John Hanger’s “Fracking Hysteria” and the Search for Common Ground

When it comes to the pro-gas point-of-view, is there anyone worth listening to?

Last week, former DEP chief, John Hanger, earned props from the gas industry blog, Marcellus Drilling News, in a pithy post entitled, Former PA DEP Head Says Fracking Doesn’t Contaminate Aquifers. MDN, which is edited by Jim Willis in Binghamton, NY, was spotlighting Hanger’s comments in a recent New York Post article about “fracking hysteria.” From the start, that right-wing litterbox liner has been unabashedly anti-Environment in their coverage of issues surrounding Fracking. One can expect greater journalistic integrity from MDN, which simply distilled Hanger’s quotes to support their editorial position, that fracking is safe. My kinda of post, only ass-backwards.

The essence of Hanger’s comments was the familiar, though academically disputed, refrain:

Fracking is in many ways less likely to pollute groundwater than are other forms of gas drilling, because it happens so far from the groundwater, with so much rock in between… And fracking has had no impact on the public water supply.

To be fair, Hanger talked smack to drillers, too:

The real environmental challenge, it turns out, isn’t any exotic concern on fracking, but the age-old problem of disposing of wastewater.

Meet John Hanger

You may remember John Hanger as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary who famously walked out of his interview with Josh Fox in Gasland, then later called him a “propagandist.” What you may not know is, prior to that, Hanger served as Commissioner of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and is known for writing many important pieces of legislation, including the 2008 Act 70 requiring DEP to write a Climate Change Action Plan. He graduated from Duke University in 1979, and the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in 1984, and he went on to become President & CEO of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, or PennFuture as it’s commonly known. This is interesting because PennFuture recently outlined The Seven Deadly Sins of HB1950, the Marcellus Impact Fee bill, and current President & CEO, Jan Jarrett, found herself in a late-game, verbal sparring match with Governor Corbett over the bill, which he signed into law days later.

Hanger has been an outspoken critic of the gas industry, at times, yet he’s clearly cool with shale gas drilling. His comments are generally conservative (the good kind), and while I tend to disagree with most of them, I always listen to what he has to say. I have occasionally commented on his blog, Facts of the Day, where he promotes quality information, even at the risk of being technical and dry. Hanger’s knowledge of Marcellus issues far outstrips mine, plus he’s got a much bigger microphone, so when I’m striving to understand how anyone could possibly be in favor of fracking, his blog is a pretty good place to start.

Can I Getta What-What?

The first and only Comment at the end of the MDN post was from Blueflames:
But that kid from PA (really from NYC- the house in PA is a family vacation home) with the camera and the monotoned dramatic commentary that made a movie that aired on HBO said it’s very dangerous and unsafe and will contaminate your drinking water. He made a movie and you can’t lie in a movie. He lit water on fire, I saw it on my TV. How can he be wrong?? He can be wrong because he is a film maker not a scientist or geologist. If the experts in the field made a movie, 50% of the anti’s with a brain would change their view. Here we have an EXPERT in the field and anti’s will slander and dismiss his expertise and follow the piper right off the cliff. Passion and thinking with your heart is great for loved ones, family etc. – Let facts and expert opinions dictate the rest of your life!! If the Doctor at Sloan Kettering tells you you have lung cancer, then you get your second opinion from a guy who did a film on lung cancer who says you are fine and cancer free- Which opinion are you going to go with???

Bearing in mind that I was on a pro-gas website, and admittedly ticked over losing my local zoning rights to drillers and a bunch of Mayberry Machiavellians from Western PA , I dropped a snarky Comment on top:

Methane contamination has always existed in PA, but what was once a parlor trick, has become a more widespread problem for residents in drilling regions. Drilling chemicals need not penetrate 1,000s of feet of rock to pollute aquifers, either, they can travel through the wellbore.

Hanger’s right, though, waste water disposal is a major industry dilemma. And actually, I can account for 99% of the frack wastewater in Pennsylvania. It’s sitting in open double-lined, bermed-up pools near well bores, evaporating methane and formaldehyde into the air; or sloshing around in the back of a tanker truck barreling down what once was a quiet, county road; or it’s being injected back down into the ground for another frack. Whatever’s left is distilled and deposited in a wastewater treatment facility, upstream from some poor soul’s drinking water, or swept under the proverbial rug into a deep injection well to be dealt with in another lifetime. As for the other 1%, I’ll leave it to you guys to figure that out.

Blueflames replied the next day:

99% and 1% Wrong Blog that’s at OWS. But since you brought it up – I for one am not ready to give up my lights and warm home to sleep in a tent in a urine and feces laden park so that the Presiding Government will give subsidies to failing green energy companies that are attempting to innovate an energy producing technology that is decades away from being useful or economical. You can, however, raise your hand and allow your yard to become a “solar panel field” and you can also lose sight of all those trees and vistas with 20 or so wind turbines to produce enough energy for a small town. Or we can place a well pad with upto 6-8 wells on it that after the drilling is done in 3 months it will take up a mere 3 acres and will produce 5 times the energy at a 10th of the cost for an estimated 20+ years.

My measured response:
Agreed, Blueflames, your park sounds nasty, but so do toxic rivers and streams. And it’s true, there are downsides to every alternative. Not sure we’ll ever agree on what our real choices are, though. For example, I think we can opt for far more efficiency, conservation, and local renewables in the mix, too. I think we ought to be converting outdated coal-fired plants to gas, but I don’t think we should be exporting all the “cleaner-burning” benefits overseas while incurring all the environmental hazards here at home.

Correct me if I’m wrong, (and I’m sure you will) but the US government has subsidized the Oil & Gas Industry much more than green energy companies.

Blueflames took it down a notch, too, and with obvious thought, wrote:
Liz I don’t think you and I differ in our opinions about the matter at all. I do not want my lakes, streams, rivers, or source of clean drinking water contaminated in least. I am a sportsman who loves a tight line and at the end of the day placing that catch in a pan and enjoying it with my friends and family all the while getting the benefits of nourishment. I am a steward of the land I own. I am a staunch conservationist. I believe in utilizing the natural resources given to us in a responsible way. I do not support any company that will cut corners and/or put the public or nature at risk. I feel those companies should be fined HEAVILY (millions not thousands) and if they contaminate with gross negligence I think those responsible should be held criminally accountable (all the way up to the CEO). I am also a realist. We humans do make mistakes and aren’t perfect, but what is great about us, we have been given the ability to learn from those mistakes and better our situation in every endeavor we partake in. I will admit the process of fracking isn’t PERFECT (yet?) but as it goes on it gets better and better. Companies are reusing the fracking fluids over and over thus putting less strains on environment and trucking. New technologies such as LPG fracking has been born recently out of the necessity to find better ways to extract this resource we need. But if we do nothing, nothing will get done. Unfortunately with out risk we gain nothing. My hope and what I truely wish for, is that all concerned just do the “right thing” and think of everyone, not just the share holders. But we cannot sit on our hands and hope it gets better. We have to learn as we go. Look at car safety. After the first fatal crash they didn’t put all the cars in a parking lot and go back to horses, they innovated to make them better. I am sure green -renewables will go through the same process but in that sector of technology we arent even close yet, which forces us to do the best we can with what we have now. One day we will be able to harness enough energy to heat/cool our home and light the lights with a single solar panel, that will be econimical to the common man. But we are DECADES away from that. Till then, We must use what we have responsibly and conservitively. And right now we have fracking for NG. I am not saying we stop trying to get better with renewables, just use what we have till we find better. We as humans have been doing that since we found fire.

Then, Wacoyako joined the conversation:
Liz, I have been around and seen those wind turbines, they dot the landscape, mountain tops, are a real eye sore( huge) and are quite loud when spinning. It takes many of them to produce any plausible energy for a small to medium size town. Coal is filthy, totally destroys  mountains and/or mountain tops, creates tons of silt and run off, and also requires tons per day to effectively produce usable energy. Coal also emits tons of CO2 into our air everyday. There is a 20/20 special report on the coal industry I saw it a few weeks ago try and look it up.It will astound you on how many railroad cars full of coal this one plant burns per day in W.V., try 900 cars worth,per day!! over 1 mile long. Now lets talk some about Oil, right now this country buys 35-40 % of all the oil OPEC can pump. It costs us around $3.60 per gallon, most everything that’s run by an engine consumes this resource. Most homes in the cold regions heat their homes with it, and most all our money goes over seas, except for the heavy taxes that are our wonderful government hits us with. The emissions produced by all these engines and burners are staggering, which i’m sure you already know.So, why are you so short sighted? When we have enough Natural Gas here in this country to heat every home and gas every car for more then the next hundred years? Burns real clean, you know that too. It will Create millions of job opportunities, keep our well spent money here.But, we are still selling it overseas, right now. We have an abundance of the stuff  being stock piled. You along with the rest of this country has not gotten that AHA moment yet. but its soon coming. We still are buying oil from OPEC., and your fine with that? Why? Because people like you are stamping their feet, waving their finger and yelling at the wrong people!! Your not going to stop it from being extracted, are you? NO. So instead of fighting the losing battle, why not join or start a cause to convert all those vehicles and burners, and coal plants over to NG? You and I can pay $1.75 per gallon at the pump  when our cars get converted over to NG( more jobs). Our heating billswill be cut in half.There is to much money in NG ,and these  BIG companies will get it and sell it. If we don’t buy it here, they will sell it overseas, and in the end you and I lose.So as much as you and Blueflames go back and forth, his points are valid, and truthful. Yours is a pipe dream with no hope.So get into the solution instead of being ignorant of whats truly happening here.

Eager to delve into more facts, I replied:
Waco, we may never agree, we’re ideologically opposed, but I’m nevertheless grateful for the debate. I am honestly trying to see your point of view. When it comes to shale gas, however, one person’s “AHA” is another’s “Oh No!”

My concern is over water, air and human health. I know we need the jobs and the energy independence, and I want Pennsylvania, and our nation, to enjoy optimal prosperity. I bet you do, too. I also suspect we’re going to get, and eventually use, every last drop of shale gas in Pennsylvania; we already are getting and using it. But I cannot support jobs at any cost, nor any practice that threatens the air and water we all share. I know, I know… fracking is the best thing since sliced bread. So was oil once.

You say gasoline is around $3.60/gallon, but I would argue that it really costs a lot more when you factor in wonderful government subsidies and the staggering, tragic costs incurred by the US Military to secure our supply. Isn’t it possible that the less obvious, but no less real, costs of NG are not being factored in to your estimate of $1.75 per gallon?

Wacoyako replied:
Liz, I agree with you on most of your points, when ever there is exploration there is bound to be accidents and unknown variables. This fracking process has a learning curve, I believe. When your drilling over a mile under ground the going horizontal some things that were not suppose to happen , happen. I do believe that this fracking process can be tweaked to avoid many accidents that may be happening today. I also believe that there is very sloppy workmanship out there and many of these accidents/ spills can be avoided with the proper oversight and tight regulations. You’ll see a post I wrote on MDN about sloppy construction. You seem like a reasonable person and although we don’t agree on everything, you must agree that we have to get off the OPEC bottle, and this country is desperate for jobs. Those two reasons alone drive my opinions about drilling here. I am concerned about our environment, just as you are , but I’m a realist also. Drilling will continue,so the Anti movement over fracking is understood by us pro’s.But is going no where fast. So I say if its going to happen,and it is all over the country, then we( USA) must benefit the most from it. Not selling it overseas. there will be thousands of jobs for the conversion over to it. Then we all can benefit both environmentally and in our bottom lines per month.I dont know how old you are, but in the 1970’s I had to wait on line for hours to get my gas tank filled. It had gotten so bad that during the next few weeks you could only get gas on an odd or even day of the week according to the last number on your license plate.  I knew then that our dependence on foreign oil was a very bad situation.WV coal plants are the worst, I just wonder why environmentalist groups are not screaming about that.carbons are being blown into the atmosphere far worse than you could imagine. But they are just chugging along. This  fracking thing is relatively  ” New” to the general public so people are naturally frightened about what can “possibly” go wrong. I to am concerned, so I started learning about it.Fracking has been done for over 50 years. Did you know that? There are over 100,000 wells being fracked right now all over the nation!! The percentage of problems is fractional, to the amounts of NG being collected.Would I like it to be zero accidents,absolutely. Is that a realistic view that there wont be any spills, casing defects, cut corners, etc, No. But I weigh out all the options we have in this country, the benefits completely outweigh the negatives. I’am glad to see PADEP financially hammer Chesapeake Energy for non compliance and shabby construction work.I just wish that the DEP would have caught the problem before they continued drilling.This is a learning curve for us all, there must be strict oversight and ethical construction /drilling being done. There is no room for error. I do believe it can be done and is being done safely and ethically around this country. But like in every business and politics included there will be cheaters, scammers and dirty politics that will always keep the Anti’s yelling.

And, simultaneously, The_Oil_Man replied to my original, provocative comment about sloshing frack waste:

Wrong. Drilling chemicals cannot move back up through the wellbore. They first get a rig designed to drill with high pressure air to come in and basically blow a hole in the ground much deeper than the aquafier. Then they set a thick walled surface casing and cement all the way back to surface. Then once all that is complete the much larger rigs come in and continue drilling the well. There is absolutely no way that any of the chemicals are getting to PA residents water. For those rare occaisions where the spudder rig does not drill the surface hole the contractor uses either water based muds ( which contain chemicals mined out of the earth and completely natural such as lignite and barite) or they use brine (very salty) water. You are however correct that the contamination has always been a problem, but its the same problem PA residents have always had now they just have somebody to blame it on. As far as the reclaimed water (this is what is is called in the industry, wastewater is what’s in your septic tank) from the wells, once the drilling zones are somewhat depleted it will be put back into the formation where the gas once was under high pressure. This has been going on for years everywhere and nobody else has had a problem with it. Those pools near the frac sites are fresh water and the only reason they put fences up around them is so idiots who have no business near them don’t fall into them and drown and leave the company open to the lawsuit. Anything contaminated will not be left in open pits upwind of locals for very long once the work is complete. Now you know where 100% of the frac water will be once they are done. Your local treatment facility can’t properly treat it to government standards. Thank you and if you wish to be wrong about anything else type it up and I will reply.

I noticed I was the only one using my real name, and I was starting to feel a little like Alice Down the Rabbit Hole, so I decided to ignore The_Oil_Man, and sign off respectfully to Waco:

I shall give your comments careful consideration. To my mind, the only way we’ll truly benefit from shale gas is to have this conversation – thanks for the dialogue.

I do remember the 70s, btw. And I’m aware that we’ve been fracking, per se, for many years. Hydro-fracking, however, I understand to be a fairly new technology developed in 2005. While I remain opposed to how it is presently done, I absolutely applaud any innovations which improve the process. We can’t put this genie back in the bottle, nor should we necessarily want to. I only hope we’re careful in what we wish for.

Wacoyako’s final reply (to date) :
As you use this site really listen to some of the people in the trenches.Oilman is out there everyday working in the fields, he has educated me on the process, and also has dispelled many “rumors” that are floating out there. There are Engineers,Geologists that also explain away many of your concerns.New technology? Google the company  Gasfrac. They are a small(right now soon to be huge) Canadian company that has a very innovative way to extract the NG using LPG ( Liquid Petroleum Gas). No water in the process at all!! It is 98 % recoverable, and can be immediately reused for the next well, without any refinery needs. The big guys out there Exxon, Chesapeake, Shell are looking into this company and soon it will take over the way drilling/ fracking is done.Water then can become a thing of the past. They also taut that they can recover 20% more gas then the conventional method.  there will be emerging companies we have never heard of that will step up and enhance the way we do this.That is America, that is what makes us the greatest country in the WORLD. As for your last comment I don’t “hope’ we are careful. I “pray” that we are careful. That these companies take special care for our earth while raking in the billions. That our local Governments watch them closely, and set up their respective departments to make sure of it. I “hope” our federal Government will get off the fence and make the decisions to get this switching over from OPEC a reality.Can you imagine the possibilities?

~

Click here to join PennFuture’s Campaign to Protect State Parks from industrial gas drilling.

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