Gas documentary offers anecdotes, not evidence

Many of the people featured in the documentary, “Split Estates,” have heart-breaking stories about health problems they have suffered.

What they don’t have, and what is absent from the documentary itself, is actual evidence that connects those health problems to the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells. Without this causal link between the fracturing substances and disease, the claim of wrongdoing — like the documentary itself — falls flat, at least with respect to hydraulic fracturing.

The other part of the documentary focuses on the difficult problems of split estates, in which one person owns the surface land but someone else owns the mineral rights beneath the surface. Although Colorado has improved its regulations regarding drilling on split-estate lands, the situation still leads to inequities in which the surface owner too often comes out on the short end.

The documentary catalogues many of those problems.

When it comes to fracking fluids, however, some of the stories recounted in “Split Estates” may provide fodder for those on the other side. For instance, it is difficult to accept that fracking is responsible for someone’s health problems if another person living in the same house, breathing the same air, drinking the same water suffers none of those ailments.

Anecdotes about health problems that people believe could be related to fracking are not the same as evidence of such a link. One serious difficulty in making that link, at least with respect to drinking water, is the fact that the fracking fluids are pumped through steel pipes thousands of feet into the ground — and thousands of feet below the rock formations from which drinking water is pumped.

The Environmental Protection Agency has twice concluded that fracking is not dangerous — once during the Clinton administration and most recently in 2004.

The EPA is also conducting tests on water wells in central Wyoming found to be tainted with a number of chemicals. The wells are in a natural gas field, but despite the claims of some environmentalists, the EPA is a long way from concluding that fracking was the source of the contamination. The EPA is conducting more tests to determine how much contamination there is, whether it poses a health hazard and where it came from.

“We’re at the initial investigation, and we’re just trying to get our hands around this,” Greg Oberley, aquifer protection team coordinator with the EPA in Denver, said in August.

Some industry people believe the toxins in the water came not from recent fracking, but from previous handling of waste water from drilling, which in the past was stored in unlined surface pits.

But the producers and director of “Split Estate,” made little effort to provide balance in that regard. The documentary is a polemic, aimed at highlighting one side’s views about the supposed dangers of gas drilling, not at presenting a balanced picture of the arguments related to fracking. Those who already believe gas drilling is inherently bad will no doubt accept its position with little question. But it’s unlikely to win converts from the other side, or even among those sitting on the fence.

In fact, by substantially overstating the case against fracking while providing little evidence to support its claims, “Split Estate” may actually harm the cause it seeks to champion.


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