NY Times' Coverage of Pennsylvania Environmental Regulation is a "Fraud"
John Hanger’s most recent job, as secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, gave him a front-row seat on the shale gas boom that is changing the Keystone State. Hanger spent 28 months in that position before leaving in January 2011. Since then, Hanger has been battling the New York Times for what he calls “a substantially false and completely sensational series of articles that created a fictional” narrative of lax regulation and oversight of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania. Hanger says that the Times reporter who wrote the series of articles, Ian Urbina, never contacted him, even though Urbina quoted Hanger in the first article in the series. And Hanger’s no fan of filmmaker Josh Fox and his anti-gas-industry documentary, Gasland.
Hanger says the gas industry must continue improving its safety and environmental protocols and he continues to advocate for a gas severance tax which he believes will help assure that all Pennsylvanians benefit from natural gas drilling. Since leaving the Department of Environmental Protection, Hanger has been working as a consultant. In addition, he has joined the Pittsburgh-based law firm Eckert Seamans as a special counsel.
I contacted Hanger shortly after the Times published its front-page story on gas drilling in Pennsylvania. After a brief introductory telephone conversation, Hanger agreed to the following interview, which was conducted via email. His answers were edited only for style. The editor’s notes have been added for clarity.
Q: Gasland was nominated (but didn’t win) an Academy Award. In a recent blog post, you wrote that Gasland:
presents a selective, distorted view of gas drilling and the energy choices America faces today. If Gasland were about the airline industry, every flight would crash and all airlines would be irresponsible. In Gasland, the gas industry is unsafe from beginning to end and is one unending environmental nightmare with no benefits. Gasland seeks to inflame public opinion to shutdown the natural gas industry and is effective. In pursuing this goal, Gasland treats cavalierly facts both by omitting important ones and getting wrong others.
That’s a sharp critique. Why do you think that the film has been so successful? Is it because the public is already pre-disposed to dislike the oil and gas industry? Or is it something else?
A: I am not a film critic but Gasland tells well a powerful tale. Its timing was good too, as it hit HBO when the BP oil spill leading the national news for weeks. The public is also skeptical at least of big institutions: Government is big; some banks are too big to fail. Oil and gas is big.
Q: You were particularly displeased by the February 27, 2011 front-page piece in the New York Times by Ian Urbina which said that regulators, particularly in Pennsylvania, were guilty of “lax oversight.” What did the Times get wrong?
A: The Times reporter deliberately created a false narrative of lax regulation and oversight of gas drilling in Pennsylvania. The reporter”s basic method was to just ignore the oversight and enforcement activity by Pennsylvania regulators. I wish I was being hyperbolic.
You won”t read in the Times’ 3,800-word article more than five words about the four regulatory packages strengthening protections of Pennsylvania”s waters and gas drilling regulation.
You won”t read in the Times’ 3,800-word piece that Pennsylvania”s regulators issued 1,400 violations to the industry just from January 1, 2008 to June 30, 2010. That is a lot of violations as Pennsylvanians said in no uncertain terms, when a state environmental organization issued a report about the 1,400 violations. An agency that issues 1,400 violations in that period is not engaging in lax regulation and lax oversight.
You won”t read in the Times’ February 27 article about the independent review done in 2010 by STRONGER of Pennsylvania”s regulatory program.
[Ed. Note: STRONGER is an acronym for the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations, a non-profit, multi-stakeholder organization. In 2009, STRONGER formed a working group that focused on hydraulic fracturing. In May 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection agreed to have its hydraulic fracturing program reviewed under the program. In September 2010, STRONGER issued its review of Pennsylvania's program, which concluded that it is "over all, well-managed, professional and meeting its program objectives."
Further, the report says "Hydraulic fracturing has been used in Pennsylvania since the 1950s. Since the 1980s, nearly all wells drilled in Pennsylvania have been fractured. Although thousands of wells have been fractured in Pennsylvania, DEP has not identified any instances where groundwater has been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing."]
You won”t read in the Times that Pennsylvania led the nation in increasing its gas regulation oversight staff. No state comes close to matching Pennsylvania”s hiring increases. Pennsylvania increased gas oversight hiring from 88 to 202 positions.
You won”t read in the Times [about] orders to companies to stop drilling for months; to stop fracking for months; to plug gas wells at great expense to companies and royalty owners; to repair gas wells from where gas had migrated to private water wells.
You won”t read in the Times about the 5,000 inspections of Marcellus gas drilling sites in 2010, a 100 percent increase in inspections, showing that the Pennsylvania oversight program is growing with the industry.
You won”t read in the Times main article about all that and much more. You won”t read the truth in the Times.
I have written extensively on the scandalous Times February 27th article. I urge readers to visit www.johnhanger.blogspot.com to get the extensive details and documentation for the fraud that the Times reporter wrote.
Q: What did the Times get right?
A: In terms of Pennsylvania”s regulation and oversight of the gas industry, not much at all. The Times was determined to write a totally sensational piece. It released this piece on the day of the Academy Awards, when Gasland”s nomination added sizzle to the proceedings. It paired the article on the home page of its website with material celebrating an anti-drilling celebrity activist. The Times” commercial and editorial goals were nakedly obvious.
Having said that, I did call immediately for testing of Pennsylvania”s drinking water for radionuclides as the Times had gratuitously frightened Pennsylvanians by implying strongly that their drinking water was polluted with unsafe levels of radium.
I believe in facts and it is easy to test water for radium so I called for testing. Some drinking water companies are now testing. Let”s see what the results are and what the Times does when the results are out.
[Ed. Note: On March 7, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection released a report on radioactivity in the state's drinking water. It found that water samples which were collected "in November and December of 2010 at stations downstream of wastewater treatment plants that accept flowback and production water from Marcellus Shale drilling... showed levels at or below the normal naturally occurring background levels of radioactivity."]
The basic rule at issue is whether the August 2010 new, stronger, Pennsylvania rule regulating the disposal of drilling wastewater and the [rule regarding] total dissolved solids [in] streams is strong enough. The August 2010 rule was supported by Pennsylvania”s drinking water companies, the Philadelphia Water Department and a huge number of environmental organizations. It was opposed by the gas drilling industry, the coal mining industry, the chemical industry, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and industry.
If the water tests come back with results documenting the water as unsafe, the rule will be have proven not tough enough. On the other hand, if water is proven safe, the Times should remove and censure this reporter. It should write a 3,800 word piece documenting the strong oversight of gas drilling that exists in Pennsylvania, put it on the front page of its Sunday edition, [and] promote it on its website with some Hollywood sizzle.
Q: You mentioned that the Times story did not mention the independent audit that was done of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas permitting process, called STRONGER. What did that review find?
A: STRONGER found that the Pennsylvania drilling program was well managed and meeting its objectives. It praised the state especially for its extraordinary hiring record to insure appropriate oversight.
Q: What’s your view on hydraulic fracturing? Should the public be worried about possible contamination of groundwater resources due to that procedure?
A: In Pennsylvania, not one instance of frac fluids returning from depth and polluting a water well took place in the 28 months that I led DEP. We tested for the possibility and never found any evidence of it. There were cases of frac materials being spilled or leaked at the surface that did contaminate water wells. We did document cases of gas migrating from poorly drilled gas wells and contaminating private water wells.
Q: To your knowledge, has hydraulic fracturing contaminated any wells in Pennsylvania?
A: See above.
Q: What are the biggest environmental challenges for the gas industry when it comes to the development of the Marcellus Shale and other unconventional gas deposits? Is it the management of water? Something else?
A: It is management of water and insuring the air emissions of gas production are sharply reduced by using the cleanest engines and fuels. In Pennsylvania, the gas industry innovated when faced with the prospect of the new rule ending the practice of allowing unlimited amounts of drilling wastewater to be discharged in rivers or streams. Now, even the Times concedes that the gas industry is recycling or reusing at least 65 percent of drilling wastewater and the amount of recycling is increasing rapidly.
Q: During our phone conversation, you mentioned the fact that Pennsylvania doesn’t have a severance tax on oil and gas production. To an outsider, that’s stunning. Why isn’t your state doing what every other state is doing with regard to taxing these hydrocarbons? Further, given that you favor such a tax, what would be a reasonable level of taxation?
A: It is a mistake for the industry not to insure a reasonable level of taxation of gas drilling. The absence of a tax is building public opposition to the industry. I am increasingly concerned by how the tax issue is building a backlash. I have consistently said as to amount that it should be just right: not too high and not too low. That is a big spectrum and a deal needs to be struck.
Q: You mentioned that in 2010, at least two companies, Range Resources, and EQT, have been public in their desire to impose a tax on gas production in Pennsylvania. Is it in the industry’s interest to get such a tax in place? If so, why?
A: See above.
Q: There’s no doubt that the increased drilling intensity associated with unconventional gas is causing lots of friction between the industry and rural (and some urban) residents. How could those conflicts – over truck traffic, compressor noise, and other issues – be minimized?
A: They can be minimized by real oversight and safe operations by the industry. Government can create incentives and pressures for safe operation and for the industry to have a true culture of safety. But government has massive limits. It will not drive the trucks or do the drilling or the welding. Only the industry is on the job 24 hours and 7 days a week. Without a true culture of safety within every company, within the industry, the tensions won”t be minimized.
Q: You said that state regulators in Pennsylvania have found some cases where thermogenic gas has migrated into drinking water supplies. Can you say how many cases? Are there indications as to the cause of that migration? Is the drilling industry the likely culprit?
A: Gas drilling has caused gas to migrate from gas wells to private water supplies in about 30 cases. The industry has supported much more stringent standards for gas drilling, design, materials, construction, monitoring, disclosure, and testing primarily to reduce the number of gas migration cases. Pennsylvania”s gas drilling rules on these points were strengthened at my direction.
Q: What questions have I missed?
A: The enormous new supplies of gas mean that Pennsylvania and the nation should require that coal plants that are more than 40 years old with little or no pollution controls and that sicken and shorten the lives of tens of thousands should clean up, refuel with natural gas, or close. America”s abundant gas remove all excuses for operating these old plant dinosaurs that are like a 40- or 50-year-old jalopy on the streets of Havana. Our gas supplies also mean that America should mobilize the nation to cut our oil consumption by 70 percent, the proportion of oil that is imported.
We need to build the gas and electric fueling infrastructure that would allow a massive move from oil to gas and electricity for transportation. The environmental, public health benefits of gas, if it displaces coal and oil, are much greater than the environmental impacts of gas production. One oil well devastated the Gulf of Mexico. [About] five hundred mountains in Appalachia have been blown up and 1,200 miles of streams [have been] buried to mine coal. Gas has an environmental impact, but is dwarfed by the impacts of coal and oil.
Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. The paperback edition of his fourth book, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, will be published next month.