ProPublica's shaky facts

By Dave Kopel

Rocky Mountain News, Jan. 10, 2009

Jason Salzman and I have different views, and write about different topics. So there has never been an instance in which Jason and I both screwed up on the very same topic.

Until now.

The source of our dual ignominy was a Nov. 17 front pager in The Denver Post written by ProPublica, an organization that supplies investigative stories to mainstream media for free. The article was about natural gas extraction, with a focus on Colorado and Wyoming. It argued that a widely used technique called "hydraulic fracturing" endangers drinking water and public health.

Jason praised the story, while I criticized it. My column prompted a very civil e-mail from the author, Abrahm Lustgarten. He noted that I had misspelled his name, which is not "Abraham." As my editor "Vincente Carole" says, correct spelling is part of journalistic accuracy.

I had criticized the article for omitting details about an exploding house, and for not including interviews with state or local officials. Although these items were missing from the edited article that appeared in the Post, they were in the longer version of the article on the ProPublica Web site.

I actually had looked on the ProPublica site, but obviously I did not look thoroughly enough. Moreover, I failed to identify some very serious errors in the article.

The article describes a recent case in which some wells in Wyoming may have been contaminated by chemicals from hydraulic fracturing. After describing the Wyoming situation, the article continues: "The contamination in Sublette County is significant because it is the first to be documented by a federal agency, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. But more than 1,000 other cases of contamination have been documented by courts and state and local governments in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio and Pennsylvania."

I asked Lustgarten for the basis for his claim about more than a thousand "documented" state cases of hydraulic fracturing water contamination. He replied: "The New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have together documented more than 1,000 cases where water was contaminated by drilling activities."

I asked David Neslin, acting director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, how many cases they had "documented" of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing. He said, "None."

Jodi Porter, the public information officer for the New Mexico Department, told me that the department has never compiled any numbers about groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing.

So ProPublica apparently pulled a bait-and-switch - citing data about contamination from any drilling-related activity, but claiming that the data were about hydraulic fracturing.

The Colorado experience of zero cases of water contamination from hydraulic fracturing is consistent with the 2002 study from the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (a consortium of state regulatory agencies). The Commission surveyed regulatory agencies in 28 states (including Colorado and the other four states where ProPublica claimed that there were more than 1,000 "documented" cases of contamination). The response covered the entire history of hydraulic fracturing in those states. Every single one of those 28 states reported that there had never been groundwater harm due to fracturing.

The ProPublica article did not report the evidence from that government study, but brusquely dismissed it as "an anecdotal survey done a decade ago." Actually, the 2002 study has no anecdotes, and with a dataset of almost a million wells, it cannot plausibly be considered "anecdotal."

The theme of the ProPublica article, headlined "Buried Secrets," is the natural gas industry's refusal to disclose a list of all chemicals which are injected into the ground in hydraulic fracturing. The article accurately characterizes the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission as the "most stringent" regulatory agency regarding hydraulic fracturing.

The COGCC promulgated its final draft rules on Nov. 7, before the Nov. 13 ProPublica article, and before its Nov. 17 appearance in the Post. The article misdescribes the new regulations, and, significantly, omits the fact that the commission's new disclosure rule is nearly identical to what the drilling company Halliburton proposed in its June testimony to the commission. Section 205 of the new regulations protects drillers' trade secrets about the precise chemical recipes, while mandating full disclosure when specifically needed by the state for health or environmental protection.

So the morality tale of "Buried Secrets" is false. The true story is that the industry offered to do the right thing, and the most stringent regulatory agency accepted the offer.

I e-mailed Lustgarten about the issues raised in this column. He replied: "Thanks for your note. You clearly have very strong opinions, not only about these issues, but also about how they should be reported. That is your right. I don't see any reasonable possibility of changing your mind, either on what the facts show about hydraulic fracturing, or about our reporting and writing."

The response does not explain why so many key "facts" in the ProPublica article are indisputably false.

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