A May 2, 2012 article in the Charleston Gazette reported that a study commissioned by two environmental groups, and authored by Reno Nevada researcher Tom Myers, concluded that chemicals injected into the ground during the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells could migrate into aquifers used as sources of drinking water after 10 years or less. Scientists and oil and gas industry officials have previously argued that the thick and impermeable nature of the shale formations being fractured, as well as the various layers of rock above the shale, would prevent the migration of these chemicals into aquifers located thousands of feet above. But the study referenced in the Gazette article apparently suggests that hydraulic fracturing could exacerbate exiting cracks and allow vertical migration of the fracturing fluids into the aquifers. The study and its conclusions are based upon computer modeling.
Not surprisingly, proponents of hydraulic fracturing have challenged the methodology of Mr. Myers’ research and the results it produced. Reportedly, several scientists have called Myers’ approach unsophisticated. They have also asserted that the study relies on several assumptions that do not accurately reflect what is known about the geology of the Marcellus Shale formation. Terry Engelder, a purported pro-fracturing geologist from Penn State University, was quoted in the Gazette article wondering aloud whether Mr. Myers really understands anything about what the shale formation looks like. He is critical of Mr. Myers’ use of modeling rather than observations and asserts that hydraulic fracturing wouldn’t be needed to free natural gas from the Marcellus Shale if the migration of fracturing fluids through the shale and other rock formations were as easy as suggested by Mr. Myers.
I have not had the opportunity read Mr. Myers’ study beyond the information discussed in the Gazette article. I am also not trained as a geologist, hydrologist, engineer, or the like. Therefore, I am unable to offer any type of technical critique of the methodology or results of Mr. Myers’ study based upon my own personal knowledge. I can, however, offer some cautionary thoughts based upon my experience as a practicing litigator. In most instances where the resolution of some particular issue will have a substantial impact upon the pecuniary, political, personal, or emotional interests of particular groups, those groups and their supporters will typically take rather extreme positions on the issue that are supportive of their interests. Those positions may often have, or at least appear to have, some validity. But the actual, hardcore truth typically lies somewhere in the middle. Accordingly, before forming any conclusions about the dangers of drinking water contamination posed by hydraulic fracturing based solely upon the Myers study, one should take a moment to consider its source.
The study was bought and paid for by the Park Foundation and the Catskill Mountain Keepers, both environmental organizations that have openly opposed drilling in New York’s portion of the Marcellus Shale (http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2012/04/16/park-foundation-spends-millions-on-anti-drilling-efforts/;http://www.catskillmountainkeeper.org/ourprograms/fracking/).
Additionally, Mr. Myers’ “Statement of Qualifications” in his curriculum vitae (“CV”) proudly touts that he is experienced “as a watchdog of government agencies and different industries.” His listed client base includes mostly environmental and conservation groups like Natural Resource Defense Council, Great Basin Resource Watch, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Great Basin Water Network, Defenders of Wildlife, Centers for Biological Diversity, McCloud Watershed Council, and Catskill Mountain Keepers. His CV also reveals that he consults for law firms, which no doubt means that that he earns a substantial amount of money based upon his ability to testify/advocate as an “expert witness” in environmental lawsuits. It often enhances an expert witness’ ability to get work if he or she routinely and sometimes blindly takes the position of one side of a particular issue or the other. As West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Menis Ketchum recently pointed out in a multi-million dollar soil contamination case: “Retained expert witnesses are like eggs. You can buy them by the dozen - they are just more expensive.”
Finally, Ken Ward Jr. authored the Gazette article, which was conclusorily and sensationally entitled Drilling Chemicals Could Move Quickly to Aquifers, Study Says. Mr. Ward is notorious for writing “exposé” type pieces that are highly critical of companies in the energy, natural resources, and extractive industries. One of his projects is a blog entitled “Coal Tattoo” that is extremely critical of the coal industry.
Once again, it is not the intent of this blog post to take a definitive position on the technical accuracy or credibility of Mr. Myers’ study. Likewise, it is not the intent of this post to take a position on whether or not hydraulic fracturing poses risks to the environment or the public. Rather, the intent of this blog post is to point out that one should consider the source of the Myers study and the potential ulterior motives of its author, funders, and promoters before affording it too much weight. As I wrote above, the truth can often be found somewhere in the middle of the positions taken by groups who have a pecuniary, personal, political, or emotional interest in a contentious issue. It wouldn’t be surprising to this author if this is the case in regard to many issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing.