Flaming Faucets! Fracking Joe Is Back!

February 28, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX


By Marie Burns:

As a public service, Joe Nocera has devoted his New York Times column today to inform his readers “How to Frack Responsibly.” What could possibly be wrong with that?

Let’s start where Nocera starts: with his lede: “Fracking isn’t going away.” Right from the get-go, Nocera claims there is no reasonable alternative view. But there is more than one side to the fracking story, as even Nocera acknowledges in his second graf where he lets on that fracking has “enemies” who “stamp their feet.” Whiney babies! But the enemies of progress have not got a chance, Nocera writes, because “that gas is too important to leave in the ground.” So. Enemies dispensed with.

Nocera doesn’t mention it, but this is the third time he has used his column to promote fracking, a/k/a “induced hydraulic fracturing,” the process of injecting highly-pressurized fluid (of some kind) in rock crevices to force them further open to extract (oil and) gas. Nocera wasted no time launching his oil-and-gas lobbying operation. Less than two weeks after being elevated to his high perch on the Times op-ed page, Nocera wrote a column titled “Pass the Boone Pickens Bill.” In that first column, Nocera glowingly described “a simple, discrete, and largely overlooked” piece of “actual bipartisan legislation” commonly called the “Boone Pickens bill” that would “creates tax incentives – $1 billion a year for five years – to encourage manufacturers to begin building heavy-duty trucks that will be powered by natural gas instead of diesel. It also gives some tax incentives to truck-stop owners who install natural gas filling stations….”

Nocera admitted in this first column to being a long-time friend of Pickens and of having a bias in Pickens’ favor.* The only criticism of Pickens or his bill that Nocera could think of was “that anything that boosts natural gas will put money in his pocket.” … To this Nocera responded, “But so what? He’s already plenty rich….” Nocera concluded his column by declaring, “Natural gas is cheaper than oil. It’s cleaner. And it’s ours. If Congress can’t pass this thing, there’s really no hope.”

Nocera received plenty of criticism for that column, including a polite “oh yeah?” from me, in which I cited, you know, science stuff. Or as another commenter asked more succinctly, “Shouldn’t this column – even as an opinion piece – at least mention the words fracking, water pollution, earthquakes, massive risk?” That’s right. In a column on fracking, Joe Nocera never used the word “fracking.” It was all about providing incentives to encourage “modern drilling techniques.”

Fracking Joe was not amused by readers’ criticisms. As blogger Ed Cone wrote,

Nocera, fresh to the big stage of the oped page, responds to legitimate questions about a recent column by throwing a hissy fit. Joe, Joe, Joe. You wrote a column about natural gas without mentioning environmental concerns. Readers pointed out the omission. The proper response is to concede the oversight and deal with the issues at hand, not to snark at your critics and wave the bloody shirt (“…the Middle East, where American soldiers continue to die”) as if drill, baby, drill was the only true expression of patriotism.

The hissy fit was Nocera’s second frac job. That was all last April. Since then, Nocera – formerly a business writer for the Times (and before that the managing editor of Texas Monthly where he got to palling around with Pickens) – has stuck mostly to writing about business and sports. But lately Nocera has been working his way back toward his first loves – T. Boone and Fracking. He devoted one column in January to saying “some nice things about BP and some not so nice things about the lawyers who are suing BP.” This month, he wrote two columns – here and here – knocking environmentalists’ concerns about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. He was irritated by Robert Redford’s rebuttal to his first Keystone XL column. And he didn’t like Joe Romm’s calling him a member of the “climate ignorati.”

Evidently the BP and Keystone XL apologias were Preludes to a Frac Job.

Nowhere in today’s column does Nocera reveal his bias. A reader would have to remember his columns from ten months ago to know that Nocera was a friend of Boone Pickens, who stands to make millions, if not billions, from fracking operations. Nocera doesn’t link his earlier columns, and neither does the Times. Today’s column is a hit job on unsuspecting readers.

After having first ignored, then pooh-poohed environmental concerns about fracking in his earlier columns, Nocera now asserts he is concerned about safe fracking. To that end, he has consulted

Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, [who] understands this as well as anyone. Last summer, he was a member of a small federal advisory panel that was charged by Steven Chu, the secretary of energy, with assessing the problems associated with fracking. The group came up with a long list of environmental issues. But it also concluded that ‘the U.S. shale gas resource has enormous potential to provide economic and environmental benefits for the country.’

Environmentalists have criticized both the DOE panel and Krupp himself for industry ties. The panel’s chairman John Deutch is a former CIA Director, an MIT professor, and by the way, a director of a natural gas company and former director of a major drilling company. Bill Holland of Platts reported just as the committee was wrapping up its work last August that

28 scientists – including Cornell University’s Robert Howarth, who published a study this spring saying that methane leaks from gas extraction and transmission made the commodity a more potent greenhouse gas threat than coal – echoed earlier arguments by environmental groups that Deutch and five of the other six members had financial ties to the energy industry and couldn’t be relied upon to make objective decisions…. ‘The committee appears to be performing advocacy-based science and seems to have already concluded hydraulic fracturing is safe,’ they noted…. The only panel member the scientists and EWG had no difficulty with is Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp.

Fifty-seven New York State legislators made the same complaint and added that they wanted “New York and other regions affected by fracking … to have a seat at the table.”

But even if the DOE committee was “an industry-influenced rubber stamp” that ignored local concerns, they still wanted – and have not received – satisfactory solutions to that “long list of environmental issues” Fracking Joe lets slip. The committee report concluded,

… if action is not taken to reduce the environmental impact accompanying the very considerable expansion of shale gas production expected across the country – perhaps as many as 100,000 wells over the next several decades – there is a real risk of serious environmental consequences and a loss of public confidence that could delay or stop this activity.

So what we have here is a panel on which five of the six members are tainted, but they still find problems with fracking. What does Fracking Joe emphasize? That the committee “concluded that ‘the U.S. shale gas resource has enormous potential to provide economic and environmental benefits for the country.’” But, hey, Nocera called on the only guy on the panel the scientists did find credible. Let’s give Fracking Joe an atta-boy.

Or not. Here’s what Nocera writes, “Krupp didn’t back away from the idea that domestic natural gas could be the ‘bridge fuel’ that helps bring us toward a renewable energy future.” Parse that, and you’ll have a hard time reading a ringing endorsement of fracking. “Didn’t back away” does not translate as “endorse.” “Domestic natural gas” does not equal “fracking.” There are other ways to extract natural gas. “Could be” does not equal “will be.” Turns out Fracking Joe is pretty good at extraction himself. He managed to extract a positive-sounding, if tortured, message out of what was evidently an extremely cautious remark.

Next, Nocera writes that, “Unlike others in the environmental movement, [Krupp] and his colleagues at the Environmental Defense Fund don’t want to shut down fracking; rather, their goal is to work with the states where most of the shale gas lies and help devise smart regulations that would make fracking environmentally safer.” Okay, let’s see what Krupp has to say about that in his own words. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published just after the DOE committee issued its report, Krupp wrote,

Natural gas development has come under intense scrutiny due to widespread concern about impacts on air and groundwater quality, and fears about unsafe management and disposal of the million or so gallons of wastewater that each well produces. Recent studies have also questioned natural gas’s carbon advantage—an advantage that is undermined by methane leaks from wellheads, pipelines and other equipment….

Supporters and opponents packed the auditorium and told stories about how the shale gas boom had affected them. For some, it had provided an economic lifeline. For others, it had made life a nightmare. I was struck by the story of one woman who was forced to leave her family farm and was living out of her car. Ever since the drilling started, she said, her young son had become increasingly ill.

Hmm. Sounds a little different from Nocera’s interpretation, doesn’t it? Krupp goes on to call for more regulation, more oversight, more disclosure, a national database. Krupp is in the business of negotiating with polluting industries, so he does conclude, “It’s no simple task to strike a balance between public safety and the development of this growing energy resource, but it is essential that we do so.”

Nocera next launches into the one environmental issue he seems to find worth his while. Hilariously, he begins by taking the Michele Bachmann approach. To celebrate Earth Day 2009, Bachmann “rebutted” the science of global warming by saying on the House floor, “Carbon dioxide is natural.” The remark drew jeers across the Internets. Here’s Nocera: “Every natural gas well leaks methane — methane is natural gas, after all….” Methane ultimately changes into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Yo, Joe, arsenic is natural, too. To be fair, Nocera does acknowledge that methane is “potent. Though it eventually disintegrates, for several decades methane can add significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.”

In September 2011, Joe Romm wrote that “a stunning new study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) concludes:

… that the substitution of gas for coal as an energy source results in increased rather than decreased global warming for many decades….

But there’s more. Romm also wrote a post on an International Energy Agency study that came out in mid-2011: He incorporated the Guardian’s report on the IEA’s study:

Natural gas is not the ‘panacea’ to solve climate change that fossil fuel industry lobbyists have been claiming, according to new research from the International Energy Agency. Reliance on gas would lead the world to a 3.5C temperature rise, according to the IEA. At such a level, global warming could run out of control, deserts would take over in southern Africa, Australia and the western US, and sea level rises could engulf small island states.

Romm delves into economic considerations, too, the most important of which is that the abundance of natural gas could, and probably would, put pressure on governments to cut back on subsidies for renewable forms of energy. And, as Tyler Hamilton of the Toronto Star writes, in a column Romm links, “… higher fossil fuel prices alone won’t wean us off fossil fuels, it will only make us go for deeper, heavier and more remote resources in an effort to feed our petro addiction.”

There are, of course, other considerations, as Fred Krupp hinted in his Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Stephen Lacey of Grist wrote,

Along with global greenhouse-gas emissions, there are major concerns about local environmental problems near drilling sites. Fracking releases smog-forming air toxics and creates huge amounts of wastewater filled with chemicals and high levels of radiation. In order to prevent air and water contamination problems, numerous states and municipalities in the U.S. have partially or fully halted fracking. And [in July 2011] France became the first country to implement a nationwide ban.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben gives some particulars in the current New York Review of Books review: Methane seeping into underground aquifers and water wells – the “flaming faucet” effect – turn on the tap, light a watch, watch the water catch fire – confirmed in studies by the EPA and Duke University. The hydraulic fluids (whatever they are) seeping spilling into rivers and lakes, in some cases turning them into salt-water bodies. Higher levels of radioactivity. Air quality issues – higher levels of carcinogens benzene and toluene, for instance, seeping out of wells as has happened in Wyoming: one rural Wyoming county has ozone levels higher than Los Angeles. And speaking of Los Angeles, earthquakes (“on New Year’s Eve a magnitude 4.0 earthquake in Youngstown, Ohio, was blamed on the injection of high-pressure fracking water along a seismic fault, a phenomenon also documented in Arkansas and Oklahoma”)

Fracking Joe concludes his column by conceding that “not all drillers can be counted on to drill responsibly, which is why regulation is so critical.” Ah, but regulation is only as good as the regulators. Fred Krupp “frowned” and told Nocera, “Given the dysfunction in D.C., a state-by-state approach will be more effective.” Let’s see how that’s working out in Pennsylvania, a key state in the Marcellus Shale. According to McKibben,

… overmatched regulators who can’t even keep an accurate count of the number of wells are having a hard time coping with waste products – especially since the political power of the industry just keeps growing. Pennsylvania inaugurated a new governor last year, Republican Tom Corbett, who had taken more gas industry contributions than all his competitors combined. Not only did he quickly reopen state land to new drilling, he claimed regulation of the industry had been too aggressive. ‘I will direct the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to serve as a partner with Pennsylvania business, communities and local governments,’ he said.

In addition, as McKibben notes, many issues with fracking cross state borders. What happens in Pennslvania doesn’t stay in Pennsylvania. Much of Pennsylvania, for instance, is in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

How would Joe know any of this? Perhaps he could read his own newspaper. As McKibben notes, Ian Urbina of the New York Times has done “some of the most remarkable work on the subject.” You – and Fracking Joe – can link to some of Urbina’s stuff on this Times feature page “Drilling Down.” McKibben sees it as Pulitzer-worthy.

Once again, Joe Nocera has used his New York Times column to grossly distort or hide the facts in service of a billionaire friend and his industry peers on an issue of great importance to the future of the nation and the world. My last column on one of Fracking Joe’s journalistic efforts – one entirely unrelated to the oil and gas industry – was titled “Fire Joe Nocera.” His column today is a new exhibit for my case.

* I have a little bias of my own. My summer cottage is on a lake in the Marcellus Shale in an area where oil and gas interests have been buying up and trading mineral rights and pipeline rights-of-way. Like the millions of residents of New York City whose water supply comes from reservoirs near my cottage, I drink the water Fracking Joe proposes to accidentally contaminate. I also breathe the air he plans to pollute.

Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com



Readers Comments (0)


Reload Image

Thomas Friedman and Henry Kissinger, Photo AP