In May, a Duke University study was published linking Marcellus Shale gas drilling to methane contamination of private drinking-water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York. On average, the study found, wells within 1 kilometer of a hydraulically fractured shale-gas well had methane levels 17 times higher than those located further away.
Moreover, the closer the gas well, the higher the concentration of methane, the main component of natural gas. Researchers believe the methane might have leaked out via poorly constructed well casings, the linings meant to keep gas from escaping the shaft.
The findings were the first to link gas drilling to drinking-water contamination, and they were widely reported. What's gotten less attention, however, is the response to the study by Michael L. Krancer, who heads Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.
Weeks after the study's publication, Krancer spoke at a shale-gas conference here in Pittsburgh, where he denounced the Duke paper as "biased science from biased researchers." On Nov. 16, he dissed the study before Congress. Krancer, a former energy-industry lawyer, told a Congressional subcommittee that the study was fundamentally flawed, and added that its authors refused to cooperate with DEP requests to share information about the paper.
But there's a problem with Krancer's criticisms: They aren't true. And environmentalists say they raise questions about this appointee of the drilling-friendly Corbett administration: Is he more committed to protecting Pennsylvania's environment, or to helping the natural-gas industry?
Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," involves injecting a pressurized mix of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break up rock containing pockets of natural gas. Fracking is the chief method for accessing gas in mile-deep rock formations throughout the U.S. -- including the Marcellus Shale underlying most of Pennsylvania, where more than 7,500 drilling permits have been issued since 2005.
Fracking is also increasingly controversial. New studies like Duke's are emphasizing the risks to groundwater. Critics contend that gas drilling is poorly regulated, and have called for tougher federal standards.
In Washington, D.C., in November, Krancer testified before a subcommittee seeking state-level perspectives on natural-gas regulation. By way of defending Pennsylvania's ability to regulate itself, Krancer called "very suspect" several studies that questioned the safety of gas extraction. His first target was the Duke paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Krancer told Congress that the paper was "statistically and technically biased" because it was "based on only few selected samples in a selected area with previously documented problems." That "selected" designation seemed to refer to sampling done in Dimock, Pa., where the DEP itself has found methane contamination (and whose problems with drilling were recounted in the documentary Gasland).
But study co-author Robert Jackson tells CP that most of the 68 wells sampled were in areas without reported problems. In fact, he says, if results from Dimock are excluded, average methane concentrations were higher: 19 times the level in non-drilling areas. "It's not just about Dimock," says Jackson.
(Methane isn't considered hazardous for humans to ingest, but it is an explosive and fire hazard, and an asphyxiant in closed spaces. And Jackson says there are no studies on the long-term human health effects of ongoing low-level methane exposure.)
Krancer also told Congress that it was improper for the researchers to attribute the methane they'd found to the Marcellus Shale. The gas, he said, was actually "the product of the shallower, Upper Devonian formation." Gas from down deep is mostly formed by heat; methane from shallower formations, like the Upper Devonian, is mostly the result of bacterial activity. If Krancer's claims are true, they'd be proof of scientific incompetence. But again, they seem unsupported by anything in the Duke study.
The paper explicitly states that the methane found in water wells "matched almost perfectly" chemically with methane from the Marcellus, says Jackson. Moreover, contaminated wells showed the presence of ethane and propane -- gasses seldom found in shallower gas deposits, but common in deep shale like the Marcellus.
Krancer didn't reject every aspect of the Duke study: Before Congress, he approvingly quoted its assertion that drinking-water samples contained no evidence of fracking fluid used in the drilling process. Though researchers in his view had bungled methane sampling, they apparently could be trusted with failing to find fracking fluid.
Finally, Krancer told Congress that "the authors of the study have inexplicably declined DEP's reasonable request that they share with us their data and their sample locations. That in itself raises credibility questions."
But Jackson says that shortly after the paper's publication, he had one conversation with a DEP staffer, who called him to request the research data. Jackson told the staffer that by law, researchers could not share information about private water wells without the owners' permission -- but that the researchers wanted to exchange information concerning water quality.
"We'd love to work with [DEP]," says Jackson. "We want to get to the bottom of [the water issue]." Jackson also says that he requested via phone and email to speak with Krancer directly to address his accusations and to discuss collaboration. That was in May, and Jackson hasn't heard back since.
Similarly, CP contacted DEP seeking a response from Krancer and had not received a response by press time.
Krancer was picked for the DEP post in January by Gov. Tom Corbett, whose campaign received about $1 million in contributions from the gas industry. Krancer himself is a former assistant general counsel for Exelon Corp., an energy firm whose businesses include gas distribution.
Corbett's gas policies have come under fire from industry critics: He backs legislation that would bar municipalities from regulating drilling, and the gas-industry impact fee he proposed was arguably cheaper than the tax that the industry proposed for itself. And recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criticized as inadequate Pennsylvania's new policy for regulating air emissions from shale-gas sites.
Krancer, meanwhile, is approvingly quoted by the likes of industry advocacy group Energy in Depth, which said Krancer's Congressional testimony "highlighted the safe and responsible development occurring in the Commonwealth and the long and successful history of regulating oil and gas development at a state level making federal intervention in such matters unnecessary and ill-advised."
Jan Jarrett, of environmental nonprofit PennFuture, calls the Corbett administration's record on shale-gas "mixed." While she credits it for achievements like keeping drilling wastewater out of inadequately equipped treatment plants, she says, "At every turn, everyone in the Corbett administration is stating how eager they are to promote the growth of the industry."
Gas advocates like Energy in Depth have argued that Duke looked at too few wells to draw any conclusions. But while Jarrett considers the Duke sample small, she says, "You would have wished that the reaction [by DEP] would have been, ‘This limited amount of information shows there is a problem in some situations, and we need more study,'" rather than simply dismissing the results.
"Secretary Krancer's words often make it sound like the DEP is more aligned with the gas industry than with those who are trying to protect public health," says Erika Staaf, clean-water advocate for PennEnvironment. The gas industry already has a lobby, Staaf adds: "I don't believe they need a separate government agency that's charged with protecting the environment to do that for them."