Monday, January 27, 2014

Muddying the Well Waters: Fracking ≠ Drilling

A recent AP article examined claims of water well contamination from nearby oil and gas drilling. The author performed a comprehensive review of drilling-related complaints requested from state agencies in four states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas. The article noted that contamination from methane, not from drilling chemicals, is commonly the source of pollution.  While many of the wells drilled in these states over the last 5 years have been wells that are ultimately used for fracking, scientists agree that the issues related to the well drilling process and improper casing of the well (regardless of how the gas or oil will be produced) cause the greatest potential for pollution, not hydraulic fracking.

While the title of the original AP article was “Oil and gas drilling pollutes well water, states confirm” other media sources used the article to report that fracking was the cause of the well pollution. For example, a number of articles based on the AP investigation began appearing shortly after with these headlines:
  • “Fracking caused hundreds of complaints about contaminated water in 4 states” 
  • “Report: Fracking operations are contaminating well water in 2 states” 
  • “Fracking investigation finds evidence of water contamination”. 

You can read them here, here and here.

The idea that news stories can be taken out of context and sensationalized is nothing new, but in this case it does change the tone and direction of the discourse around fracking. As one commenter on the AP article astutely noted “It’s too easy to confuse people by conflating fracking with drilling.”

Submitted by Eric Chase, P.G.


  1. You're absolutely right in your examination of the reporter and his/her story. The actual contamination had nothing to do with fracking or hydraulic fracking for oil and/or gas production. Groundwater contamination from ordinary gas and oil production has been noted by states and the public for more than 100 years. Usually the source of the contamination is either faulty drilling or use of mud "pits" dug directly into the soils. That's the reason for the creation of most states' oil and gas divisions more than 100 years ago. Its really a shameful episode in this country that a misinformed public is the result of poor communications from a news reporter who probably never saw an oil/gas rig or never knew that petroleum came from rocks deep in the earth.

    Many years ago in Southern Illinois I was a county geologist and I observed that anything I said to the newspapers was instantly reported falsely. So I made a promise never to speak to reporters again because the only thing they're interested in is selling newspapers, not the truth. I advise everyone to do the same. If you want to communicate with a reporter, send them a written story that you register. That way you can sue them for all sorts of things if and when they convert your words into something totally different.

    1. Thanks for your insights and experiences with the media. You make some great points on how to handle media requests. In my post I don't actually fault the original author for his work or data as I feel he accurately presents what he found. However, his article was used by other media outlets to promote an anti-fracking sentiment by linking drilling with fracking and ultimately implying that fracking caused pollution.

      There are inherent risk with any oil and gas production, from human error to materials failure to improper waste handling and construction practices. I think the scientific jury is still out on the true impacts of fracking and I personally feel continued study of this issue is needed.