DEP: Protecting water or gas?

Posted: December 02, 2011

Last month, Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer testified before Congress on what he called the "unbiased real facts" of shale-gas exploration. Speaking before the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, he gave four examples of "suspect science" on the safety of hydraulic fracturing to release natural gas. One of the examples he discussed at length was our study at Duke University.

Our study with two coworkers, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in May, found no evidence that fracturing fluids had contaminated drinking water, but it did find evidence of higher methane, ethane, and propane concentrations in some drinking-water wells near drilling sites.

When our paper came out, Krancer wasted no time in dismissing it, saying, "The bottom line is, it was biased science by biased researchers."

That was baffling to us. The Department of Environmental Protection's stated mission is "to protect Pennsylvania's air, land, and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment." Wouldn't that include taking the time to understand what scientific results like ours mean, where they might apply, and what should be done in response? Instead, Krancer quickly set out to, as he put it, "refute" our study and others.

Some have a different view of our work. Our paper went through rigorous peer review before publication. In his testimony, Krancer praised the conclusions of the independent, nonpartisan U.S. Shale Gas Production Subcommittee, which the Department of Energy established to improve the safety of hydraulic fracturing. That group called our research "credible."

The secretary also said we "inexplicably declined DEP's reasonable request" to share our data and water sampling locations, which "raises credibility questions." That's simply not true.

Krancer made similar accusations when our paper came out. When we first heard them from a reporter, we were so surprised that we suggested he call his source back and make sure it wasn't a mistake. The next morning, we started calling the secretary to clear things up and see if he would be willing to collaborate. Six months and half a dozen phone calls and e-mails later, we're still waiting for a response.

By law, neither we nor the DEP can release the results of testing of a homeowner's water without permission. Nonetheless, we and the department can work together to evaluate the data in a way that does not reveal specific locations or residents' identities. And we've already taken steps to contact all the homeowners in our original study and get permission to make their data public. Not all will give us permission, but some of them have, and we'll be releasing the information as soon as we hear from all the homeowners. What steps is DEP taking toward the same goal?

Today, we're re-extending the offer we made in May and put in writing in June: a partnership with the DEP in which both parties share all their data. The goal would be to understand where any pollution occurs and why, and to make shale-gas extraction as safe as possible. Will the secretary join us?

The DEP deserves credit for strengthening the state's regulations on well construction earlier this year. And its proposal to strengthen the Oil and Gas Act is another positive step. But there is still a lot we don't know about shale gas, hydraulic fracturing, and water quality.

Rather than working to discredit any science that challenges his views, the secretary and his agency should be working to get to the bottom of the science with an open mind. We need the "unbiased real facts" he called for - all of them.

Robert Jackson and Avner Vengosh are professors in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

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