Journalism in the Public Interest

Exxon Ad Makes Gas Drilling Seem Simpler—and Safer—Than It Really Is

Exxon’s full-page ad illustrates how well pipes are protected with casings of steel and cement. But the picture’s not as pretty as the company paints it.


From an Exxon Mobil ad that ran in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

ExxonMobil has been running a series of ads aimed at assuring people that shale gas drilling is safe. One of those ads, a full-page spread in Monday's New York Times and Washington Post, shows what a well looks like as it extends more than a mile and a half beneath the surface. It includes a close-up of the layers of steel and cement that are supposed to protect the surrounding earth from the gas and fluids inside the well pipe.

The ad, which depicts a gas well in the Marcellus Shale, implies that these layers of protection extend all the way down the well. But in the vast majority of horizontal wells, they do not. An Exxon spokeswoman acknowledged that fact in an email.

"The ad is a graphic that compresses over a mile into 18 inches and the enlarged area depicts the casing layers protecting the fresh water aquifer," she said, adding that all of Exxon's Marcellus wells are surrounded by multiple layers of steel and cement near the surface.

The ad makes for a good moment to remind people that most states require multiple layers of casing for only a short distance underground, so they can protect shallow aquifers. After that, a well may have only one casing layer for a short way, and then no casing at all. Some wells run for thousands of feet through rock and dirt with no cement or additional steel barrier at all. Only at the very bottom are they again encased in protective cement.

Check out our gas well diagram to see which parts of a well are usually encased. The Exxon ad, while meant to be a simple summary of how a well is built, looks the same all the way down.

Even multiple layers of casing don't always protect drinking water sources. Casing and cement failures were responsible for most of the recent gas drilling accidents in the Marcellus Shale, as well as previous contaminations in Colorado and Ohio. Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection recently issued its largest oil and gas fine ever to Chesapeake Energy after casing and cement failures on its wells allowed methane gas to seep into the water supply for 16 homes.

Cementing failures also contributed to the blowout of BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

The Exxon ad has also drawn attention from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which campaigns for more oversight of gas drilling. The organization sent a letter to the editor to the Washington Post yesterday, disputing the ad's claim that thousands of feet of rock protect groundwater from contamination.

Mr Kusnetz, you must have missed Lisa Jackson recent testimony when she stated the following: “I’m not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water, although there are investigations ongoing.”

A handful of anecdotal cases of methane contamination related to faulty cement casing is hardly an indictment of wither natural gas drilling in general or hydraulic fracturing specifically. And lets be quite clear about this, that’s exactly what we are talking about, a handful of anecdotal cases out of 100,000’s of wells.

Even the Duke study that Lustgarten flogged so heavily a few weeks back stated quite confidently that they found no evidence of fracturing fluids contaminating ground water supplies even though they only looked at wells known to be problematic.

Cementing failures also contributed to the blowout of BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Cementing of land based gas wells isnt done under pressure so that red herring isnt going to work.

Please investigate the commercials that the oil industry is airing on PBS.  These ads are very misleading in that they make it sound like they plow all their profits back into local economies which is absolutely not true.  I find these ads so offensive that I can’t understand why PBS allows them.

Mike H. are you intentionally ignoring the obstruction that the “frackers” are contributing according to Lustgarten’s report? 

“The industry is sitting on hundreds of thousands of pre and post drilling data sets,” said Robert Jackson, one of the Duke scientists who authored the study, published May 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jackson relied on 68 samples for his study. “I asked them for the data and they wouldn’t share it.”

I wonder why they are concealing more than “a handful of anecdotal cases out of 100,000’s of wells.”  Sounds a lot to me like the tobacco companies’ vigorous cover-ups, the chemical companies’ Love Canal whitewash, the Valdez conspiracy, and well, you know how corporations just hate to give up profit for someone else’s health and welfare, or maybe you haven’t lost your home to foreclosure by one of the Wall Street Too Big To Fail investment banks that coincidentally are backing the fracking!

Carlos Briones

May 25, 2011, 7:37 p.m.

please also investigate how organizations like NRDC are hyping the hydraulic fracturing issue - it has become a huge cash cow for the activist industry.  These organizations are shielded from lobbying disclosure requirements.

Also - please examine the entirety of the Herbert & Marion Sandler’s investment portfolio to determine if ProPublica is actually doing investigative journalism, or if it is intentionally undermining domestic shale gas to secure the Sandler’s investment positions in competitive energy resources - i.e. Papua New Guinea based LNG or domestic coal.  They did pony up $100million to fund this organization.  ProPublica should really disclose any conflicts of interest.

Iris Marie Bloom

May 26, 2011, 8:06 a.m.

Unfortunately even ProPublica’s critique of the Exxon ad leaves out several key facts.  One is timing:  Exxon is fighting for approval of an application to withdraw hundreds of millions of gallons of water, for horizontal hydrofracking, from a pristine trout stream in the Delaware River Basin right now, and the public is fighting back and saying “NO.”  Over 7,900 letters have been sent to the Delaware River Basin Commission so far, and the people hope that at a hearing June 1st DRBC will deny Exxon’s application, submitted by their subsidiary XTO.  (Exxon subsidiary XTO already spilled over 4,000 gallons of fracking fluid in the Susquehanna River watershed).
    Regarding the reality of drilling: every stage of horizontal hydrofracturing threatens the environment—and human health—not just the “fracking” stage.  As Cornell fracturing mechanics expert, Professor Ingraffea, explains, there is no casing in place when the drill bit first breaks into the shale layer, which contains arsenic, barium, strontium, radium 226, and other toxic contaminants.  So while the industry continues to deny all the actual risks to human health from fracking fluid chemicals, it’s trying hard to draw public attention away from the dangerous naturally occurring contaminants from the shale layer.  But in fact those naturally occurring contaminants are already hurting human health in “rural roulette” fashion in shale gas drilling areas—in some cases even before the “fracking” stage of shale gas drilling occurs.  The EPA, CDC, and cautious physicians are now examining cases of arsenic poisoning and barium poisoning, with severe medical symptoms, which have occurred in Pennsylvania as a result of shale gas drilling (in Washington County and Bradford County, specifically).   
  Even after cement casing is in, cement is only cement.  Industry studies show that cement casing fails relatively quickly 25% of the time and fails eventually 75% of the time.  The methane contamination of drinking water aquifers—including explosive levels of methane—in Dimock and elsewhere in Susquehanna, Bradford, and many other Pennysylvania counties—as in Texas, Wyoming, and other states—indicates that, as the Duke study confirms, dangerously high levels of methane entering drinking water due to shale gas drilling is not just the result of a few “bad apples” and “bad cement jobs” but is commonplace. 
    Finally, most of us who care enough about this issue to study the science and show concern for our fellow human beings, wildlife and domestic animals who are suffering, sometimes, terribly, as a result of shale gas drilling—have, like me, no funding whatsoever.  We are oriented by science and motivated by a desire for a just and sane future.  I work with a tiny non-profit, Protecting Our Waters, which raises about a thousand dollars from private contributions every few months.  For us, as for the grassroots opposition to shale gas drilling which is growing rapidly, the work is hard, urgent, and our pennies in no way compare to the hundreds of millions giant multinational corporations like Exxon are willing to shell out to obfuscate the issues. 
    Lastly, notice that the Exxon ad did NOT say “hydraulic fracturing has never been linked to water contamination.”  That’s because their lawyers know that that’s not true, although industry lobbyists have repeated it millions of times.  The Exxon ad brags freely about economic benefits, without mentioning that the public health costs, life cycle climate impacts, cleanup costs, loss of eco-tourism due to deforestation and disfigurement of the land, and loss to our society from their pushback against renewable energy—are all so great that the harms outweigh the benefits.  Cumulative impacts to air, water, earth have not even been studied, have not begun to be understood fully by the general public, but the general public has an inkling.  So no amount of advertising from Exxon will outweigh the great cry now being heard to keep Exxon out of the Delaware River Basin, drinking water source for fifteen million people.  Links at Catskill Mountainkeeper, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, or Protecting Our Waters can help you add your voice by June 1st.

Izzy Spalding

May 26, 2011, 9:15 a.m.

Bloom may be long-winded, but damn straight, she’s right!

so fracking is now a “time-tested process”? what time frame is that? it’s been about 6 years since the Clean Water Act waiver (Dick Cheney) for fracking and some of the effects are not so subtle. the exxonmobile ad doesn’t really address the burning tap water issue. when do we get the economic benefits of permanently polluted groundwater?

Sandra Folzer

May 26, 2011, 4:24 p.m.

Ms. Bloom is obviously well informed. We have only to look at what happened in Colorado to know how unsafe gas drilling is. It is also bad economically.
A Cornell University study shows how the gas company-sponsored research is deeply flawed when it states that communities with gas drilling have an economic advantage. Dr. Christopherson and others found that counties with natural gas production usually have long-term socio-economic disadvantages. Other analysts reached similar conclusions.  Gas drilling is not good for the environment or the communities who support hem

Sandra Folzer

May 26, 2011, 4:28 p.m.

Ms. Bloom is obviously well informed. We have only to look at what happened in Colorado to know how unsafe gas drilling is. It is also bad economically.
A Cornell University study shows how the gas company-sponsored research is deeply flawed when it states that communities with gas drilling have an economic advantage. Studies not sponsored by gas companies found that counties with natural gas production usually have long-term socio-economic disadvantages. Other analysts reached similar conclusions.  Gas drilling is not good for the environment or the communities who support hem

Are Lustgarten or Kusnetz going to pickup the DOE NETL study that totally undermines Howarth?

Or is ProPublica only interested in flogging anti-natural gas stuff?

Squeaky clean ad graphics like this make me think the frackers have something to hide. Is there anything Rex Tillerson won’t say to make an obscene profit at our lasting expense? The evidence to date suggests “No”.

But with ad revenues from the likes of this misinformation graphic, the NYT and WaPo can hire another investigative journalist. Silver linings.

the gas is there, our dependancy on it will ensure that in the long run we will get every last drop of it sucked out of the earth, no matter how much it kills it and is bleak and very depressing. money talks the earth (and in turn, ourselves) walk.

One of the lies that the gas drillers use is that the pads these drilling operations are located on are relatively small.  My experience as a civil engineer on the western slope of Colorado is that these pads are usually several hundred feet across in both directions and often located in mountainous terrain, resulting in extremely large areas of disturbance for the cut and fill slopes required to tie back to existing ground.  They also fail to mention the access roads, sometimes hundreds or thousands of feet in length to the well pads.  As with the well pads, building these roads can cause an extreme amount of disturbance when and often built in the mountains.  Many times, only basic and not very effective erosion control measures are specified which provide little protection for downstream surface waters or property.  These erosion control measures usually are not well maintained anyway and provide little protection.

The proof of the pudding here is that portions of the petro industry does not believe this themselves. Dutch-Shell is building this gigantic ship to provide LNG, why? Well simple they are betting against the other petro industries. They are saying that if gas can migrate into the water layer that liquid will eventually be able to migrate also. No matter how deep the gas layer, no matter how good the cement and pipe system. If there is migration of the water used in the fracking then the wells will be shut down and everyone will have to turn to LNG to make up the difference.

So place you bets everyone buy shares of Dutch-Shell or Exxon.

Iris Marie Bloom

May 29, 2011, 6:10 p.m.

Thanks Jody, it’s so useful when someone like you with such specific experience speaks out.  Yes, even one well pad can disturb a great deal of land.  And multi-well pads increase the total disturbance because they create such a concentration of diesel-powered heavy industrial equipment, such an increase in the total truck traffic and volume of chemicals. 
    Your comments on erosion in CO are spot on for Pennsylvania.  The DEP spends as little as 35 minutes looking at applications for horizontal hydrofracturing, which must be approved speedily according to state policy and politics.  Last year the Chesapeake Bay Foundation wrote an article about the PA permit system being “broken”—CBF legally challenged a small number of PA permits due to lack of erosion control, and won.  But no nonprofit has the resources to do that permit by permit.  Scrutiny: that’s what the state is supposed to do, but they are fast-tracking permits instead.  We say call a halt.

Anyone up for about 800 earthquakes?

Ask the folks in Oklahoma and Arkansas how well they sleep at night knowing that fracking disposal sites were suspended due to “a likely link” between the wells and 800 earthquakes that hit in a six-month period. One was a magnitude 4.7 quake.

Geoff Swenson

June 2, 2011, 2:22 a.m.

David Stein posted a link to Powerpoint graphics that read like an industry-oriented economic-benefits assessment and have almost nothing to do with any analysis of the safety of gas-fracking.

I’m sure that there are plenty of economic benefits for the companies involved including Booz-Hamilton especially if the downside continue to be paid by the public and the environment.

The government and society has a right to make sure that this energy can be extracted in safe ways, and as such we need a more open process. David Stein’s linked slides have almost nothing to say on this matter, so it hardly matters if we are ignoring them or not.

Mike H:

Fact: Cement plugs no matter how big or how deep “don’t” work!

Fact: It’s the water…the clean, clear water… 5 million gallons of free surface water per well…5, sometimes 6 wells per acre…

Fact: Drinking water is more valuable than Shale/Natural Gas…

Fact: You are crushing/compacting the under surface of your continent…(man made) you don’t know what type of chain reaction you may start?

Note: the water in northern British Columbia, Canada, our and “YOUR” fresh water of last resort…Dawson Creek, BC, shale gas (Haliburton Technology) fresh water use (the complete watershed) has been fracted to a stand still!

A few semi-related thoughts:  Has anyone seen any credible scientific follow-up to the Pavillion, WY, water well contamination that several people have referenced?  There’s some media coverage since the story broke in 2009, but it’s just a rehashing of the original story.

That DOE NETL powerpoint isn’t worth the time to try and find real information.  The slides provide no detail, and “data” that cannot be put into context is worthless.

Ms. Bloom mentions the CBF quote about PA DEP’s permit system bring broken.  That quote is not completely accurate.  The permit system for oil and gas permits, whether it’s for wells, pipelines, compressor stations, or wastewater disposal, works just as it was designed - for rapidly granting permission to the industry to go about its business just like they want to do.  And if someone gets in their way, such as a County Conservation District, they’re quickly swept aside. 

PA DEP has special permits for the oil and gas industry earthmoving activities, such as a several-hundred miles long, 30-inch diameter gas pipeline, because they are totally exempt from federal regulations, just like the disclosure of chemicals pumped into the ground during hydraulic fracturing of a gas well is exempt from the federal Drinking Water Act.

Here in northcentral PA we’re told that the gas folks will be here for at least 30 years, drilling up to 8 wells a pad, thousands of pads, hundreds of miles of pipelines of all sizes, hundreds of compressor stations, and then start in on the Utica shale gas, even deeper, under even higher pressure.  I can’t wait… to relocate.

On Pavillion, WY, the resident John Fenton from the documentary “Gasland” attended a local showing in Cheyenne, WY.  He and his young family live on their family ranch that had been owned and homesteaded by Mrs. Fenton’s family.  Mr. Fenton himself had worked with the O&G industry before settling down to ranching and investing all they have.  The small town of Pavillion, WY has had to have its water hauled as the well water in the area is too contaminated for drinking and bathing.  Their ranches have been reduced to virtually no value.  The State of Wyoming has been debating whether to provide water for the community.  Mr. Fenton stated at the public meeting that he and his family have all suffered various physical ailments that they had not previously suffered until the drilling moved so close to their residence.  His young son has been having epileptic-like seiizures and his wife suffers from various neurologic ailments.  It’s also effected the cattle he raises.  It’s not just the water contamination, but there are emissions from the confdensate tanks and evaporation from holding ponds that are creating an effect.  In Sublette County, WY, the air quality is worse than LAs and they only have a little over 6,000 residents in the entire county.

Until you live in the middle of the gas patch you will never know what the problems are. The pollution or possibility of pollution is foremost in everyone’s mind. One big thing that is not talked about is the damage to the roads. Everyone of those wells produce waste water over the life of the well so that means that everyone of them are going to have an 18 wheeler tanker going to and fro hauling water. These country roads are not built for that kind of traffic so the roads are continually needing repair at taxpayer expense. One thing to remember that this traffic will continue on for the 20 - 30 year life of the gas field. Here in the gas patch they inject the waste water back into the ground causing small earthquakes that have caused some wells to be shut down. Google Bluedaze, a blog from the patch!!!

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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