An iconic image in the propaganda war against hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is that of flammable tap water. Water you can light on fire. It is a calculated image to terrify.
Examples include the famous scene in the 2010 movie “Gasland,” in which a Colorado man lights his faucet water on fire, a scene in the 2013 sequel “Gasland Part II,” in which a Texas man sets the end of his garden hose ablaze, and YouTube videos from Pennsylvania and New York residents.
Blame nature, not fracking
The water is “flammable” because it also contains methane, and those campaigning against natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing want people to blame fracking for it.
Their problem is, methane is nontoxic and naturally occurring in the groundwater in many places. As the U.S. Geological Survey has explained, “Reports from the 1800s document gas bubbles in water wells, in streams, and in fields after heavy rains; this evidence suggests that migration has always existed.” Alaskan scientists have even demonstrated lighting methane migration from frozen lakes.
Back in 2008, residents in Dimock, a small community in Susquehanna County, Penn., on the highly productive Marcellus Shale formation, began complaining of the quality of drinking water from their water wells. Testing revealed heavy concentrations of methane. It was also said that one water well exploded and that toxic chemicals were also found in the water.
Dimock subsequently became “ground zero” in the fight against fracking. Residents reached a financial settlement worth nearly $4.2 million with the mining company, Cabot Oil and Gas.
Nevertheless, an analysis by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP, to which Cabot also paid over $1 million in penalties) “determined that nearby gas well hydro fracturing activity has not impacted local wells.”
Further investigations cast doubt that the alleged well explosion had even occurred. According to their sworn affidavits, the fire chief and the emergency managing agency director who responded to the call about the well explosion both found no evidence on the scene of a fire or incendiary explosion in the well pit.
Peer-reviewed research in the May/June 2013 issue of the scientific journal Groundwater tested 1,701 wells and concluded that hydraulic fracturing was not responsible for the methane in the wells, that methane is and has been prevalent in the groundwater in Susquehanna County for hundreds of years, and that the well gases were consistent with upper formation gases, not Marcellus Shale gases.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted its own survey of drinking water in Dimock, and it concluded in 2012 that there were not levels of contaminants present that warranted additional action by the EPA. PADEP subsequently allowed Cabot to resume drilling there.
Seeking to ‘alarm the public into believing the water is burning’
With respect to “Gasland,” the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had investigated the property two years before the movie was released. They found “no indications of oil & gas-related impacts to water well.”
Still, regulators returned after the movie and retested, again finding “biogenic gas that was not related to oil and gas activity” — and furthermore found evidence that the methane had long been present. That included “a 1976 publication by the Colorado Division of Water Resources states that the aquifer contains ‘troublesome amounts of … methane.’”
“Gasland” director Josh Fox publicly admitted on camera that he knew about those findings but chose to leave them out because he considered them “not relevant.” As he stated, “I don’t care about the report from 1976. There are reports from 1936 where people say they could light their water on fire in New York state. But that’s no bearing on their situation, at all.”
Fox outdid his deliberate deception from “Gasland” in the sequel. The flaming garden hose of “Gasland Part II” had been deliberately attached to a gas vent.
As with the first movie, state regulators had already investigated water in the area (this time Parker County, Texas). What they had found was — again — the source of methane was natural seepage and that natural gas wells were “not causing or contributing to contamination of any Parker County domestic water wells.”
Going further, in 2012 a Texas District Court ruled that the landowner in the video had conspired with others expressly to “alarm the public” and “alarm the EPA.” Quoting the court (emphasis added):
The Court references with concern the actions of Mr. Steven Lipsky, under the advice or direction of Ms. Alisa Rich, to intentionally attach a garden hose to a gas vent — not to a water line — and then light and burn the gas from the end nozzle of the hose. This demonstration was not done for scientific study but to provide local and national news media a deceptive video, calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning. There is further evidence that Rich knew the regional EPA administration and provided or assisted in providing additional misleading information (including the garden hose video) to alarm the EPA.”
The court furthermore concluded that all the evidence of this deception, including emails calling it a “strategy,” were such that a reasonable person could conclude that they were “elements of a conspiracy to defame” the oil and gas company.
Jon Sanders (@jonpsanders) is Director of Regulatory Studies for the John Locke Foundation.