UPDATED - Duke Researchers Take a Swing at Fracking - Coverage of New Report Reveals Media Bias

Are some outlets burying the lead in favor
of the portion of the story that supports their view?
UPDATE 2:  EID took a look at the media coverage of the Duke report in a new article.  Read the whole article here, but the section I thought was particularly interesting is this:
Given some of National Public Radio’s recent forays into energy reporting, EID was eager to see what it would make of the Duke study. Here’s an excerpt from the online version: 
The nation’s boom in natural gas production has come with a cost: The technique used to get much of the gas out of the ground, called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has contaminated drinking water. But how often and where this contamination is taking place is a matter of much debate and litigation. 
Now, a new study has found natural pathways of contamination — but that doesn’t mean the drilling industry is off the hook.
Wait, what? First of all, the authors of the Duke study said very clearly their water testing found no evidence to suggest hydraulic fracturing has contaminated drinking water. From the Duke press release: 
These results reinforce our earlier work showing no evidence of brine contamination from shale gas exploration. 
Secondly, any reporter who has spent five minutes covering shale-gas and shale-oil development knows – or should know – that there’s never been a verified case of hydraulic fracturing contaminating drinking water aquifers. So, EID reached out to NPR to seek a correction, and sent over the following statements:
  • “In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” – Lisa Jackson , U.S. EPA Administrator (April 30, 2012)
  • “I’m not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.” – Lisa Jackson (May 24, 2011)
  • “There is no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing at issue has resulted in any contamination or endangerment of underground sources of drinking water (USDW). … Moreover, given the horizontal and vertical distance between the drinking water well and the closest methane production wells, the possibility of contamination of endangerment of USDWs in the area is extremely remote.” – Carol Browner, former EPA administrator (June 2, 1995)
  • “There have been fears that hydraulic fracturing fluid injected at depth could reach up into drinking water aquifers. But, the injection is typically done at depths of around 6,000 to 7,000 feet and drinking water is usually pumped from shallow aquifers, no more than one or two hundred feet below the surface. Fracturing fluids have not contaminated any water supply and with that much distance to an aquifer, it is very unlikely they could.” — Mark Zoback, Professor of Geophysics at Stanford University and shale-gas advisor to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu (August 30, 2011)
  • “Researchers found no evidence of aquifer contamination from hydraulic fracturing chemicals in the subsurface by fracturing operations, and observed no leakage from hydraulic fracturing at depth.” — University of Texas Energy Institute (Feb. 15, 2012)
  • “There has been a misconception that the hydraulic fracturing of wells can or has caused contamination of water wells. This is false. … My predecessor, former DEP Secretary John Hanger, told Reuters in October 2010 that ‘Pennsylvania has not had one case in which the fluids used to break off the gas from 5,000 to 8,000 feet underground have returned to contaminate groundwater.’” — Michael Krancer, Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (May 31, 2012)
Given EID’s previous encounters with NPR, and the fact that its story on the Duke paper did not include any comment from the industry, we should have been prepared for its response. Nonetheless, it still came as a shock. When we reached out to the editor, she declared: “No correction is needed.” 
Some media outlets try harder than others to stick to the facts, and give a fair shake to everyone involved a news story. Sadly, however, some outlets don’t really try at all.
UPDATE:  The biased coverage of the new report from Duke University continues.

This headline comes from ProPublica's Abrahm Lustgarten:

New Study: Fluids From Marcellus Shale Likely Seeping Into PA Drinking Water

Meanwhile, this headline from the Wall Street Journal:

New research shows no Marcellus Shale pollution

And in case there was any question that the only part of the report that anyone would latch onto is the part that supports their pre-existing views, just check out the comments on the ProPublica article.


In May 2011 researchers from Duke University were unable to find any groundwater contamination from fracking.  You have to give them credit, though, because they are very persistent in trying to give the Park Foundation its money's worth.

In a new study released yesterday, the researchers once again found no evidence of any groundwater contamination from gas drilling.  But they do hypothesize that the results they found suggest a possibility of chemicals from drilling somehow migrating into aquifers through pathways that they believe may exist because they think that the brine they found is naturally occurring brine which migrated from the Marcellus Shale upwards into aquifers.

Not surprisingly, the viewpoint of the outlet reporting on the study has a great influence on how they choose to publicize and characterize the results.  Pro-drillers lead with the fact that the study found no evidence of shale drilling activity contaminating aquifers.  Other media outlets choose to lead with the researchers' hypothesis that chemicals could somehow contaminate aquifers.

To see the difference, consider this headline from Bloomberg:

Pennsylvania Fracking Can Put Water at Risk, Study Finds

The article goes on to say that "the study found natural routes for seepage into wells or streams."  That isn't true.  The study found results that suggest to the researchers that such routes may exist, but they did not actually find any pathways.

In contrast, Energy in Depth led with this headline:

Another Duke Rebuke?

EID raises some very valid questions about the hypothesis of the Duke researchers, considering some of the things missing from this study.  For example:

Issue #1: No discussion of time-scale 
Did these brine samples migrate up from depth over 100 million years, 10 million years, 10,000 years, or 10 years? Arguing that brine and other fluids can mobilize underground over time isn’t new or controversial. What’s controversial is attempting to assert that these migrations are occurring on a time scale that actually matters to humanity. To their credit, the Duke researchers don’t do that. But without even a ballpark sense of the possible time horizons associated with these phenomena, it’s impossible to assess how important the “discovery” actually is.
  • Duke researchers: “In our paper we did not provide any indications for the time scale of the apparent brine migration. Entrapped brines in deep and confined geological units could be diluted during any time or stage of brine formation.” (Duke response to Engelder)
  • More from Duke: “The paper does not claim that the brines are actively moving on a modern-time scale … The time scale is not known but given the modern stable isotope composition, the potential risk of modern flow cannot be excluded.” (Duke response)
  • Duke researcher Rob Jackson: “There is a real time uncertainty. We don’t know if this happens over a couple of years, or over millennia.” (as quoted by ProPublica, July 9, 2012)
  • Engelder review: “As a given, everyone agrees that deep basin circulation can occur over time scales of millions of years… So, the factor that makes your paper original is time, short time.   My analysis of your paper assumes that significant circulation can occur during post-glacial time which means less than, say, 10,000 years (call this modern time). Otherwise, everyone agrees that there is connectivity over the long time frame.” (Engelder comments to Duke, p. 3)
Issue #2: No discussion of exposure pathways 
If Marcellus brine is migrating up from formations thousands of feet below, why haven’t those same cross-formational fractures caused the natural gas in the Marcellus to leak-off and disappear over that same time?
  • Duke researchers: “While brine migration could have resulted from tectonic activity, other mechanisms such as changes in the hydrostatic pressure due to deglaciation or categenisis could trigger the flow of pressurized brines.” (Duke response)
  • Researchers say that “future studies” should look for exposure pathways: “We agree that future studies should test our hypothesis of possible saline groundwater flow through the shale formation overlying the Marcellus Shale and evaluate the hydraulic conditions that will allow such flow.” (Duke response)
  • Engelder suggests other mechanisms – unacknowledged in the Duke paper – that would lead to freshwater mixing with brine: “[H]ydrodynamic flow moves freshwater into rocks with more saline brine.  It seems to me that freshwater infiltration into elevated areas will mix with brine as it advances, but also will push the brine toward outlet areas in river valleys, and cause mixing with fresh water in that area.  Your samples demonstrate this phenomenon and this has nothing to do with ‘vertical’ migration from some deeper source.” (Engelder comments, p. 6)
  • Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback: “Frankly, I think some degree of vertical hydraulic conductivity in the crust over geologic time is reasonable, but why dense brines would rise and mix with near surface aquifers is not clear. [Duke’s] supposition ‘therefore it implies a greater tendency for leakage from hydraulically fracturing in the shale’ is illogical.  Production from the Marcellus would lower the pressure and cause flow into the Marcellus, not out of it.” (Zoback email to Engelder)
Issue #3: No discussion of whether Marcellus even contains enough brinewater to leak. 
  • As Engelder explains, the Marcellus is largely a dry formation: “This porosity [in the Marcellus] has virtually no free water.  In fact, high quality electric logs from the Marcellus show gas saturation greater than 95 percent.  …  Based on the free-circulation criterion established above, I hope we can agree that, in fact, there is no such thing as large volumes of Marcellus brine as you have implied.  … Any natural water that is produced might have come from other formations like the Onondaga or Oriskany which is known to contain brine.” (Engelder comments, p. 3)
  • Duke response cites “large volumes of brine” produced “directly from the Marcellus” as evidence that brine exists in abundance in the formation: “We agree with the reviewer that it is most likely to expect high brine volume in porous rocks relative to impermeable shale rocks, especially like the Marcellus Formation. Yet thousands of shale gas wells are producing large volumes of brine directly from the Marcellus shale, not from the underlying porous formations.” (Duke response)
  • But as Engelder explains, the water being produced at the surface isn’t brine from the Marcellus – it’s flowback from the production process itself: “Flowback water does not qualify as natural, deep-basin brine and I fear that you have mistakenflowback from the Marcellus as natural, deep-basin brine.  The same is true for produced water from the Marcellus, which most likely also originates partly as [fracturing] fluid.” (Engelder comments, p. 5)
 Issue #4: No discussion of transport or drive mechanism 
What forces conspired to propel brine from a largely brine-less formation up through thousands of feel of solid rock, on an undetermined time scale?
  • Duke has no idea: “This paper does not address the hydrodynamics of brine flow and the specific hydrological conditions that would trigger such a flow.” (Duke response)
  • Assuming the drive mechanism is gravity, Engelder says the time-scale could be millions of years: “I think we can agree that the energy source for hydrodynamic flow is gravity.  [Previous research] makes it very clear that gravity-driven flow path that is as deep as the Marcellus requires millions of years and is thus not modern.  … Matrix permeability is insufficient to permit Darcy-flow on time scales that matter.” (Engelder comments, p. 7)
  • And even Duke acknowledges it’s no easy thing for fluids to migrate through Marcellus: “We do not dispute that the apparent permeability through the Marcellus matrix is negligible.” (Duke response)
So, to recap: Duke researchers say that small volumes of brinewater were detected in a few shallow water wells in northeast Pennsylvania. They believe this brinewater originated from the Marcellus, a conclusion they reached even without identifying a pathway for it to travel, a mechanism to propel it, or a time-scale that would at least narrow the possibilities of transport speed down to a couple million years. Notified of the fact that the Marcellus doesn’t actually contain much “free” brinewater, the researchers double-down and insist that it does, apparently confusing the collection of flowback and produced water on the surface for brine that’s native to the formation.
Read the rest of that article by clicking here.

You can view the Duke study below.

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