEP tracks "incidents," not properties affected; until 2011, incidents settled between a gas company and property owners did not have to be reported, and DEP refused to disclose those reported since 2011. So the numbers reported by the Times-Tribune should be understood as lower bounds.

In arguably encouraging news for gas industry advocates, DEP found drilling to be the cause of contamination in only one out of six complaints in which it was suspected. In five out of six cases, the cause was another factor, such as legacy pollution, or was undetermined.

What I do not find encouraging is DEP's reluctance to make its investigations public. The agency argued in court, according to the Times-Tribune, "that it does not count how many determination letters it issues, track where they are kept in its files or maintain its records in a way that would allow a comprehensive search for the letters, so there is no way to assess the completeness of the released documents."

Like the three judges of the appeals court, I fail to see how sloppy record-keeping excuses you from fulfilling legitimate requests for information, but I shall certainly keep the idea in mind the next time the IRS asks me about my finances.

Snark aside, the DEP's mission, according to its own statement on its website, "is to protect Pennsylvania's air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment." Citizens, including newspaper reporters, have every right to see data pertinent to evaluating whether that mission is being accomplished.

I will also note that when average people think about whether "fracking" causes water contamination, they're thinking about the whole drilling process from start to finish, not the very specific procedure of injecting water and sand into deep fissures. Pretending otherwise is disingenuous.

So far, "fracking" in the technical sense has not caused any known contamination of Pennsylvania water. But for fracking in the ordinary sense, the number is 83 (or 161) and counting.

• • •

The Environment & Energy Publishing article on the Marcellus Shale Coalition that came out last week is well worth a few minutes of your time.

It describes the industry group's rise to become a 300-member "powerhouse" and "household name in its namesake natural gas play." It gives a good share of the credit to CEO Kathryn Klaber, who it quotes extensively.

The article describes the group's mix of public education and lobbying and its efforts to encourage safe, responsible practices among its members. It aims to be a unified voice for all aspects of the industry, what the article calls a "supply chain integration model" of representation.

Klaber's work receives strong praise from a peer, Colorado Oil and Gas Association President Tisha Schuller. Schuller offers an assessment of the coalition that I think is both accurate and telling: "In just a couple years, it's like they've been around for decades."

Overall, the article's portrait accords with my own impression of the coalition. The Business Journal has probably quoted the Marcellus Coalition on natural gas issues more frequently than any other nongovernment entity; E&E shows you a bit of the organization behind those statements.

• • •

British economics journalist Martin Wolf weighed in last week on the recent milestone in atmospheric CO2 with about as downbeat a column in the Financial Times as you could imagine. The gist of his assessment: We know of no way to deliver decent living standards to large numbers of people without profligate burning of fossil fuels. The best available science tells us that profligate burning of fossil fuels will lead to catastrophic climate change. But the catastrophe is still a few decades off, and people, not unreasonably, want decent living standards now. So we will carry on until it is too late.

For what it's worth, Lancaster Newspapers' Gil Smart beat Wolf to the punch, making roughly the same argument in this excellent blog post from April 30.

Predictions are hard, especially about the future, as Yogi Berra may or may not actually have said. But predictions that have solid science plus human shortsightedness in their favor have better odds than most. I hope Wolf's prediction is wrong, but I wouldn't bet against him.

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.

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