On Marcellus Shale and Lying

natural gas industry & the energy crisis

A shady, pathetic return.

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This blog started as a summer project about the natural gas industry and related issues because I had taken a class and was interested in diving a bit deeper and learning a bit more on my own. Furthermore, I spent eight hours a day painting and did not want to return for the fall semester so doped out on the fumes that I couldn’t concentrate; I wanted to stay sharp.

So, sometimes, Linda spoke, but shortly thereafter I decided not to speak much any longer. Forget the fact that I had classes and jobs and extracurriculars and a whole manner of college nonsense to deal with – I still found time for side projects, so why abandon this? Well, for one, nobody really reads it so I write it more for myself than anyone else. Secondly, I ran out of things to say, and not just about the natural gas industry. I just didn’t speak much to many people because there was nothing more I could think to say.

I build up a lot of minor annoyance at the way people communicate with each other. Grammatical mistakes make me twitch, but I’ve long ago given up correcting people. Indirect attempts at communication strike me as cowardly and immature, and body language never quite gets across the message the way a solid, blunt, direct, and honest sentence will, but I understand people a little bit. They have to protect themselves, they have to be careful how they present themselves to society and then, decide who gets what levels of intimacy. It’s a delicate balance that I imagine most people have a pretty good grip on, even if they don’t understand or recognize it themselves.

That’s fine, I just never wanted to become one of them – a person incapable of intelligible, direct communication of which the intentions could not be mistaken or unclear; in the process, my interactions with people have dwindled significantly, and I don’t regret that yet. I know I can trust the people with whom I do associate.

What’s become all too clear for me is that I don’t belong in this place, maybe even this time period, and I know others have felt the same way before. I can’t relate to other college students the way I’ve pretended to, the way I would like to on some level. I was lucky to have found a few friends I can have substantial conversations with, because I’ve had days where I thought that I might just lose it if someone asked me how my classes were going or made some inane small-talk about the weather or some upcoming holiday or whatever. It’s just a game; it’s just a sad little game and I don’t want to play anymore.

Maybe some askers do care how my day went or what classes I’m taking or what I’m doing for the New Year or whatever, but I doubt it. It’s just filler conversation to keep us from realizing just how empty our day-to-day lives are – or how we have made them to be. I couldn’t get through Catcher in the Rye, or maybe I just got the message early on, because I found Holden’s little monologues about how pointless everything was… pointless. Life doesn’t have to be pointless and it really shouldn’t be, if you do it right, but that’s just what I have perceived in sleepy little Pennsylvania where the young people don’t care about pressing world issues and parrot back what they have been raised to believe.

Of course I’m being cynical and I’m wrong on some accounts; I’m sure there is a sufficient number of contradictory examples to prove that. These are merely the kinds of conclusions that one comes to when one feels like an outcast.

Why am I speaking again? I don’t know. Part of this was written in a depressive state of desperation and annoyance, but I filed away this draft in the sad way that a person keeps an unfinished poem or an empty sketchbook, longing for possibilities.

When I returned, I realized that that sad voice is still there, trying to speak but coming up wordless, a desperate cry into an unforgiving cell phone with a dying battery. Maybe I feel alone and writing these posts will make me feel like someone is listening; I don’t know. I’m not in the business of answering questions.

Written by sometimeslindaspeaks

15. January 2012 at 1433

Posted in Etc.

Gasland, Part II

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This post took me a while to write for multiple reasons, but I’ll give you the two that don’t make me look like a video game-obsessed nerd with no future: I wrote this post completely once, only to accidentally delete it all. Oops. I wasn’t happy about it. Secondly, I’m working on an essay on social networking and it has been eating my life (but to a lesser amount than social networking itself). Onward… 

Last time, I attempted to debunk any doubt that Gasland is anything but an independent film made by a person who presumably has opinions; like other such films from similar filmmakers, Gasland is biased and therefore should not be taken by viewers to be completely balanced or factual. As long as one is informed about natural gas and hydraulic fracturing, the film doesn’t have to sway your opinion; on the other hand, if you don’t keep an open mind, you don’t learn anything.

Anyway, as if there are people who didn’t read that post (even as if there were articles on the subject before I started writing), there’s still a good many pieces out there, aiming to use facts to debunk Gasland. Now, I won’t try to debunk the debunking of Gasland (what am I, some sort of wizard?), but I will do my best – for the sake of argument – to raise a little suspicion on the side of Gasland‘s opposition.

It is just as easy for a big corporation (easier, maybe) to make up facts as it is for Josh Fox, and the same rule applies for twisting language to fit one’s agenda. I wish I had the all-knowing authority to show where the faults and lies are on both sides. For the record: I don’t – but I do know how to ask questions.

The debunking published by Energy in Depth seems to be the most accurate, since it relies heavily on evidence — although it’s important to note that as heavily as we rely on empirical evidence to tell us the truth, interpretation of the data is just as important as the data itself. For example, under the heading “Mischaracterizing the Process”, the author tries to tear down the argument that fracking involves a ridiculous amount of dangerous chemicals by saying that only 0.5% of frack water is anything other than water and sand and that many of these chemicals are found in a typical household.

But… isn’t it true that trace amounts of certain substances can be harmful?Just ask those who are severely allergic to peanuts: trace amounts found in an otherwise peanut-free food can be fatal.

Another thing Energy in Depth seems to find necessary to mention is that the following statement is a “blatant falsehood”:

“The energy task force, and $100 million lobbying effort on behalf of the industry, were significant in the passage of the ‘Halliburton Loophole’ to the Safe Drinking Water Act, which authorizes oil and gas drillers exclusively to inject known hazardous materials, unchecked, directly into or adjacent to underground drinking water supplies. It passed as part of the Bush administration’s Energy Policy Act of 2005.”

The outrage here lies in the fact that Fox accused oil and gas drillers of injecting that dangerous 0.5% “directly” into our drinking water. He’s referring to the water contamination, but yeah… no way that’s true. I would assume most viewers recognized that that’s not literally correct, even if they may not consciously know what device is being used. It’s called a hyperbole, Energy in Depth. It’s a deliberate literary device used to make a point, and can be most easily described as exaggeration. Fox, as you so kindly point out, finds art to be more important than politics. He is an artist, not a politician. Moving on…

I will admit that Energy in Depth makes some valid points, and of the “Gasland Debunked” articles that I’ve found, it’s probably my favorite. The Commonwealth Foundation attempts to debunk Gasland, but their arguments are too general and lack important details and evidence. Even they seem aware of their own faults, given the fact that following their weak attempt at refuting the points made in Gasland, they cite the more comprehensive debunking done by Energy in Depth. It was probably their best move. After four shamefully broad rebuttals such as “Natural Gas Drilling Contaminates Water [sic]”, the Commonwealth Foundation (a self-described “independent think tank” with values I would consider politically conservative) most likely saved itself from embarrassment by letting Energy in Depth do most of the work.

Looking further, other sites have supported Energy in Depth’s findings, including, but not limited to, the following: The Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association, the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, and my favorite gas company, Chesapeake. Moreover, Energy in Depth represents the oil and gas companies it defends, so I question the objectivity of its claims.

My findings seem to have pointed me to the same conclusion as every other of my natural gas research adventures: either side is too convinced of its own correctness to see the good points the other is making. I refuse to believe that the argument presented by Energy in Depth has more or less real credibility than that of Josh Fox. I think it’s time for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to have another rally.

Energy in Depth’s Gasland Debunked: http://www.energyindepth.org/2010/06/debunking-gasland/

About Energy in Depth: http://www.energyindepth.org/about/

Commonwealth Foundation’s Gasland Debunked: http://www.commonwealthfoundation.org/policyblog/detail/gasland-debunked

About the Commonwealth Foundation (it doesn’t say conservative or republican anywhere on the page… but these are conservative/republican values, right?): http://www.commonwealthfoundation.org/about/

Stream of consciousness at its finest. Thoughts?

Written by sometimeslindaspeaks

27. July 2011 at 1433

Posted in the Energy Crisis

Gasland, Part I

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Josh Fox’s 2010 documentary Gasland certainly caused some upset in the way people view natural gas and hydraulic fracturing, and understandably so. The film follows Fox on his travels as he visits several communities affected by the natural gas industry and interviews with various home-owners whose water supply, property values, etc. were harmed by the installation of wells. Of course, since Fox is trying to make a point about natural gas and hydraulic fracturing, he doesn’t show how other communities benefitted from (or, at least, weren’t negatively affected by) the wells.

Some people think (see last week’s post) that this is unfair of Fox, that he should show a more balanced picture of the natural gas industry. To this I say: consider the source. Gasland is a documentary, and – contrary to popular belief – documentaries are subject to the bias of their directors just like every other work of film.  Even with documentaries that do attempt to be “balanced”, you are still only seeing what the director wants you to see. Even though I personally liked the film, I would definitely caution anyone against taking the film’s message at face value.

Yes, I make it no secret that I strongly distrust big businesses, but even though they are evil, they are also necessary. If Fox ever successfully convinced the nation to completely stop gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing (highly improbable), it could result in more harm than good for the economy.

I’m shaky on that point, but if I’ve learned anything in (almost) twenty years, it’s that on big issues, either extreme will never give you the full picture. Neither side is without its flaws, even though their proponents will try to convince you to the contrary. I believe the ideal scenario is somewhere in the middle of  “Natural gas companies are evil and all hydraulic fracturing must stop!” and “This is the energy revolution we’ve all been dreaming of! Drill, drill, drill! – ask questions later!”

Let there be no doubt about it: Gasland is a very disturbing, emotionally compelling film. Okay, seeing water catch on fire was kind of cool (even though I would never dare drink it), but it’s hard to ignore feelings of disgust and horror when you’re watching a woman pull a frozen rabbit out of a Wal-Mart bag in her garage.

Josh Fox certainly doesn’t present a very flattering image of the gas industry (not that I have many good things to say about it either), but I wouldn’t demonize him for expressing his opinion. He’s doing the same thing the natural gas companies are doing when they use their coloring books to tell children that natural gas is the “cleanest, safest, and most useful” energy source available.

One source will rarely ever tell you the whole story, especially when they have incentive to leave out some important parts. It’s a simple little thing called bias, and there’s an easy way to guard against it: read multiple sources, become informed about both sides, and form your own opinion.

Of course, I’m just a student. What do I know?

Written by sometimeslindaspeaks

12. July 2011 at 1433

Posted in the Energy Crisis

Natural gas, cars, and finding connections

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I was on a road trip the other day, talking to a recent grad about the Marcellus Shale class we had taken together, and we got on the topic of the movie Gasland. Now, Gasland is such a politically and emotionally charged film that it would take at least another post to cover all the bases fairly, but she made an interesting point.

She said that Gasland is so compelling because it only presents the cases of contamination without showing any of the benefits brought on by natural gas drilling (economic benefits, such as the growth of small businesses in the area, for example). She said that if someone were to make a movie that was only about car accidents and left out any opposing arguments, or ignored the benefits of driving cars, then nobody would ever want to drive again. I thought this was interesting. I doubt, with cars being such an integral part of a typical American lifestyle, that this example is too relevant, but I gave the idea some careful consideration and arrived at the following conclusion:

No, even knowing the inherent risks of driving, people have not given up on it completely, but most do take certain precautions to prevent (or, at least, minimize) harm: seat belts, auto insurance, child safety seats, airbags, etc. The fact that water contamination does not happen 100% of the time with natural gas drilling does not mean certain precautions shouldn’t be made to reduce the likelihood thereof.

Take the water contamination case of Tioga County, Pennsylvania. The Gee family’s well water was tested before the fracking process began and it was clean. Then, after they began to notice that the water looked “milky” coming out of the faucet, Shell did another test and determined that their drinking water was positive for methane. The company has worked with the Gee’s and DEP to come up with solutions to rectify the problem and prevent any future contamination, doing everything required with regards to providing clean water.

Shell hasn’t taken responsibility for the spill but they haven’t not taken it either, a careful-but-cowardly PR move, in my opinion. My main issue with this story, however, is that Shell did not recognize the methane leak as a potential harm to the health and safety of the Gee family; they called it an “inconvenience.” Good thing the Gee’s didn’t drink the contaminated well water.  In medical studies, methane in water hasn’t been linked to any acute or chronic health problems, although admittedly little research has been done. I certainly hope the Gee’s aren’t damaged by this; if they had turned out to be the first people to suffer from a methane-related illness, wouldn’t that be “inconvenient”?

I know it’s a stretch, and I’m all over the place, but the main idea is that, like driving, fracking has risks. As a society, we can’t simply trust that everyone will drive safely; that’s why there are traffic laws, police, and drunk-driving checkpoints. Fewer car accidents, fewer cases of water contamination, safer world, better place.

Written by sometimeslindaspeaks

5. July 2011 at 1433

Posted in the Energy Crisis

Talisman Terry – Good friends don’t lie.

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Have you met the new mascot for hydraulic fracturing, kid-friendly fracosaurus Talisman Terry? It’s some coloring-book character that Talisman Energy came up with to lure children into a false sense of security about natural gas and hydraulic fracturing. Good call – they’re going to be customers someday.

I couldn’t believe it when I first saw the link. Later, when I searched for other articles relating to the story, even Google wouldn’t produce an adequate suggestion, almost as if to say, “Fracosaurus? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

I looked through the coloring-book pages myself and almost had to laugh. Here are some little gems from the book that I had trouble with…

First, Terry introduces natural gas as a “clean energy source” found “right here in the Twin Tiers!” Nice try, Terry, but we know that natural gas isn’t as clean as is often claimed, especially not when one considers incidents of water contamination. Furthermore, the simple phrase “right here in the Twin Tiers!” adds a sense of comfort and familiarity to natural gas for the simple fact that it’s nearby. In a sense, the goal seems to make the children want to feel proud of the fact that their own Twin Tiers holds such a “clean energy source”.

In the next couple of pages, you’ll find the coloring book claiming that natural gas is “one of the cleanest, safest, and most useful of all energy sources.” I already said my piece about the cleanliness of natural gas, but safety goes right along with it. How safe was it for Dimock residents to suffer from long-term neurological damage as a result of methane in their water? Moreover, to employ the word “useful” is a dirty trick: it’s a virtually meaningless word with an overly positive connotation. Good job, Talisman.

I was particularly amused by the description of the well-drilling process, where Terry tells how Talisman “works with property owners”. I find it’s more likely that the property owners are propositioned with a price for their land, and whether they accept or reject it, the gas company finds a way to get to their shale rock through the careful practices of zoning and horizontal drilling.

The coloring book goes on about the various uses of natural gas, again adding to its familiarity and therefore making the children more accepting and trusting of it. It goes further to depict a gas company representative as a smiling friend to Terry, a happy addition to the simplistic and opinionated scientific explanations (simplistic is something I can overlook since it is intended for children; opinionated is something that is hard to ignore when you think about the fact that the kids probably don’t have enough information to form their own opinions).  Hopefully, if the kids were anything like me when I was a kid, they’d take one look at it, know something was off (or even just that the coloring book was poorly made and overall lame), and chuck it in the first available trash can.

By far the most frustrating part of the coloring book is the “before drilling”, “during drilling” and “after drilling” pages. The “before drilling” really isn’t problematic. It shows a happy little landscape complete with a deer, a smiling sun, and some cheerful little flowers. No implicit lies, unless you want to tell a child that the sun is a star that will implode in a matter of time and flowers can’t actually feel emotion. Who wants to be that monster?

The “during drilling” page shows a few cute little tanks, a truck, some buildings, and an oil rig. The sun is still smiling, the trees seem to have just moved over a bit, and an American flag waves proudly at the top (pretty nice, I guess, if you want to play on a person’s senses of pride and patriotism to promote your product). There’s only a few things left out of this picture: the homeowners who might, at the very least, be inconvenienced by the noise, or worse, harmed by the chemicals creeping in their water supply. Maybe they’ve moved? No… more likely the well dramatically decreased their property value and they have no choice but to stay put and suffer.

The “after drilling” page looks suspiciously like the “before drilling” page, except there are a few things added: not only are the happy sun and cheerful flowers present, but the deer is back, and she brought an eagle, a rainbow, and there are even some new trees growing to replace the other ones. Isn’t that grand? Seems like Talisman Energy has left this plot of land in a better place than when they found it!

I have my doubts. The messages sent by this coloring book feel like the 2011 equivalent of “Hiding under a desk will save you from the atomic bomb!” Oh no… if Talisman Energy releases a fluffy, cuddly, huggable, plushy Talisman Terry, we’re doomed.

Written by sometimeslindaspeaks

27. June 2011 at 1433

Posted in the Energy Crisis

Sympathy for oil & gas companies… but just a little.

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Today, I read the CNNMoney piece “The Fracking Public Relations Mess” and I almost felt sympathy for the oil & gas companies of which I’m always so suspicious. To be clear, I support the natural gas “revolution” in the best way I know how, and here are the general terms of my rationale:

1) We need to move away from our consumption of fossil fuels (for various reasons like environmental impact, the issue of foreign oil imports, etc.) and towards renewable energy sources. The best “stepping stone” in my opinion is natural gas because a direct transition from fossil fuels to renewables would be neither quick nor smooth. As I’ve probably mentioned before, I’m an advocate of the Pickens Plan.

2) While I doubt the economic impact will be as great as companies are speculating (there’s the issue of worker housing, the 8:1 unemployment problem to come…), too many businessmen will profit from the natural gas industry to deny that it will continue to grow. If there’s going to be any economic growth as a result of natural gas drilling, I’ll support it at least minimally, but there’s still some things that definitely need to be figured out.

3) Natural gas drilling might actually turn out to be a good thing if companies are monitored, since the desire for more profits could lead (and has led) businesses to cut corners in terms of safety and health regulations.

The article outlines some of the reasons people fail to trust natural gas companies. Some people are suspicious that some companies will not release a list of fracking chemicals used in the same way that people are suspicious that the bin Laden photo was never released. I know that must be because companies are competing against each other and they don’t want their “secret ingredient” to get out, so to speak. This would imply that they all use different “recipes” for frack water, which I’m not so sure about. It’s a little unclear.

Another suspicion is about the “string of accidents” that have occurred at the drilling sites, and related to this, one professor brought up something interesting in class once about this. He asked us what the ideal number of code violations would be. Too few and people begin to doubt if the codes are adequate; too many and people begin to wonder if the codes are too strict. I’m sure there’s more to this: on another level, people are supposed to be feel better about fewer accidents and more suspicious about more accidents. I guess “code violation” has less of a psychological impact than “accident”, but one could easily become the other, so I’m not sure of my opinion on this yet.

For now, I’ve still got a sense of unwavering distrust for all the oil & gas companies, but I will admit some tiny iota of sympathy for the PR wreck  into which they’ve gotten themselves…if only for the hope of achieving  future goals like a cleaner environment and an improved economy.

Written by sometimeslindaspeaks

22. June 2011 at 1433

Posted in the Energy Crisis

Dimock.

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So… I really want to write something about the Dimock, Pa. water contamination case. After a post on hydraulic fracturing, it seems like the best idea. I remember discussing the issue in class and I’m reasonably informed about it, but I decided to do some research anyway.

Now I don’t know which way is up.

Before I started reading various articles, blogs, and press releases, here’s what I thought I understood about the Dimock case: In 2008, Cabot Oil & Gas began drilling for natural gas in Dimock, Pa. As soon as a month after operations began, people began noticing changes in the quality of their water: brown color, foul odor, and the infamous flammability to name a few. These translated into a wide range of problems, from ruining dishes and clothing to causing illnesses and long-term neurological damage. The affected families complained, and it became the first real proof of water contamination, the first significant blow, if you will, against the oil and gas companies in the midst of the natural-gas boom. As recently as April, some families reported to finally have settled their legal dispute with Cabot (the methane contamination was cleaned up and the water is fine, says one water-contamination plaintiff, Anne Teel).

That was my understanding, but there is some crazy stuff out there on the Internet.

Researchers in Scranton found that Dimock’s water must have been contaminated before drilling began, since levels of certain chemicals were found to be higher in the water than in the wells themselves. I don’t think that A necessary equals B here; there could be other reasons that the chemical levels are higher in the drinking water than in the frack water. Cabot also claims not to have responsibility, since there are chemicals found in the drinking water that they don’t use in fracking. My first thought was that chemicals can react with other chemicals to make new chemicals, right? But, I’m not a chemistry major, so… moving on…

Supporters of the oil and gas industry have gone so far as to call the Dimock case “bogus” or “fraudulent”, claiming that Josh Fox, who made the famous documentary Gasland, is a radical environmentalist who hates big business. Well… this may be true, but this isn’t the problem. In my opinion, the oil and gas company giants are reactionary con artists who will do or say anything to increase their profits. We could sling mud all day and get nothing done.

The point is that there are still Dimock families in the midst of a raging legal battle with Cabot, which is understandable: when damage done is irreversible, there really is no price on a loved one’s health. I’m glad there were some people who could find the right price to compensate for their problems, but what happens when dangerous fracking chemicals creep back into the water supply? Hopefully the people in charge of all this will find a more productive solution than a lawsuit every time an oil & gas company goofs up.

I’m probably drawing an incomplete conclusion. I definitely don’t have enough data – but tell me, who does? The subject of energy is wrapped up in politics and tied up with bias, and finding the truth isn’t easy when numbers are so easily fabricated.

Written by sometimeslindaspeaks

13. June 2011 at 1433

Posted in the Energy Crisis