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A Fracking Mischaracterization

An Investor’s Business Daily editorial repeats some canards about ProPublica’s coverage of the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing.

 The headline on Tuesday’s editorial in Investor’s Business Daily – “Get the Frackin’ Gas” – is both clever and on the mark. The publication gets into trouble, however, when the body of its editorial veers into mischaracterizing ProPublica’s reporting on the environmental risks that need to be dealt with to produce the huge amounts of natural gas available underground in the United States.

Our reporters, led by Abrahm Lustgarten, have researched and written more than 50 stories on the subject over the past 18 months and are as expert on the topic as anyone in America.

Here is what is beyond dispute: The gas is highly desirable as a fuel, because it burns relatively cleanly and produces less greenhouse gas per unit of energy than oil or coal. There is lots of it obtainable within the U.S. using an enhanced version of an old drilling technology, called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” – much more than was widely supposed just a few years ago. That means using natural gas to power cars and electrical generation doesn’t require sending huge sums abroad, weakening the dollar and strengthening countries that aren’t particularly friendly to ours – Russia, Iran and Venezuela among them.

Here is a fact that some in the gas industry want to deny: There are significant risks to the water supply from producing these huge quantities of gas, but they are easily manageable with appropriate regulatory supervision. Unfortunately, the IBD editorial buys into the head-in-the-sand denial.

The editorial quotes a senator from the Oklahoma oil patch as saying there has never been a documented impact on water supplies from fracking. As former President Bill Clinton would understand, that depends on how you define “documented” and “fracking.” If you use any sort of sensible definitions, there have been well over 1,000 incidents in which spillage or leakage of fluids used in fracking have damaged water supplies.

An unmitigated canard quoted in the editorial – one that has a goofy way of creeping into discourse from a variety of people who dislike something we have written – is that George Soros, the global billionaire, is behind our coverage. Soros has never given us a penny, and even if he had, none of our funders know in advance what we are going to write about, nor do they have any role in deciding what stories we do or don’t do.

What our reporting over the last year and a half has demonstrated is simple: A provision in the huge 2005 energy legislation (crafted as a result of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s task force on the subject) exempted fracking from regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and left environmental supervision to the states. This gives the drilling industry huge freedom to play one state off against another in the race to get billions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs.

The growing numbers of proponents of eliminating that exemption argue that such action would provide a common regulatory framework and assure drilling could go forward in relative safety. The industry has responded with a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort to block that move, on the grounds that effective regulation would add to its costs.

ProPublica will continue to cover the issue aggressively, and factually.

Portrait of Paul Steiger

Paul Steiger

Paul E. Steiger was the founding editor-in-chief, CEO and president of ProPublica from 2008 through 2012, and part-time executive chairman from 2013 through 2020.

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