Monday, February 28, 2011

And the Winner is...

Not "Gasland."  Josh Fox's documentary did not win the Oscar last night ("Inside Job" did), but the damage through media exposure has been done regardless.  Coincidentally, yesterday saw a particularly damaging front page story in the New York Times about the impact of wastewater from drilling on Pennsylvania.

The New York Times piece focuses on wastewater from the drilling process, demonizing hydraulic fracturing in a different way than "Gasland," which depended on bad logic and innuendo.  Instead, the Times piece focused on contaminants, especially naturally occurring radioactive elements, that are returned to the surface with the frac water and gas.  Being an investigative piece, the story has a sensational tone to it, but it also lacks some key evidence to draw its conclusions.  Specifically, the story drew conclusions based on pre-treated wastewater.  There was no evidence from downstream post-treatment tests, although testing in several Pennsylvania rivers is underway and results will be released next month.

Pennsylvania is unique in that it allows drillers to process wastewater through municipal plants. These plants might be under-prepared to deal with issues of excessive salts or other contaminants.  This is a problem.  The state is unprepared for dealing with drilling wastewater, and that's not going to change any time soon.  Ultimately I think there might be a technological solution to this problem that will yield a better way of treating wastewater, but it's not a quick fix.

Circumstances also pose a problem.  With a newfound lust for governmental budget cutting rather than increasing revenues, look for environmental oversight programs to face reduced funding at the very time they need to be strengthened.  Pennsylvania's new governor Tom Corbett is squarely on the side of energy companies and he has telegraphed his intention to gut environmental oversight.  Also, Congressional Republicans have targeted the EPA's budget.  The ultimate result is that change will be slow and the conflict will escalate.

The wastewater concern is not the same bogus issue of methane seeping into water wells because of hydraulic fracturing.  It is something that the gas industry needs to get out in front of.  It's easy to poo-poo it as anti-drilling environmentalism, but it likely is more than that.  There is always a natural tension between business and enforcement, but the successful balance of regulation and commerce is a big part of what makes our economic system great.  While the NYT story is focused on Pennsylvania, damage from the issue can be more widespread.

Next month, results from water samples taken from Pennsylvania rivers downstream of treatment plants will be released.  That will either worsen the situation or make the story fade.  Rather than waiting to find out, the industry needs to come up with a solution and not expect to survive on the likelihood of weakened enforcement.

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