Cui Bono? With a Vengeance

It’s a truism in the world of power politics and big money nothing ever happens by coincidence.

So here we find two newspaper articles, many miles apart, yet which are (dare one speak it?) closely related to each other.  The first is from The Globe and Mail, and reports an interview with one of the most powerful men in the world.  No; it’s not President Mom-Jeans but rather a Saudi prince who is worth several billion dollars not only by senior membership in the kleptocratic Saudi ruling house, but also through his successes in investment in the Real World (you know: the world the Saudi government actively subverts through subsidizing the most extreme forms of West-hating, Jewish-blood-craving Islamofascism).  He makes the mistake of honesty.  “The missive [a letter he sent to his kinsman the Saudi oil minister] warned that the American shale oil boom would soon threaten demand for crude from members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.  New shale oil discoveries ‘are threats to any oil-producing country in the world,’ he says. * * *  ‘It is a pivot moment for any oil-producing country that has not diversified,’ he says. ‘Ninety-two per cent of Saudi Arabia’s annual budget comes from oil. Definitely it is a worry and a concern.’”

Why is a Saudi prince, who just bought a five-star hotel in Toronto, sitting there talking about shale oil, fracking, and similar matters?  Well, you see, even though the U.S. now produces domestically 89% of the oil it uses — up from 70% just a few years ago and all thanks to the fracking boom — it’s Canada that is our largest source of imported oil.  Not only is Canada the U.S.’s largest foreign supplier, but now that Dear Leader has, in part to accommodate Warren Buffett’s railroad interests in hauling North Dakota’s production via inefficient rail car rather than efficient pipeline, scuppered construction of a south-bound Keystone XL pipeline, the Canadians are just going to build it westward to their coast and sell their oil to Red China.  So Canada has an enormous economic interest in continued production from its oil sands.  And if anything, its political stake is even higher.  At the risk of understatement, the U.S. has taken its neighbor much too much for granted for far too long.  Establishing a highly lucrative relationship with countries other than the U.S. will enable Canada to act with much less looking southward over its shoulder.

Canada’s drive for economic and political leeway beyond the U.S. orbit is Major Super Dooper Bad News for the oil tyrannies because it renders everyone to whom they ship that much less dependent on the Islamofascist regimes.  Which is why the Saudis have been funding, very quietly, a huge amount of the “green” opposition to the Canadian oil sands.  One would like to know how much of the U.S. “green” opposition to Keystone XL and fracking in general is being funded from Saudi and similar sources.  Recall that the major players in the “green” racket aren’t exactly forthright about their funding sources.  Recall also that Geo. Soros has an enormous financial stake in that super-deepwater Petrobras field off the coast of South America.  A field that will never be economically viable at $90 a barrel.  Recall that Soros was among those pushing very hard to keep Gulf oil production shut down in the aftermath of the BP spill.

And how do the Saudis, Soros, and their ilk fight against U.S. energy independence?  By funding every “green” opposition group they can find to engage in lawfare, fear-mongering, and disinformation campaigns.  Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not suggesting that they’re not entitled to their opinion or to attempt to influence public opinion in their favor (spoiler:  I think Citizens United was spot-on accurately decided).  I do object, however, to their vilification of every attempt to wean the Western world from subsidizing the continuing rise of Islamofascism through petrodollars as being just toadying to “Big Oil” and those favorite bogeymen, the Koch boys.

And that gets me to the other newspaper article.  From AP (via ABC News) we have this article on how four states have confirmed contamination in wells.  AP went to the four states and asked for years’ worth of public records relating to well complaints, contamination confirmations, and so forth.  A good part of the article is about the patch-work response they got, and the active push-back from some of the states (apparently Pennsylvania was like pulling teeth, whereas Texas — you know, them mouth-breathing rednecks — immediately coughed up a 90-plus page spreadsheet with extremely detailed information).  The core of the article, however, is about insinuating that all them eeeevvilllll Big Oil shills have been Proven Wrong About Fracking, and that accordingly . . . well, you’ve heard the rest.

The lead sentence, in good newspaper practice fashion, sets the tone for the rest:  “In at least four states that have nurtured the nation’s energy boom, hundreds of complaints have been made about well-water contamination from oil or gas drilling, and pollution was confirmed in a number of them, according to a review that casts doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely happen” (my emphasis).  And how much doubt is cast?  Well, there’s this:  “And while the confirmed problems represent only a tiny portion of the thousands of oil and gas wells drilled each year in the U.S. . . .”  A “tiny portion” of the thousands of wells drilled each year seem associated with contamination.

In the next few paragraphs, the AP gets even more specific, using Pennsylvania’s data.  In 2012, a total of 499 complaints of water well contamination was made; in 2013 the number was 398.  And how many turned out actually to be contaminated?  Well, let’s quietly move the goalposts a bit by expanding our field of vision.  “More than 100” cases confirmed contamination.  Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?  Yes it does . . . unless you read the rest of the sentence, which (using words, not numbers, so the eye that has been caught by numbers like “499” and “398” is going to have to re-calibrate) reveals that those “more than 100” (actually 106, a number which you have to keep reading substantially into the article further to find) confirmed contaminations were spread over five (5) years.  The actual 2011 and 2012 numbers were five in the first two-thirds of 2012, a total of 18 in all of 2011, and 29 in 2010.  So the number of complaints concerns a “tiny portion” of the thousands of new wells drilled each year (over 5,000 new wells in Pennsylvania during those five years) and even among the complaints that are actually made, only just over 2% of the complaints turn out to be actual contamination.

And by the by, most of the contamination involves methane, a gas which at atmospheric pressure will not remain in solution in water (according to a friend of mine who happens to enjoy a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, and has spent over ten years in water treatment and related fields).  In other words, if you want to get the methane out of your water, it’s scarcely rocket science to remove it.

The more you read, the more diluted becomes the suggestion that the AP’s research legitimately “casts doubt” on “industry suggestions” that such problems “rarely” occur.  Fracking isn’t the only kind of drilling occurring, you see, and “some conventional oil and gas wells are still drilled, so the complaints about water contamination can come from them, too.”  So we really don’t know how many of that 2.12% (max) of confirmed contamination is even actually associated with a fracking well.  Over in Ohio, out of a mountain of six — count ’em — confirmed cases of contamination, the state department of natural resources allowed that, “None of the six confirmed cases of contamination was related to fracking.”  In West Virginia over four years, 122 complaints were made, of which all of four were genuine enough that the driller had to take action.  In Texas, out of “over 2,000 complaints,” only 62 even alleged drilling-related contamination, and of those, they were able to confirm . . . exactly zero, over the course of 10 years.

If you keep slogging through the article all the way down, you get to this nugget:  “Experts and regulators agree that investigating complaints of water-well contamination is particularly difficult, in part because some regions also have natural methane gas pollution or other problems unrelated to drilling. A 2011 Penn State study found that about 40 percent of water wells tested prior to gas drilling failed at least one federal drinking water standard.”

All of which is to say that the AP article’s author wrote a lead paragraph for an entirely different article than the one he actually wrote.  Here, let’s try to help him out and match the introduction with the substance:

“A survey by AP of four states shows that well-water contamination associated with hydraulic fracturing — “fracking” in common parlance — is in fact extremely rare, as oil and gas industry companies and organizations claim.  Just how rare remains difficult to determine, because even confirmed contamination in water wells may be traceable to conventional oil or gas wells or even to entirely naturally occurring sources.  AP surveyed up to five years’ data about complaints of alleged well contamination, confirmed cases of well contamination, and determination of source of contamination in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas.  The data show that of the complaints of contaminated wells — up to 499 in Pennsylvania in 2012 — only a minuscule proportion reveal actual contamination — a total of five in the first nine months of 2012, or almost exactly 1%.  In Texas, despite hundreds of complaints over the years, not a single case of driling-related contamination has been confirmed in the past ten years. In comparison to actual or potential drilling-related contamination, natural contamination is a much more serious problem.  Over 40% of Pennsylvania wells tested pre-drilling failed at least one federal drinking water standard.”

That’s my effort.  Let’s see how ThinkProgress re-writes the article.  Actually, they do a better job, I think, in summarizing the data than the AP.  And they do come on out and say, “It’s unknown what sort of pollution caused the complaints that were confirmed to have been due to fracking,” and in the lead sentence of its paragraph no less.

Further on in the ThinkProgress article they mention a study which is alleged to shed some light on the overall effects of oil and gas drilling.  The study, yet to be published by some organization of economists, is represented to have found that “living close to a fracking operation increases the risk of low birth weight in a newborn baby by more than half, and doubles the baby’s risk of a low Apgar score, a scale that summarizes of the health of newborns.”  Here the reader is asked to confuse the concept of actuarial “risk” with causal “risk.”  The economists are plainly talking about the former, as (again, to their credit) ThinkProgress makes clear:  “However, water contamination wasn’t the likely culprit in the study: the mothers in the study who had access to monitored public water had babies that were of similar health as mothers who relied on private wells, which are more likely to be affected by fracking.”

In other words, about all you can truthfully say about oil and gas drilling is that people who live near them tend to have babies with low birth weights and Apgar scores.  Was any multivariate regression done to account for other known correlates of those measured outcomes?  Like smoking, female-headed single-parent household, failure to complete high school, or so forth?  Because oil and gas extraction is heavy industry, and people who can afford not to live near to heavy industry tend not to live next to heavy industry.  And curiously enough, they tend to experience lower rates of low birth weight and/or Apgar scores.

[Update 31 Jan 14:  For a further item on the don’t-jump-to-conclusions list, here (note: at the website of what appears to be some energy-industry organization) we see a response to a study from Colorado which alleges to find positive correlation between natural gas fracking and sundry birth defects.  This study is apparently popularly cited by opponents of fracking.  The Colorado Department of Health is not impressed with the study’s design, however.  Among its other shortcomings (like failing to distinguish between active or inactive wells, conventional vertical or fracking wells, or even oil and gas wells), the Colorado health department’s chief medical officer pointed out:

“For birth outcomes with very few cases, such as neural tube defects, the authors  did not consider the effect that other risk factors may have played (examples: smoking, drinking, mother’s folic acid intake during pregnancy, access to prenatal care, etc).  For these rare outcomes, such as neural tube defects, they only considered the effect of elevation. The personal behaviors of the mothers are very important risk factors for all birth defects. Without considering the effect of these personal risk factors, as well as the role of genetic factors, it is very difficult to draw conclusions from this study.

As the authors noted, they don’t necessarily know where the mother lived at the time of conception or during the first trimester of pregnancy, when most birth defects occur.  This makes interpretation of their study difficult.”

Ask whether momma was doing crank or popping pills?  Confirm whether momma actually had, you know, any sort of proximity to an oil or gas well when the defects are most likely to have occurred (seriously, check out the paper’s title; it contains the expression “maternal residential proximity”)?  Nah; that might cloud the issue, and the issue is to defeat the Koch brothers, rights?  The full text of the statement is at the link.]

To illustrate that last point a bit further:  Let’s say that you do a study on people who wear bicycle helmets and neck injuries.  You find that lo! people who wear bicycle helmets while riding experience a high number of neck injuries.  So you conclude that wearing a helmet increases the “risk” of neck injuries.  Well . . . no, it doesn’t.  Helmet-wearing correlates very strongly with (a) youth, whose parents make them wear helmets, and (b) sport bicycling, which involves high speeds and low tolerance for mistakes.  Young riders make more mistakes; mistakes made by competitive or sport riders occur at higher speeds, on rougher terrain, and produce more severe injuries.

I seem to have wandered from my original point:  Fracking is held up as a bogeyman.  The people who are holding it up as a bogeyman are receiving funding from people who have a very important — in some cases, life-or-death — financial and/or political stake in maximizing the dependence of the U.S. on imported oil.  The truth is that while it is true that “fracking can cause contamination of water wells,” that’s not really the appropriate question, is it?  That question is, “Given the rarity of contamination of water wells by fracking, is the U.S. — and for that matter, are other countries as well — better or worse off starving the Islamofascists of petrodollars by promoting an extraction technology that in a tiny number of cases may be causing a remediable problem?”

Ask yourself:  Who benefits from each of the answers that can be given to that question?

Update [27 Jan 2015]:  This just in.  Seems the Russians have been bank-rolling the anti-fracking movement here in the United States.  This is obviously because their environmental concerns are so acute.  After all, oil and gas extraction in Russia is done so much more cleanly than it is here.

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