How Oklahoma's Largest Newspaper Distorts The Facts About Fracking
Research ››› ››› BRIAN POWELL & SALVATORE COLLELUORI
The Oklahoman's straight news coverage of the controversial natural gas extraction process of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") has been slanted in favor of the process under the ownership of energy tycoon Philip Anschutz, who acquired the paper in September 2011. The paper's opinion page has been one-sided -- devoid of voices warning readers about the potential health risks and environmental dangers of loosely regulated fracking activities.
The Oklahoman Is Owned By Philip Anschutz, Billionaire Oil And Gas Tycoon
The Oklahoman Was Purchased In September By Billionaire Drilling Magnate Philip Anschutz. From the Tulsa World:
Thursday's announcement that The Oklahoman newspaper will be sold along with the rest of parent company OPUBCO's assets to the Anschutz Corp. of Denver leaves the Tulsa World as the state's largest local family-owned newspaper and one of the largest in the country.
"We welcome the new owners," said Tulsa World Publisher Robert E. Lorton III, "but at the same time I think it's a loss for Oklahoma City to lose a family-owned newspaper.
The Anschutz Corp. is a subsidiary of the Anschutz Co., which encompasses the empire of billionaire Philip Anschutz and includes oil and gas drilling, railroads, communications, entertainment, professional sports and publishing. [Tulsa World, 9/16/11, emphasis added]
Anschutz's Empire Includes Oil And Gas Drilling. According to a company brochure, The Anschutz Corporation controls both the Anschutz Exploration Corporation, which has "participated in significant discoveries and development of oil and gas worldwide," and the Oklahoma Publishing Company, which includes The Oklahoman. [Anschutz-Exploration.com, accessed Feb. 2012]
Anschutz Exploration Corporation Sued A Town That Banned Fracking. Reuters reported:
In a blow to the oil and gas industry, a judge has ruled small towns in New York have the authority to ban drilling - including the controversial method known as fracking - within their borders.
In a ruling released late Tuesday, state Supreme Court Justice Phillip Rumsey held that the Ithaca suburb of Dryden's recent ban on gas drilling falls within the authority of local governments to regulate local land use.
Anschutz Exploration Corporation, which owns leases on more than 22,000 acres (8,900 hectares) in the town and has invested $5.1 million in drilling operations there, argued the ban violated a state law designed to create uniform regulations for oil and gas drilling and encourage the extraction of those resources. [Reuters, 2/21/12]
The Oklahoman Showcased Fracking Advocates Far More Than Fracking Critics
The Oklahoman's Straight News Coverage Quoted Fracking Advocates Far More Than Fracking Critics. The Oklahoman cited 118 sources in articles on fracking (excluding opinion pieces) from Sept. 1, 2011 to April 26, 2012. The majority of the voices quoted were in favor of fracking and critical of increased regulation. The following chart displays the coverage included in our study:
Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of all news articles (excluding opinion pieces) in The Oklahoman pertaining to "fracking" or "hydraulic fracturing," going back to September 1, 2011. We evaluated sources used in the articles to determine whether the source was in favor of the fracking industry and/or skeptical of the necessity to regulate fracking, whether the source was anti-fracking or skeptical of the industry's safety record, or whether the source was neutral on the issue.
(NOTE: Wire service reports appearing in a newspaper are not always included in the Nexis database.)
Opinions Showcased In The Oklahoman's Op-Ed Page Have Been Almost Entirely Pro-Fracking. According to a Media Matters Nexis search, The Oklahoman has published 18 opinion pieces on the subject of fracking (excluding readers' letters to the editor) from September 1, 2011 to April 30, 2012. Of these, 17 pieces pushed a pro-fracking viewpoint, while one was neutral on the subject. The paper did not publish any opinion pieces advocating against the potentially dangerous practice or urging stricter regulation of the industry.
The Oklahoman's Editorial Board Has Whitewashed The Potential Dangers Of Fracking
Oklahoman Editorial Trivializes Evidence That Fracking Is Harming Water Supplies
The Oklahoman Dismisses Fracking Safety Concerns As One Of "The Usual Straw Man Arguments Against Domestic [Energy] Supply." From a December 7, 2011 editorial in The Oklahoman:
While we're talking, the supply of energy is walking and it's moving west, from the Mideast to the Americas. Decreasing foreign oil dependence is happening by default and it's happening because of technology and free enterprise and despite U.S. government policy and interference.
And what is the federal government's response to trends that could ensure ample supply for the United States from within our own borders and from our neighbor to the north? It's to delay a pipeline project linking Canada to U.S. refineries, to hint at a federal takeover of fracturing oversight, and continued hostility to offshore drilling.This is lunacy, not policy. To say that the Obama administration is clueless on energy would be to give Washington too much credit. The usual straw man arguments against domestic supply are pumped out - fracking, the pipeline and offshore drilling will destroy the water supply and decimate wildlife; fossil fuels have no long-term future - but these arguments don't hold oil or water.
Bounteous supplies of gas await production, if we don't succumb to the fracking panic merchants. Canadian oil is on offer, if we don't let the Sierra Club turn off the tap. [Oklahoman, 12/7/11, Via Nexis, emphasis added]
In Fact, Studies Suggest That Fracking Poses Health Risks And Pollutes Water And Air
NY Times: EPA Study Shows Fracking Poses "Dangers To The Environment And Health ... Greater Than Previously Understood." From the New York Times:
With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.
While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.
The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.
The Times also found never-reported studies by the E.P.A. and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.But the E.P.A. has not intervened. In fact, federal and state regulators are allowing most sewage treatment plants that accept drilling waste not to test for radioactivity. And most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008.
In other words, there is no way of guaranteeing that the drinking water taken in by all these plants is safe.
Air pollution caused by natural-gas drilling is a growing threat, too. Wyoming, for example, failed in 2009 to meet federal standards for air quality for the first time in its history partly because of the fumes containing benzene and toluene from roughly 27,000 wells, the vast majority drilled in the past five years.
In a [sic] sparsely populated Sublette County in Wyoming, which has some of the highest concentrations of wells, vapors reacting to sunlight have contributed to levels of ozone higher than those recorded in Houston and Los Angeles. [New York Times, 2/26/11, emphasis added]
EPA Found Chemicals Consistent With Fracking In Drinking Water Wells In Wyoming. From the press release on EPA's draft findings of its Pavillion, Wyoming ground water investigation, which are currently undergoing independent scientific review:
Findings in the Two Deep Water Monitoring Wells:
EPA's analysis of samples taken from the Agency's deep monitoring wells in the aquifer indicates detection of synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids, benzene concentrations well above Safe Drinking Water Act standards and high methane levels. Given the area's complex geology and the proximity of drinking water wells to ground water contamination, EPA is concerned about the movement of contaminants within the aquifer and the safety of drinking water wells over time.
Findings in the Private and Public Drinking Water Wells:
EPA also updated its sampling of Pavillion area drinking water wells. Chemicals detected in the most recent samples are consistent with those identified in earlier EPA samples and include methane, other petroleum hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds. The presence of these compounds is consistent with migration from areas of gas production. Detections in drinking water wells are generally below established health and safety standards. [EPA, 12/8/11]
ProPublica: NY Fracking Wastewater Contained "Level[s] Of Radium-226 ... Thousands Of Times The Limit Safe For People To Drink." From a November 2009 ProPublica report:
As New York gears up for a massive expansion of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, state officials have made a potentially troubling discovery about the wastewater created by the process: It's radioactive. And they have yet to say how they'll deal with it.
The information comes from New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, which analyzed 13 samples of wastewater brought thousands of feet to the surface from drilling and found that they contain levels of radium-226, a derivative of uranium, as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink. [ProPublica, 11/9/09]
Fracking Is Exempted From Safe Drinking Water Act. From The New Yorker:
In the 2005 energy bill, largely crafted by Vice-President Dick Cheney, fracking was explicitly exempted from federal review under the Safe Drinking Water Act. As a result of this dispensation, which has been dubbed the Halliburton Loophole, drilling companies are under no obligation to make public which chemicals they use. Likely candidates include such recognized or suspected carcinogens as benzene and formaldehyde. [The New Yorker, 12/5/11]
Oklahoman Editorials Summarily Dismiss Studies Linking Fracking To Earthquakes
The Oklahoman Editorial Board: "It's Beyond Specious" To Claim That Fracking Can "So Influence Seismic Activity That We Should Think Twice About Allowing" It. From a November 10, 2011 editorial in The Oklahoman:
That mankind is chiefly responsible for extant climate change is a pompous idea. Another pomposity is the view that oil and gas drilling is responsible for extant seismic activity in Oklahoma.
[W]e're not ready to accept that major earthquakes are connected to oil and gas drilling. In fact, it's beyond specious to make the claim that hydraulic fracturing and saltwater injection wells can so influence seismic activity that we should think twice about allowing them. [The Oklahoman, 11/10/11, via Nexis]
The Oklahoman Editorial Board: Study Linking Fracking And Earthquakes Is "Only A Supposition." From an April 11, 2012 editorial in The Oklahoman:
WE like our scientific conclusions to come with a high degree of certainty, but smart scientists know better than to flatly declare that the earth is round until they're darn sure that it is round.
A new conclusion about seismic activity says that man is "almost certainly" responsible for a spate of recent earthquakes in Oklahoma and elsewhere. This is not a certainty, mind you, but an "almost" certainty. That's enough for political activists to seize on the conclusion, tie the earthquake outbreak to hydraulic fracturing and strike another blow for environmentalism.
Some isolated earthquakes may be related to saltwater injection, a byproduct of fracturing, but that's only a supposition at this point. To conclude that a swath of earthquakes across America is attributable solely to oil and gas activity is a seismic leap.
We'd like a little more certainty in the link between earthquake frequency and fracking activity before concluding that a decades-old technique is suddenly rocking the universe and needs to be stopped. We've all seen what's happened with climate change and how the "almost" certainties in that area are incorporated into expensive and sometimes radical public policy. [The Oklahoman, 4/11/12]
In Fact, Studies Have Found A Correlation Between Earthquakes And Fracking Activities
An Oklahoma Geological Survey Found That Earthquakes "Could Have Possibly Been Triggered" By Fracking. According to a report by The Oklahoma Geological Survey:
Determining whether or not earthquakes have been induced in most portions of the stable continent is problematic, because of our poor knowledge of historical earthquakes, earthquake processes and the long recurrence intervals for earthquakes in the stable continent. In addition understanding fluid flow and pressure diffusion in the unique geology and structures of an area poses real and significant challenges. The strong spatial and temporal correlations to the hydraulic - fracturing in Picket Unit B Well 4 -18 certainly suggest that the earthquakes observed in the Eola Field could have possibly been triggered by this activity. Simply because the earthquakes fit a simple pore pressure diffusion model does not indicate that this is the physical process that caused these earthquakes. The number of historical earthquakes in the area and uncertainties in hypocenter locations make it impossible to determine with a high degree of certainty whether or not hydraulic -fracturing induced these earthquakes. [Oklahoma Geological Survey, August 2011]
British Firm Admitted "It Is Highly Probable" That The Company's Fracking Activity Triggered "A Number Of Minor Seismic Events." According to Reuters:
Shale gas exploration triggered small earthquakes near Blackpool in northwest England earlier this year, UK firm Cuadrilla Resources said, adding to concerns about the safety of a technology that is transforming U.S. energy markets.
A spokesman said on Wednesday tremors were triggered by pumping vast quantities of water at high pressure 3 kilometres underground through drill holes in a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is designed to prop open shale rocks and release trapped gas.
"It is highly probable that the hydraulic fracturing of Cuadrilla's Preese Hall-1 well did trigger a number of minor seismic events," a report commissioned by the company said. [Reuters, 11/2/11]
AP: "In The Past, Earthquakes Have Been Linked To Energy Exploration And Production, Including From Injections Of Enormous Amounts Of Drilling Wastewater." According to the Associated Press:
In the past, earthquakes have been linked to energy exploration and production, including from injections of enormous amounts of drilling wastewater or injections of water for geothermal power, experts said. They point to recent earthquakes in the magnitude 3 and 4 range - not big enough to cause much damage, but big enough to be felt - in Arkansas, Texas, California, England, Germany and Switzerland. And back in the 1960s, two Denver quakes in the 5.0 range were traced to deep injection of wastewater.
Still, scientists would like to know if human activity can trigger a larger event. The National Academy of Sciences is studying the seismic effects of energy drilling and mining and will issue a report next spring.
"This is an area of active research," said Rowena Lohman, a Cornell University seismologist. "We're all concerned about this."
One issue is that areas that are prone to earthquakes are also places where oil and gas flow along fractures, experts said. In some studies, scientists have taken earthquake data and, like detectives, tracked its causes to deep injections of lots of liquid under high pressure, such as ones that peaked at magnitude 3.3 at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport in 2008 and 2009, said USGS geophysicist William Ellsworth. The Switzerland quake was in the city, Basel, so it did cause damage, he and others said.
"How big an earthquake might we trigger? That is an open question at this point," Ellsworth said. "We do know we can trigger magnitude 5 earthquakes." [AP, 11/7/11, Via Huffington Post]