Responsible Drilling Alliance

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Who’s Telling The Truth?

Press coverage following the publication of Duke University’s study on Marcellus-type brine in shallow drinking water aquifers left many scratching their heads. Here’s a smattering of newspaper headlines on the Duke findings, the first from the front-page of Williamsport’s daily newspaper, the Sun-Gazette:


New Research Shows No Marcellus Shale Pollution

Confirmed: Fracking can pollute


New Study: Fluids From Marcellus Shale Likely Seeping Into PA Drinking Water


Fracking Did Not Sully Aquifers, Limited Study Finds  

Pennsylvania Fracking Can Put Water at Risk, Duke Study Finds


Phew. What to believe? How about an excerpt from the actual study, published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:


“We present geochemical evidence from northeastern Pennsylvania showing that pathways, unrelated to recent drilling activities, exist in some locations between deep underlying formations and shallow drinking water aquifers. The occurrences of saline water do not correlate with the location of shale-gas wells and are consistent with reported data before rapid shale-gas development in the region; however, the presence of these fluids suggests conductive pathways and specific geostructural and/or hydrodynamic regimes in northeastern Pennsylvania that are at increased risk for contamination of shallow drinking water resources, particularly by fugitive gases, because of natural hydraulic connections to deeper formations.”
Critical readers will easily see why media coverage of this issue is so divergent: As truth often is, the Duke findings are nuanced and complex in implication. Natural pathways exist for fluids to migrate from the Marcellus to groundwater aquifers, but neither the brine nor its migration can be linked to drilling activities. Both sides of the fracking debate have cherry-picked parts of the study to disseminate and parts to ignore. The media’s assumption that Americans are unable to parse subtleties of meaning annihilates the possibility for fact-based dialogue. Instead, like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, the truth gets sliced up and reassembled into something unrecognizable. At the core, this is an issue of uncertainty. Science cannot tell us with certainty that fracking fluids won’t migrate up these natural pathways (in fact, the Duke study suggests they will). Who will suffer the consequences when and if they do? Lower income rural Pennsylvanians. Reverend Leah Schade of Union County called hydraulic fracturing the new Jim Crow. The highest wage earners in the state, concentrated around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, have legal protections that keep fracking away from their homes, schools, and communities. Low-income rural Pennsylvanians have fought hard for these same protections and lost time and again. Why? Is a poor man’s life worth less than a rich man’s? The unequal application of Act 13 seems to suggest yes. The Duke study is a case in point for how readily the media manipulates information. What we know for sure is that we do not know. The industry profits from this uncertainty, and the have-nots stand to lose everything: their water, their homes, their health. Rural Pennsylvanians are guinea pigs for unconventional technology that has not stood the test of time. We deserve the same protections as Pennsylvania’s cities and suburbs.

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