Busting media myths on fracking

By Michael Sandoval

Photo courtesy of the Denver Post Twitter account.
Photo courtesy of the Denver Post Twitter account.


There is, perhaps, no more apt a way to describe the media’s treatment of the fracking industry. From headlines of articles to the manner in which the media portrays the evidence contained in them, the myths of a destructive extraction process are presented to an audience built on hype and speculation, not facts and results.

Sometimes aided by anti-fracking activists stocked with a slick grab-bag of platitudes, many in the media appear willing to readily accept the accusations and assertions offered, often with limited context. Corrections and context often come much later, if at all.

But even when so-called “fractivists” are not offering up the latest “flaming faucet” talking point, the media’s portrayal of fracking tends toward the “inflammatory,” as one critic, Energy In Depth’s Katie Brown, noted.

‘Cancer, Birth Defects and Infertility’

Take the recent study, published in the journal Endocrinology by researchers at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, focusing on drilling sites in Garfield County, Colorado.

“University of Missouri researchers have found greater hormone-disrupting properties in water located near hydraulic fracturing drilling sites than in areas without drilling. The researchers also found that 11 chemicals commonly used in the controversial ‘fracking’ method of drilling for oil and natural gas are endocrine disruptors,” the study’s release began.

Dr. Susan Nagel, an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and women’s health at MU, outlined what the potential—not the conclusion—of the study should be.

“More than 700 chemicals are used in the fracking process, and many of them disturb hormone function,” she said. “With fracking on the rise, populations may face greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure.”

Cue the headlines.

“Drilling-area water found to contain hormone-disrupting chemicals” – Denver Post.

“Hormone-disrupting chemicals found in water at fracking sites” – Los Angeles Times.

Other outlets took a more direct approach, such as Denver’s Channel 7 News. “Fracking chemicals could cause infertility, cancer and birth defects, study finds,” the editors wrote.

In the Twitter era, headlines may matter more than ever. Social media outlets are flooded with “Upworthy”-esque headlines that go more or less like this.

“You won’t believe what this new fracking study shows!” exhort the anti-fracking pied pipers.

Most readers will not receive the necessary contextual evidence that the samples collected in Colorado had been from drilled areas where spills had occurred and compared to samples taken hundreds of miles away in Missouri. That was the case with the story from Channel 7 News, which also neglected to mention the sample sites were spill locations, and not normal drilling sites.

Mark Jaffe, the Denver Post’s energy reporter, noted the spills and offered input from the state’s Water Quality Control Division, Steve Gunderson.

Gunderson offered criticism of the study’s methodology.

“The geology, annual precipitation and overall environment of Boone County is extremely different than Garfield County,” Gunderson told the Post.

“I’m not an alarmist about this, but it is something the country should take seriously,” Nagel told the Times in response to criticism of the study.

Nagel’s comments in the study’s press release, quite often the only portion of the study that is written up by journalists on deadline, appear more alarmist than not.

But EID’s Brown pushed back against Nagel’s top line statements, noting that the study itself contradicted those conclusions.

“Interestingly, the authors of the report not only agree, but actually state that the EDCs [endocrine-disrupting chemicals] they examined could be coming from sources other than fracking,” Brown wrote.

She pointed to this passage in the MU study.

“Both naturally occurring chemicals and synthetic chemicals from other sources could contribute to the activity observed in the water samples collected in this study,” the researchers wrote.

Those and other mitigating, contextual qualifications went missing from most media outlets’ reports.

‘Media Blackout’ or Not?

In the days following September 2013’s catastrophic floods in Colorado, anti-fracking activists leveled a new attack at the media—with thousands of people displaced and trillions of gallons of water inundating the state—where was the concern about oil and gas spills that must have taken place during the aftermath of the storm?

No less that Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) added his voice to the concerns raised about “toxic spills.”

“Not only have my constituents been dealing with damage to their homes, schools, and roads, they are increasingly concerned about the toxic spills that have occurred from the flooding of nearly 1,900 fracking wells in Colorado,” Polis wrote.

The Denver Post’s September 20 front page seemed to bear out those concerns as an overhead photo showed what appeared to be oil runoff, possibly from a damaged tank.

The above-the-fold headline blared: “Oil spilling into mix.”

The only problem: it wasn’t.

Doug Flanders, director of policy and external affairs at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, told The Colorado Observer that simply wasn’t true.

“There were no hydraulic fracturing operations functioning when the floods hit the region, no fracking equipment at the well sites, no fracking chemicals on any site,” Flanders told TCO.

“The 12 notable oil spills that did occur could fill five percent of an Olympic-size swimming pool and were the result of cracks in flowlines that connected to equipment,” Flanders continued.

“So, the fact people were saying we were having this fracking disaster is just completely and utterly false,” Flanders said.

TCO’s Audrey Hudson pointed to the media bandwagon, as CNN, Salon, and Rolling Stone—among others—rushed to share dramatic photos like the one headlined by the Post.

More than seven days passed before the Post issued a correction to that front-page photo, noting that it was not the remnant of an oil spill, but was merely leftover floodwater.

But when evidence of massive spills, contamination, and public health concerns touted by anti-fracking activists and eagerly gobbled up by a sympathetic media failed to materialize, media outlets went back to reporting the facts.

“Although much attention was focused on spills from oil and gas operations, it is reassuring the sampling shows no evidence of oil and gas pollutants,” Dr. Larry Wolk said. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment chief medical officer found no evidence of contamination from oil and gas operations, including fracking.

“There were elevated E. coli levels, as we expected, in some locations.”

“By comparison, the oil spills represent about four percent of the 660,000 gallons it takes to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The waste contained in the Evans plant alone would fill nearly two swimming pools,” the Denver Business Journal’s Cathy Proctor wrote.

The Associated Press added, “The river [South Platte] is a major source of drinking water and agricultural water but the state health department says the millions of gallons of sewage dumped into the river from broken sewer pipes and waste treatment plants pose a bigger problem.”

“Floodwaters quickly became a toxic soup of wastewater, raw sewage, industrial and household chemicals, agricultural waste and chemicals rushing downstream. Oil and gas releases, officials said, have been so small, it’s almost immaterial,” Mark Salley, spokesman for the state department of Public Health and Environment, told the Greeley Tribune.

The Environmental Protection Agency also came to the same conclusion.

“The total reported amount of reported [oil] spills is small compared to the solid waste that has spilled from damaged sewer lines and household chemicals from destroyed homes,” Matthew Allen, EPA Region 8 spokesman, told Energywire.

“It wasn’t user error or improper operations; it all falls in the act-of-God category,” Allen said.

City of Evans Mayor Lyle Achziger, whose town was devastated by floodwaters, told a side of the story not mentioned in the media.

“In the opinion of all of us here, we could have no better neighbors and business members of our community than oil and gas,” Achziger said.

Achziger noted that oil and gas companies like Noble Energy and Anadarko were among the first responders in the aftermath of September’s floods. According to Achziger, the companies handed out gift cards for food and provided more than 200 port-a-potties due to a “no-flush” order in the city. Equipment for hauling, digging, and cleaning were also made available to the city, providing critical infrastructural support in a time of crisis.

‘Media Myths and Fracktivists’

Resource developers should be under no illusion about the intent of those opposed to hydraulic fracturing. With the media’s willing or unwitting assistance, their goal is not merely to study the effects of the process of hydraulic fracturing on health, geology, or local economies, but to ban the extraction method, and eventually the entire oil and gas industry, outright.

In November 2013, National Journal interviewed “fractivists” in Colorado pushing temporary moratoriums and local bans through ballot measures in four Colorado communities. They admitted their end game went far beyond mere concern.

“Davis, a self-described ‘fractivist’ whose full-time job is to mobilize people against fracking—and oil and gas drilling writ large—focuses mainly on the public-health and environmental concerns. Ultimately, though, he is fighting to end fossil-fuel production altogether,” NJ wrote.

4. Michael SandovalAbout the Author: Michael Sandoval is energy policy analyst and investigative reporter for the Independence Institute in Denver, Colorado. Michael was most recently an investigative reporter for the nation’s leading conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation, where he specialized in coverage of green energy issues, government waste, and social media strategies. Michael’s work has been featured by the Drudge Report, The New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, Fox News, Fox Business News, Townhall and dozens of radio outlets around the country, as well as blogs like MichelleMalkin.com, HotAir.com, and Instapundit.com.

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