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Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

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The Fracking Industry's War On The New York Times -- And The Truth

Posted: 10/20/11 03:18 PM ET

Superb investigative journalism by the New York Times has brought the paper under attack by the natural gas industry. That campaign of intimidation and obfuscation has been orchestrated by top shelf players like Exxon and Chesapeake aligned with the industry's worst bottom feeders. This coalition has launched an impressive propaganda effort carried by slick PR firms, industry funded front groups and a predictable cabal of right wing industry toadies from cable TV and talk radio. In pitting itself against public disclosure and reasonable regulation, the natural gas industry is once again proving that it is its own worst enemy.

I confess to being an early optimist on natural gas. In July of 2009, I wrote a widely circulated op-ed for the Financial Times predicting that newly accessible deposits of natural gas had the potential to rapidly relieve our country of its deadly addiction to Appalachian coal and end forever catastrophically destructive mountaintop removal mining. At that time, government and industry geologists were predicting that new methods of fracturing gas rich shale beds had provided access to an astounding 2000-5000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the lower 48 -- enough, they claimed to power our country for a century.

These rich reserves might have allowed America to mothball or throttle back our 336 gigawatts of mainly antiquated and inefficient coal fired electric plants replacing them with underutilized capacity from existing gas generation plants. That transition could reduce U.S. mercury emissions by 20%-25%, dramatically cut deadly particulate matter and the pollutants that cause acid rain and slash America's grid based CO2 by an astonishing 20% -- literally overnight! Gas could have been a natural companion for wind and solar energy with its capacity to transform variable power into base load, and could have been a critical bridge fuel to the new energy economy rooted in America's abundant renewables.

American sourced natural gas might also have helped free us from our debilitating reliance on foreign oil now costing our country so dearly in blood, national security, energy independence, global leadership, moral authority, and treasure amounting to $700 billion per year -- the total cost to our country of annual oil imports -- in addition to two pricey wars that are currently running tabs $2 billion per week.

My caveat was that the natural gas industry and government regulators needed to act responsibly to protect the environment, safeguard communities from irresponsible practices and to candidly inform the public about the true risks and benefits of shale extraction gas.

The opposite has happened.

The industry's worst actors have successfully battled reasonable regulation, stifled public disclosure while bending compliant government regulators to engineer exceptions to existing environmental rules. Captive agencies and political leaders have obligingly reduced already meager enforcement resources and helped propagate the industry's deceptive economic projections. As a result, public skepticism toward the industry and its government regulators is at a record high. With an army of over 40,000 highly motivated anti-fracking activists in New York alone, popular mistrust of the industry is presenting a daunting impediment to its expansion.

I sit on the New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo's High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing Advisory Panel. I and the other panelists are charged with developing recommendations to the Commissioner regarding rules that will hopefully safeguard New Yorkers from the kind of calamities caused by the natural gas industry to communities just across our border with Pennsylvania. We spend much of our time sorting truth from the web of myths spun about fracking by fast talking landsmen, smarmy CEOs, and federal regulators.

Recent studies have raised doubts about many of the industry's fundamental presumptions;

  • For example, releases of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas, may counterbalance virtually all the benefits of CO2 reductions projected to result from substituting gas power for coal. Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro, Anthony Ingraffea, Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations, Climatic Change (2011); Wigley T. (2011) Coal to Gas: The Influence of Methane Leakage. Climate Change Letters. DOI 10.1007/s10584-011-0217-3.
  • The human health impacts of gas extraction on local communities may rival those associated with coal. A new study by Centers for Disease Control finds that breast cancer rates have dropped in every county in Texas, but have increased in the six counties with the heaviest natural gas air emissions.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey just slashed its estimate on the amount of gas in the Marcellus Shale by 80%, raising doubts about all the industry's positive economic projections about jobs, royalties, and revenues. Industry based those projections on resource estimates that the federal government has now jettisoned.
  • Meanwhile local communities are finding the costs of irresponsible drilling to be ruinous. Contaminated well water, poisoned air, nuisance noise and dust, diminished property values and collapsing quality of life are often the predictable collateral damage of gas shale development in the rural towns of the east. Barth. The Unanswered Questions About the Economic Impact of Gas Drilling in the Marcellus Shale: Don't Jump to Conclusions. March 2010. Accessed 8/10/11; Christopherson & Rightor. How Should We Think About the Economic Consequences of Shale Gas Drilling? May 2011. Accessed 8/10/11;Stephen G. Osborn, Avner Vengosh, et al., Methane Contamination of drinking water accompanying gas wells drilling and hydraulic fracturing, PNAS Early Edition, April 14, 2011; Riverkeeper, Fractured Communities (Sept. 2010),
  • In a devastating admission, the industry now acknowledges that it absolutely cannot afford to pay localities the costs of roads damaged from the thousands of truck trips per wellhead, leaving those ruinous costs to local taxpayers, many of whom will see no benefits from the shale boom, but only declines in their quality of life.
  • With several notable exceptions, like Southwest Energy, the industry has demonstrated a disturbing fervor for secrecy while advocating regulatory policies that favor the most irresponsible practices and the worst actors.


The shale gas industry's campaign against The Times illustrates the difficulty in getting solid information upon which to base a regulatory scheme. The Times is doing an unusually rigorous job at covering this extremely important and complex issue. The paper's ongoing series on natural gas drilling is one of the strongest pieces of investigative journalism this year from any news venue. Thankfully, The Times is covering this extremely important topic with rigor and balance. But it is also going the extra mile in the level of documentation it provides to bolster its stories, a move that raises the bar on public service journalism.

In an era when few papers or news outlets are still willing to take on very powerful interests, The Times has pursued very difficult questions about one of our country's richest and most aggressive industries. At a time when accessing documents through open records requests faces an obstacle course of daunting roadblocks, the series has spent nearly a year using these flawed tools to collect and publish an extraordinary trove of original documentation. Archives published by The Times include thousands of pages obtained through leaks and/or public records requests. The Times reporters provide page-by-page annotations explaining the documents so that the reader can sift through them in guided fashion.

Among the revelations uncovered by The Times' admirable reporting;

  • Sewage treatment plants in the Marcellus region have been accepting millions of gallons of natural gas industry wastewater that carry significant levels of radioactive elements and other pollutants that they are incapable of treating.
  • An EPA study published by The Times shows receiving rivers and streams into which these plants discharge are unable to consistently dilute this kind of highly toxic effluent.
  • Most of the state's drinking water intakes, streams and rivers have not been tested for radioactivity for years -- since long before the drilling boom began.
  • Industry is routinely making inflated claims about how much of its wastewater it is actually recycling.
  • EPA, caving to industry lobbyists and high level political interference reminiscent of the Bush/Cheney era, has narrowed the scope of its national study on hydrofracking despite vocal protests from agency scientists. The EPA had, for example, planned to study in detail the effect on rivers of sending radioactive wastewater through sewage plants, but dropped these plans during the phase when White House-level review was conducted.
  • Similar studies in the past had been narrowed by industry pressure, leading to widespread exemptions for the oil and gas industry from environmental laws.
  • The Times revealed an ongoing and red hot debate within the EPA about whether the agency should force Pennsylvania to handle its drilling waste more carefully and strengthen that state's notoriously lax regulations and anemic enforcement.
  • The Times investigation also explodes the industry's decade old mantra that a "there is not a single documented case of drinking water being contaminated by fracking." The Times investigation of EPA archives exposes this claim as demonstrably false.


A second round of New York Times stories showed that within the natural gas industry and among federal energy officials, there were serious and disturbing reservations about the economic prospects of shale gas:

  • Government and industry officials made sure that all of their reservations were discussed privately and never revealed to the American public. Internal commentary by these officials is striking because it contrasts so sharply with the excited public rhetoric from the same agencies, lawmakers, industry officials and energy experts about shale gas.
  • Many industry experts have reservations over whether the wells produce as much gas as industry is claiming and whether companies may be misleading investors, landowners, and the public about the true costs of shale gas.
  • Shale gas wells often dry up faster than companies expected -- sometimes several decades faster than predicted.
  • Rather than coming clean, the companies downplay how much it costs to keep these wells flowing and overstate how much profit companies can make by these wells.
  • Furthermore, only a small percentage of the land in each shale gas field turns out to be highly productive, even at the start. Nevertheless, companies routinely pretend that all of their acreage will be equally promising.
  • These emerging issues also sparked private discussion among federal energy experts, who expressed grave concern that their agency's predictions were too heavily influenced by the natural gas industry's over-optimism. The Times found that the EIA was heavily reliant on data provided by companies with shale-gas industry ties.


The science writer for the Knight Ridder Journalism website summed up the significance of the Times' revelations about the industry's ballyhooed economic prospects. "From here, it appears that the Times and [the series principal author] Mr. Urbina are calmly saying we should learn a lesson from the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble, suggesting investors and regulators and gov't planners step with care and not be blinkered by all the money that's pouring in."

The organized attack on The Times and its reputation by well financed industry spin machines is illustrative of the perils and real challenges facing public service journalism today.

The Times piece has been the target of massive industry blowback. Industry funded front groups like Energy in Depth, an army of slick PR firms, and former regulatory officials like PA DEP Commissioner John Hanger, now on industry's payroll, have artfully manufactured deceptive talking points and posted blogs that are parroted by journalists looking for an industry response to The Times coverage and then emailed as "facts" to the industry's supporters and its indentured servants in Congress.

Ironically, many of the attacks against the series have claimed that the articles were poorly sourced or under-researched. Yet, The Times has not printed a single factual correction. This is certainly an admirable reporting record for a series that has been running in the paper for nearly a year. This is because, despite massive efforts by the industry to find errors, no critic has been able to identify a single fact that The Times actually got wrong. The Times posted thousands of pages of closely annotated original-source documents along with its news articles.

Rarely has a series had such wide-reaching and immediate impact. The New York Times articles have led to major changes in how the industry as well as state and federal regulators are handling one of America's most important energy issues.

Documents uncovered by The Times have already been put to use in litigation by injured parties seeking to force some treatment plants to stop handling the frack wastewater. The Times series has also pressured the EPA to begin a review of treatment plant permits (signaling the agency's possible intent to prohibit plants from discharging treated waste into rivers without comprehensive testing for shale gas contaminants). Healthy skepticism raised by the series has dampened some of the thrilled exuberance among Wall Street bankers ecstatic about the latest gold rush, federal lawmakers in the thrall of industry money, and in hard pressed rural communities seduced by hollow promises of massive royalties, local prosperity and abundant jobs.

As our panel grapples with these complex and difficult problems, we have found that the principal impediment to going forward with recommendations regarding regulations that could allow fracking in our state is a general mistrust of the claims we are hearing from industry and federal regulators. Revelations from The Times series and elsewhere have cast doubt upon all the industry's assurances about fracking and have complicated the task for those of us charged with advising the regulatory agencies on developing rules that could allow the industry to proceed while safeguarding the public interest.

For many of us on New York State's fracking panel, the one bright light has been the presence of Southwest Energy's Vice President and General Counsel Mark Boling. Boling is bullish on shale gas but his passion for public disclosure and a rigorous and rational regulatory framework, his candor about the perils of certain practices and his honest assessments of the costs and benefits of gas shale extraction have inspired trust and confidence among his fellow panelists. Boling's candor may have made him a pariah in his industry, but the panel's confidence in his integrity is the one thing that might allow us to go forward with recommendations regarding a regulatory scheme that could allow certain kinds of fracking to proceed in New York State. None of us wants to be in the position of getting seduced by sweet and lofty promises that quickly turn into a sour gas and impoverished communities.

Gas fracking flacks routinely make extravagant promises about bringing jobs and income to the depressed rural communities. If those jobs and royalties don't come -- the way they have not come for people in Bradford County, PA -- New Yorkers will be justifiably angry, as they wonder why the government and our panel did not protect them when there were so many warning signs.

 
 
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HUFFPOST SUPER USER
notrightorleft
Why tell you what you assume to already know?
05:26 PM on 10/20/2011
Two winters ago I switched from oil heat to natural gas. According to neo-enviro­nmentalist­, I should be heating my home with happy thoughts.
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BigBearcatBill
This is the real Bearcat - a Binturong
05:20 PM on 10/20/2011
Thank you for covering this in such detail, if this is going through the full Environmen­tal Impact Statement process which it should and open for public comments and questions, and the judges reviewing it are fair and impartial that is about all we can hope for besides not having bad pollution like you say. I think the difficulty usually is getting "experts" that are impartial and not tied strong to special interests from any angle so their analyses and input to the decision are not biased beyond that of any good scientist / risk analyzer with same academic training and experience (bias can always come from the "school of thought" you have learned under). A lot to weigh on the positive sides as you say though, especially the independen­ce from foreign energy sources.
05:19 PM on 10/20/2011
The energy industry has had a LONG history of distorting the truth and muddling science. From Climate change to air and water pollution controls every step of the way they have cried that it will not be profitable for them. Now what was Exxon-Mobi­l's profits this quarter?
05:10 PM on 10/20/2011
The New York Times has been slammed by everyone from super-envi­ronmentali­st/founder of the biggest enviro organizati­on in PA/Former DEP secretary John Hanger, to the New York Time's own ombudsman. I have no distaste for liberals. I love Jon Stewart and Colbert. I voted for Obama. I usually CRINGE or laugh when people talk about the "liberal media bias". But in this case, it's rampant. I've never seen a paper so committed to exerting influence on an issue. It's freaking embarrassi­ng for the Times that this is continuing to go on. I don't know if times are getting so tough that they will just print anything that is sensationa­l or if they just have it out for the gas industry, but this Ian Urbina throws caution (and facts, balance) to the wind.
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demisfine
Often correct, NEVER right.
avanteguard
Truth, Justice, and the American way
04:51 PM on 10/20/2011
It is absolutely vital that fracking not only be continued but accelerate­d at least by 5000 percent so that Americans can have all the affordable energy that we want and need, in order to move our country forward, and provide the standard of living that Americans expect, and we must let no limiting iniatives get in the way of this important goal, or to derail the exploratio­n and recovery of ALL type of energy resources here in America, there can be little argument among prescient minds that we must continue to harvest and utilize every possible recoverabl­e energy source possible, as well as greatly expand the expansion of nuclear power generation­, America must not be impeded in these goals for a prosperous secure country and futures!
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demisfine
Often correct, NEVER right.
04:59 PM on 10/20/2011
No, thank you.
Renewable resources which DO NOT require us to break up the rock beneath us or drain resources to release resources are a better, cheaper, cleaner option.
Searching for more carbon based fuels to burn at a profit for the big oil has to stop.
the sooner the better.
We are losing precious time and industry leadership to China and Germany.
We shouldn't be the last nation supporting a post-peak industry just because big oil sees the opportunit­y to squeeze more profit from our soil.
HUFFPOST SUPER USER
GO ROMNEY
05:33 PM on 10/20/2011
Are you with it? China and the rest of the undevelope­d and even the developed world are envious of the US and therefore out to beat us in all kinds of business and energy..fo­ssil, nuclear, solar etc
Enjoy it while you can but you are certainly not a US patriot, A US patriot believes that US ideals and our Constituti­on are what we and the rest of the world should stand for
05:17 PM on 10/20/2011
Your comments are so stunning and stupid that I hardly know how to respond. We only get ONE CHANCE to be good stewards of the earth. Listen closely...­...WE'RE BLOWING IT!!!! I certainly don't want to live in a community where the air and water are rendered toxic so some short-sigh­ted profiteers can 'take the money and run' and leave my community to clean up the mess. Even a bird has enough sense not to soil it's own nest!!!! Thank you so much New York Times and Robert Kennedy Jr. for your insightful publishing­......unfo­rtunately, even with the best informatio­n available.­.....you obviously can't educate everyone!!­!
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HUFFPOST SUPER USER
LiberalBuzz
Voting republican is voting against America.
04:15 PM on 10/20/2011
Hate to tell ya this Robert but even though more and more of us know this and know of how incredibly bad fracking is, as long as there billions to be made and more millions to be used to bribe congressme­n/women and senators nothing is going to change.

The only time we will see change is when private money can no longer be allowed to influence elections.

The second it goes to government financing (I got no problem with my taxes being used for that so long as there is no private funds as well) we will see a sea change in government­.

But as long as corporatio­ns as considered human being and can spend unlimited amounts influencin­g elections for their own enrichment and congressme­n/women are corrupt enough to not care about their country, nothing is going to change.

As long as teabaggers and republican­s continue to defend the one percent against the rest of the entire country, nothing is going to change.

As long as money is the single influence, nothing is going to change.

The wealthy don't just live in ivory towers any longer but even further from reality than that.

So don't hold your breath.
04:14 PM on 10/20/2011
Of course they'll still lobby Congress. With all that money for bribes they get what they want.
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GirlUsingBrain
The most dangerous animal in the forest is man.
05:31 PM on 10/20/2011
And some Rightwing Congressma­n or Senator will apologize to them on behalf of the country.
04:03 PM on 10/20/2011
"Most of the state's drinking water intakes, streams and rivers have not been tested for radioactiv­ity for years -- since long before the drilling boom began."
Well test the waters NOW, for God's sake.
I'm serious. Are the waters scheduled to be tested?
You're scaring me, Mr. Kennedy, but God bless you for calling attention
to this ongoing abominatio­n.
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GirlUsingBrain
The most dangerous animal in the forest is man.
05:33 PM on 10/20/2011
Which water? I work in a Water Quality Laboratory­. We run analyes of water samples: groundwate­r, well water, river water, effluent discharged from treatment plant, industrial waste, and more.

We do this in conjunctio­n with EPA regulation­s and State regulation­s.

We need these regulation­s.
03:58 PM on 10/20/2011
This is a great article and it should be circulated and read all over the world. Fracking for natural gas is too dangerous, too expensive and unnecessar­y for our energy needs. Read the Nov. 2009 issue of Scientific American for the plan to a sustainabl­e energy future. We have a choice of where to put our capital and energy strategy, as safe, renewable, decentrali­zed green energy path or a destructiv­e, centralize­d, capital intensive fossil and nuclear fuel path. Fracking should be banned the NYT series,oth­er articles prove it. The industry doesn't want to spend the money to drill safely or clean up the mess. We don't need any more green house gas emissions. Natural gas via fracking is not needed as a "transitio­n fuel." We have the technology to meet our current and future energy now and fully convert by 2030 if we plan and invest in green energy. We can't do both.
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Tox of Oz
Australian, Atheist, Left of Gandhi & Cynic
03:54 PM on 10/20/2011
Good informatio­n, over here in Australia there is a growing opposition to this form of natural gas extraction­. Thankfully we have a Green party here that is more that willing to flex its recently gained political muscle and hopefully we can remove this weed before it fully takes root.

The biggest fear here is the ground water contaminat­ion, being such a dry continent most outback communitie­s rely on bore water for their survival. If the aquifers get contaminat­ed by this short sited greed it will be the death of many inland communitie­s and an environmen­tal disaster that will take thousands of years to nature to rectify.
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HUFFPOST COMMUNITY MODERATOR
EthnicHeart
04:11 PM on 10/20/2011
Excellent post. Thank you. F&F
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HUFFPOST COMMUNITY MODERATOR
LHoney
Life is short, seize the day!
04:50 PM on 10/20/2011
x2
03:54 PM on 10/20/2011
The quality of the investigat­ive reporting by the new york times of the fracking industry and the dangers of fracking is exceeded only by the quality of the investigat­ion and causes of autism including vaccinatio­ns as advocated by Robert Kennedy jr.
This user has chosen to opt out of the Badges program
03:52 PM on 10/20/2011
Reminds me of how completely evil and destructiv­e Bright Source turned out to be. You know Bright Source, right? Killing thousands of acres of healthy taxpayer-o­wned wilderness and thousands of threatened desert tortoises so they can waste billions of taxpayer dollars so they can overcharge thousands of ratepayers for the exact same power those ratepayers could have produced (for half the cost) on their own rooftops? That Bright Source? The one that also burns the gas that you are now realizing is so awful...

Welcome to the party. Big Energy is, was, and always will be the problem, so people need to stop greenwashi­ng their mercenary behavior, whether it's gas, oil, coal, solar, wind, transmissi­on, nukes or otherwise. They are causing huge environmen­tal and economic problems for us - it is beyond ludicrous that certain people would turn to them to simultaneo­usly "solve" these problems.

LOCAL, decentrali­zed, democratic­ally-owned solar power and efficiency upgrades supported by PACE loans and German style feed in tariffs will eliminate the vast majority of the destructio­n Big Energy is bringing to our wallets and our planet. Time to switch teams and play for the good guys, eh?
03:52 PM on 10/20/2011
What ever happened to ethics in business?

I guess since the greed is good gang took over they no longer teach ethics in business schools.
HUFFPOST SUPER USER
devildog21
"War is a Racket" -Smedley D. Butler MajGen USMC
05:01 PM on 10/20/2011
In some industries­, such as oil, coal and gas, there never has been any ethics.
03:51 PM on 10/20/2011
What ever happened to the polluter pays principle. If you pollute you clean it up.

Seems that oil, coal and gas companies want to make the profits but turn over the costs and the clean up to the tax payers.

Another of the schemes helping the top 1% get richer while average Americans suffer.
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GirlUsingBrain
The most dangerous animal in the forest is man.
04:08 PM on 10/20/2011
... and while they reap in million$ in subsidies.
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demisfine
Often correct, NEVER right.
05:02 PM on 10/20/2011
The GOP has been reducing those regulation­s which held the "job creators" responsibl­e for the ills they caused to produce their excessive profits.
Remember how they stuck up for BP and called out President Obama as a gangster for expecting BP to contribute financiall­y to the gulf clean-up?