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Smelling a leak: Is the natural gas industry buying academics?

Last week, the University of Texas provost announced he would reexamine a report by a UT professor that said fracking was safe for groundwater after the revelation that the professor pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Texas natural gas developer. It's the latest fusillade in the ongoing battle over the basic facts of fracking in America.

Texans aren't the only ones having their fracking conversations shaped by industry-funded research. Ohioans got their first taste last week of the latest public-relations campaign by the energy policy wing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It's called "Shale Works for US," and it aims to spend millions on advertising and public events to sell Ohioans on the idea that fracking is a surefire way to yank the state out of recession.

The campaign is loaded with rosy employment statistics, which trace to an April report authored by professors at three major Ohio universities and funded by, you guessed it, the natural gas industry. The report paints a bright future for fracking in Ohio as a job creator.

One co-author of the study, Robert Chase, is poised at such a high-traffic crossroads of that state's natural gas universe that his case was recently taken up by the Ohio Ethics Commission, whose chair called him "more than a passing participant in the operations of the Ohio oil and gas industry," and questioned his potential conflicts of interest.

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Fracking takes a hit in Penn., while most states still do little to regulate

We often use the word "exploded" when referring to the growth of fracking. Not out of any sense of grim irony, but just because the industry is expanding rapidly as more and more natural gas is produced through hydrofracturing. (The technological breakthrough behind the boom is well-described in this New Yorker article, which you should certainly read.) Since the middle of 2006, the amount of natural gas produced each month has consistently trended higher. The gray line is monthly production; the black dotted line, the trend. Click to embiggen. A large part of why this is happening is that the fracking …

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Sean Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Jimmy Fallon perform ‘Don’t Frack My Mother’

Here's Sean Lennon, deliberately looking just like his father and singing just like Bob Dylan for some reason, performing a slightly naughty anti-fracking song with his mom on Jimmy Fallon's show.

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Best example of bad government investment? Land use.

A sand mine near Chippewa Falls. (Photo by Jim Tittle/The Price of Sand.)

Conservatives are trying to make Solyndra the poster child for bad government investment. They'd have an easier argument -- if many unhappy benefactors -- if they targeted public land use.

We've talked about this before: how the government auctions off mineral resources at low, low prices allowing private sector companies to make massive profits.

That's only part of it. There's also the shortsightedness that goes into turning over pristine land, even protected areas, for extraction and development. This week, the Center for American Progress and the Sierra Club launched a video series profiling three areas -- the Grand Canyon watershed, Bryce Canyon, and Wyoming's Noble Basin -- that might soon be impacted by private sector extraction.

The House is trying to make this alarmingly easy process even easier. Earlier today, the House of Representatives held votes on a bill -- H.R. 4402, introduced by Rep. Mark Amodei (R–Nev.) -- that would greatly facilitate the permit process for mining.

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Is fracking polluting Pennsylvania groundwater or not?

ProPublica has been at the forefront of examining the possible negative impacts of fracking. Yesterday, they posted a story titled, "New Study: Fluids From Marcellus Shale Likely Seeping Into PA Drinking Water." Here's how it starts:

New research has concluded that salty, mineral-rich fluids deep beneath Pennsylvania's natural gas fields are likely seeping upward thousands of feet into drinking water supplies.

Though the fluids were natural and not the byproduct of drilling or hydraulic fracturing, the finding further stokes the red-hot controversy over fracking in the Marcellus Shale, suggesting that drilling waste and chemicals could migrate in ways previously thought to be impossible.

The study, conducted by scientists at Duke University and California State Polytechnic University at Pomona and released today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tested drinking water wells and aquifers across Northeastern Pennsylvania. Researchers found that, in some cases, the water had mixed with brine that closely matched brine thought to be from the Marcellus Shale or areas close to it.

At FuelFix, an energy news site associated with the Houston Chronicle, a story from the Associated Press is titled, "New research shows no Marcellus Shale pollution."

New research on Marcellus Shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania may only add fuel to the debate over whether the industry poses long-term threats to drinking water.

A paper published on Monday by Duke University researchers found that gas drilling in northeastern Pennsylvania did not contaminate nearby drinking water wells with salty water, which is a byproduct of the drilling.

“These results reinforce our earlier work showing no evidence of brine contamination from shale gas exploration,” said Robert Jackson, director of Duke’s Center on Global Change and a co-author of the paper, which appeared online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

So which is it? Is fracking polluting groundwater or not?

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Complete jerks think fracking is more important than democracy

The North Carolina State Capitol, where "democracy" happens. (Photo by Jim Bowen.)

Becky Carney, a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives, hit the wrong button.

She meant to support Gov. Bev Perdue's veto of a bill that would lift a ban on fracking in the state, but, instead, voted to overturn the veto. In other words, removing the quadruple negative, she voted to allow fracking in North Carolina. She'd never intended to do that -- in fact, a few weeks prior, Carney had voted against lifting the ban.

It gets worse. The vote required 72 votes for the veto to be overturned. Carney was the 72nd.

And then it gets hyper-mega-worse. Her colleagues ("colleagues") decided that she wasn't going to be allowed to change her vote.

The vote took her by surprise. Republicans limited debate on the fracking legislation – Senate bill 820 – and called the vote. Green button to override. Red button to sustain.

Carney hit the button and looked to the board above the chamber that shows the results: 72 to 46. The color next to Carney’s name matched the Republicans.

She panicked. She hit a different button to turn on her microphone and called to the House speaker on the dais. He didn’t recognize her. So she rushed to the front, 20 steps from her seat in the eighth row down the red-carpeted middle aisle.

Carney asked the clerk to check her vote. Green. Override.

She then asked Tillis if she could change her vote. Tillis said House rules prevented it.

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No place is safe from fracking, not even graveyards

No place blessed with an abundance of natural gas is safe from the possibility of fracking -- not even cemeteries.

In Texas, the president of the cemetery association has already been selling the gas underneath his graveyard, the Centre Daily Times reports:

[John] Stephenson leased mineral rights under two of his cemeteries within the past three years, he said. Each is about a century old and populated with 75,000 graves. Revenue from the leases -- he wouldn't say how much -- has allowed him to pave roads, repair fences and make other improvements during economic hard times.

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Good news about fossil fuels! Related: Bad news about fossil fuels!

How you will feel at the end and beginning of this post, respectively. (Photo by loresjoberg.)

Presenting: New data about fossil fuel consumption from the Worldwatch Institute, in decreasing order of how good the news is.

  • Oil consumption in the European Union dropped by 2.8 percent in 2011!
  • Oil consumption in the United States dropped by 1.8 percent in 2011!
  • Oil consumption increased by .7 percent globally last year -- less than the 3.3 percent increase in 2010.
  • But a lot more than the 1.3 percent decline in 2009.

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General public still unaware of what fracking is – much less its impacts

Flammable tap water still from Gasland.

Sixty-three percent of Americans don't really know what fracking is. Which is, what? Mind-boggling? Unbelievable? What's the description I'm looking for here?

The figure comes from a study conducted by the University of Texas, which asked this question: How familiar are you with the term "hydraulic fracturing" (sometimes referred to as "fracking")? Thirty-two percent of respondents indicated familiarity; nearly everyone else was either not familiar or had never heard the term (which is a weird distinction).

Talking Points Memo (TPM), citing that report, indicated that they'd received a slightly different response from their readers. In 2010 and 2012, TPM asked readers how they felt about increased government investment in natural gas exploration.

The response: In 2010, 55.5% either agreed or strongly agreed and two years later 56.1% either disagreed or strongly disagreed. That’s a big difference. And the polarization also increased: substantially fewer people didn’t have an opinion.

The comparison is not one-to-one. TPM's survey was just that, a survey, administered to a self-selecting population that is markedly more liberal than the general population. Likewise, TPM's question was about government investment, not mere awareness. With those caveats, though, it's clear that TPM saw a shift away from support for natural gas extraction.

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New York likely to limit fracking — to some of the state’s poorest counties

A hydrofracking facility. (Photo by Helen Slottje.)

The New York Times reports:

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration is pursuing a plan to limit the controversial drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing to portions of several struggling New York counties along the border with Pennsylvania, and to permit it only in communities that express support for the technology.

Accompanying the article is this map of the areas in which fracking is likely to be allowed -- as well as those areas that have barred the practice.

Graphic by the New York Times.