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Friday, November 19, 2010

ICYMI: "60 Minutes" takes on shale drilling

Posted By on Fri, Nov 19, 2010 at 8:38 AM

If you were pre-gaming it for the Steelers/Patriots match-up last Sunday night, you probably missed it, but 60 Minutes took a look at the controversy surrounding "fracking." Those following the Marcellus Shale debate might want to check it out -- it beats watching game highlights, at least.

The first portion of the report plays up the job-creating potential of the deposits. Reporter Lesley Stahl does her patented mugging, expressing surprise at the size of royalty checks paid to Louisiana residents with drilling operations on their property, and she lauds the "gold mist" paint job on their new Caddies. 

But that upbeat material is followed up with warnings about the "thousands of accidents and safety violations" racked up at drilling sites around the country. Stahl notes, for example, an incident in Louisiana in which 17 cows died a "gruesome death" after drinking frackwater, which is composed of water and various additives that are shot underground to break up stone and release gas.

And when we meet Aubrey McClendon, the somewhat patronizing CEO of Chesapeake Energy, he makes an interesting statement (the key give-and-take with Stahl begins around the 9:20 mark). Asked about the hazardous chemicals in frackwater, he at first offers this bit of industry boilerplate: "You don't drink Drano for a reason, but you have Drano in your house." But then he adds, "You don't want to drink frack fluid. If you take away nothing from this interview --"

So frackwater is dangerous, then? 'Cause our local industry front group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, is fond of saying that it's mostly just "water and playground sand." (The Coalition allows that the fluid does contain "A lot of things that you probably shouldn’t drink" -- probably? -- but to my ear, the shale-drilling CEO sounds more circumspect than the group advancing his cause.)

But then follows this exchange, in which Stahl and McClendon talk past each other.

"Isn't there a possibility that you go down, and something seeps ... into the aquifer?" she queries.

"There is almost two miles of rock between where we are active and where freshwater is drawn from," McClendon parries. 

Well, OK. But by this point, we've gotten the sense that the most immediate danger is not what's going on two miles below us, but what's happening right on the surface. We've seen footage of leaky pipes, vapors coming off storage tanks, and dead cattle. And McClendon has already acknolwedged that, hey, accidents happen.

What's more, like everyone else who's ever done a story about shale drilling, the 60 Minutes crew traveled to Dimock, PA, to be amazed at footage of people lighting their tapwater on fire. In interviews, residents blame new Marcellus drilling for the problem.

I've seen enough of this particular visual to have become a little weary -- and a little wary -- of it. The whole lighting-up-the-tapwater thing makes great TV, but it may not be quite as daming as some make out. As The New York Times recently pointed out, some Dimock residents have objected to seeing their community treated as the poster-child for the perils of shale drilling: 

[A] group of Dimock Township residents gathered on a recent evening to ... issue a defense of gas companies like Cabot [whose wells have been accused of despoiling local well water]. They planned, they said, to formally charter an organization called Enough Already.

Among the residents was Martha Locey, 78, who has lived on her family's farm since 1932. "My father dug our well in 1945, and we knew it had lots of iron in it, and we thought it had something else ... because it had lots of bubbles in it," Ms. Locey said. "So my nephew took it to school in the '60s, and the science teacher lit it, and it burned, so he said, 'It’s methane.'"

"The truth is, our well has been that way since 1945," added Ms. Locey, who has signed an affidavit in support of the gas company’s legal case. "I don't think Cabot was here back then."

The whole tapwater-lighting business has been at the heart of the shale-drilling controversy ever since being featured in Josh Fox's documentary Gasland. Industry supporters note that in the cases Fox cites, the methane is coming not from the shale being drilled, but shallower gas pockets that lie above it.

On the other hand, Fox's respose to industry criticism counters (on page 8) that even if the methane in question didn't come directly from the shale deposits being drilled, the act of drilling can disturb those shallower gas deposits, causing the gas to migrate into previously untainted water supplies. Marcellus Shale drilling, in other words, can result in methane in your water ... even if it doesn't come from the Marcellus Shale itself.

But maybe all this begs the issue. After all, if you're a homeowner who suddenly has methane in your water, you probably aren't terribly concerned about which layer of rock, precisely, it came from.

And it got me to thinking: Maybe the debate about shale drilling has focused too much on the things about the process that are new -- high-tech processes like "fracking" and "horizontal drilling" -- and not enough about the dangers that are old. Like human incompetence, corner-cutting, and laziness. 

There's quite a bit of people talking past each other in the 60 Minutes piece. But then there's quite a bit of that in the broader debate as well. Guys like McClendon seem to focus on what they are doing miles underground, presumably because the dangers there seem so remote, and that's where all the gee-whiz technology is happening. And interestingly, many of those who criticize drilling also focus on what's going on down there, in part because that's where all the gee-whiz technology is happening. 

But when you take away the high-tech bells and whistles, what you have is a business seeking to construct thousands, of tiny industrial sites all over the state. Every one of those represents a potential problem -- a place for a random accident or shoddy contracting job. And so each represents a potential drain on local emergency-responders who have to respond in the event of an explosion or leak. And we just elected a governor who opposes taxing the industry, even if the tax revenue would help local communities prepare for those disasters.

Despite the industry spin -- "probably"??? -- there's really little debate that this is serious stuff. The danger might not be glamorous -- leaky pipes, hungover truck drivers -- but it's real. And once we wrap our heads around what makes Marcellus Shale drilling a new industry, we probably ought to start thinking more about what it has in common with all the old ones. 

In other words, this might be the rare case in which we need more news stories that simply skim the surface.

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