Hydraulic Fracturing, Newspaper Coverage, and Social License to Operate

We have been hard at work transforming research originally prepared for our report for Canadian Water Network into a series of interdisciplinary peer-reviewed publications. The first of what we hope will be a trilogy of articles was published today in the open access journal Sustainability. The article — “Comparative Analysis of Hydraulic Fracturing Wastewater Practices in Unconventional Shale Development: Newspaper Coverage of Stakeholder Concerns and Social License to Operate” — was co-authored by an interdisciplinary team, including Joel Gehman (professor at the University of Alberta, Department of Strategic Management & Organization), Dara Y. Thompson (former M.Sc. student at the University of Alberta, Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology), Daniel S. Alessi (professor at the University of Alberta, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences), Diana M. Allen (professor at Simon Fraser University, Department of Earth Sciences), Greg G. Goss (professor at the University of Alberta, Department of Biological Sciences).

The starting point for the overall project was the conceptualization of the hydraulic fracturing wastewater context as comprised of three potentially interrelated spheres of action (Figure 1). By delineating between operator practices, regulatory requirements, and stakeholder concerns, our goal was to better understand the extent to which these different spheres affected one another, if at all. In essence, we conceptualized the hydraulic fracturing wastewater context as a dynamic process in which any one sphere has the potential to influence the other two. Relative to the overall conceptual framework, this article focuses on one of these spheres specifically: stakeholder concerns.

Figure 1. Conceptualization of the hydraulic fracturing wastewater context.

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Sharing a Wealth of Information

Today, a summary of our SSHRC-funded research on “The Effectiveness of Fracking Disclosure Regimes in Canada” appeared in The Hill Times. Founded in 1989, The Hill Times is an Ottawa-based weekly newspaper that covers Canadian government and politics. The article is available below and online: Sharing a Wealth of Information: How Regulators Can Improve Fracking Disclosure Practices. Continue reading

Showing Versus Telling and the Debate Over Unconventional Shale Development

Over the past decade, it has become clear that unconventional shale development poses major challenges to the state agencies tasked with regulating it. In many cases, the concerns are related to issues of information containment and information disclosure. For instance, Pennsylvania and its state agencies have been criticized repeatedly, most recently in a scathing report by the Commonwealth’s Auditor General.

Although the Department of Environmental Protection has born the bulk of this criticism, the Department of Health has come under fire too. According to StateImpact Pennsylvania, two retirees from the Department say “its employees were silenced on the issue of Marcellus Shale drilling.” The issue of “organizational silence,” or the collective-level phenomenon of saying or doing little in the face of significant problems, is an area of considerable research. Although in many cases organizational silence comes about tacitly, in this case, the retired employees claim the silence was deliberate.

Michael Wolf is Pennsylvania’s current Health Secretary. In a recent newspaper editorial, he responded to these criticisms of the Health Department. Below are some excerpts from his editorial, as well as some observations that occurred to me in the course of reading his comments:

The Pennsylvania Department of Health has specific protocols for all public health inquiries and concerns that employees must follow.

This sounds very promising. Inquiring minds want to know:

  • What are these protocols?
  • Are they adequate for handling inquiries and concerns related to unconventional shale developing and hydraulic fracturing?
  • How often are the Department’s protocols followed and ignored?
  • How do these protocols compare, such as with other state protocols and with peer-reviewed literature regarding the potential health impacts of unconventional shale development and hydraulic fracturing?

All inquiries are immediately reported to the department’s Bureau of Epidemiology, the experts who have training in controlling and preventing the spread of disease or illness, for review and follow-up. This is a strict and standard protocol for any health report the department receives, whether it’s related to Marcellus Shale or other environmental health issues. The process includes a review, investigation, data collection and a formal response to the complainant. The Bureau of Epidemiology works directly with the caller or patient’s physician in charge for follow-up, and any immediate threats to the public’s health found would be given a priority…. A log is kept of each complaint that comes in, responses are tracked, and outcomes noted.

Based on this statement, it seems that the Department of Health (unlike the Department of Environmental Protection) should be able to quickly provide answers to questions such as:

  • How many inquiries related to Marcellus Shale have been received?
  • What is the status of the review process and what responses have been issued in relation to these inquiries?
  • What are the outcomes of the investigations?
  • What “immediate threats to the public’s health” have been found and how are these being prioritized?
  • Are there any examples of situations where these procedures “controlled” or “prevented” the spread of potential health impacts related to unconventional shale development and hydraulic fracturing?

Our goal is, and will continue to be, to provide information and a forum for discourse on public health issues.

This is an admirable goal. As one check on how the Department has done with regard to its goal of providing information and a forum for discourse on public health issues related to unconventional shale development and hydraulic fracturing, I used the “search Agency” box on the Department website to search for terms such as “Marcellus,” “shale,” “hydraulic fracturing” and “fracking.” The results below suggest that the Department is not providing any such information on its website:

  • For “Marcellus” there were 23 results. Of these, 22 reported on the number of newborn children who were named “Marcellus.” The other document was entitled “Final Progress Report for Research Projects Funded by Health Research Grants.” The document refers to a $66,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation for “Use of information in Marcellus Shale environmental and health quality public discourse debates.”
  • For “shale” there were 8 results. Of these, 6 reported on the number of newborn children who were named “Shale.” Another result was to the same Final Progress Report referenced above. The final result was entitled “Boron Fact Sheet,” according to which, “Boron is a naturally occurring element found in many types of rocks including shale.”
  • There were no results for the terms “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking.”

We may not have a multi-million dollar health registry right now at the department as some have called for, but the records are kept, the proactive follow-up and coordination is happening and we are leveraging the talents and resources we have to get the job done.

The expression “show, don’t tell” is well known among writers of all kinds. By comparison, the Secretary’s editorial is long on telling and short on showing. Perhaps in the future, the Department of Health will provide evidence of its claims? After all, the strongest rebuttal to the allegations that have been made would be evidence to the contrary. But on that point the Department of Health remains … silent.

Are the Amish Getting Fracked?

According to an article in the New Republic, “The Amish Are Getting Fracked” by energy companies that exploit an Amish religious prohibition against lawsuits, especially companies involved in unconventional shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing.


Curious about these claims, I decided to do a bit of research. One of the books I read was The Amish by Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, Steven M. Nolt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). In turns out that, indeed, the Amish refuse “to initiate litigation or use the law aggressively to defend themselves” because they “view such as coercion, which violates the nonresistant teachings of Jesus to love enemies and avoid retaliation”; in most Amish communities “transgression of this deeply held belief will trigger excommunication” (Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner, & Nolt, 2013: 353).

In addition to confirming this tidbit, I found The Amish to be extensively researched and beautifully written. It offers a rare blend of detailed academic scholarship coupled with a compelling human narrative. The overall organization of the book is excellent, with a total of 22 chapters (!) organized into five major sections: roots; cultural context; social organization; external ties; and the future. The text is rich in detail, nuance and sophistication. The authors somehow manage to be exhaustive without appearing to have done violence to their topic, subjects and setting.

Academic readers are sure to revel in the endnotes. As just one example, consider Chapter 7 on “Symbols and Identity.” The third paragraph (p. 116) notes: “Amish cultural norms prescribe how to act toward and think about moral objects–material items, ideas and activities. Like other societies, the Amish distinguish between desirable or ‘clean’ moral objects and forbidden or ‘dirty’ ones. Boundaries and labels distinguish between things that purify the community and things that pollute it…” Of course, this sounds (to me) like something Mary Douglas might have written, especially her work on Purity and Danger, but also Natural Symbols, Risk and Blame, etc. And neatly tucked away in the endnotes (p. 435, en 1) we find the following: “Our analysis of distinctions in a group’s moral order rests on the classic work of Bourdieu, Distinction; Douglas, Purity and Danger; Wuthnow et al., Cultural Analysis; and Wuthnow, Meaning and Moral Order.”

In sum, Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner and Nolt have offered us a highly readable and thoroughly engaging lens into The Amish, and in doing so offer readers an opportunity to reflect on themselves and their own cultural milieu. What’s more, academics from diverse backgrounds will also see themselves in this book — including anthropology, culture studies, ethnography, geography, history, political science, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and many more I am sure.

National Geographic Bakken Shale Cover Story

The March 2013 issue of National Geographic proclaims: “America Strikes Oil: The Promise and Risk of Fracking.”

201303 National GeographicInside is a 32-page story entitled “The New Oil Landscape” by Edwin Dobb, with photographs by Eugene Richards. You can read the story online and view an album of the photos.

In his introductory column, editor-in-chief Chris Johns framed the stakes this way:

Flip a coin. Heads or tails? The odds are fifty-fifty either way. Make a bet and take your chances. A gamble is just that–a decision that has risk attached to it. Someone wins. But someone loses. When it comes to fracking–the process of extracting otherwise unreachable oil and natural gas by driving fresh water mixed with other substances, some toxic, into layers of rock–the bets become less mathematically clear…

As with other unconventional formations, such as the Barnett, Haynesville and Marcellus, extracting hydrocarbons from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation depends on a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. What’s different about the Bakken Formation is that it produces shale oil. (Though considerable natural gas is also produced, it is often flared).

[A]dvances in drilling and extraction technology bave made it possible to remove oil from deep, widely dispersed deposits. Since early 2006, production from what’s known as the Bakken formation has increased nearly 150-fold, to more than 660,000 barrels a day, moving North Dakota into second place among domestic suppliers, behind Texas and ahead of Alaska.

But clearly more than technology, geology and economics are at stake. Early in the article, Dobb asks:

[C]an the inestimable values of the prairie–silence, solitude, serenity–be preserved in the face of full-throttle, regionwide development, of extracting as much oil as possible as fast as possible?

After reviewing the evidence firsthand, by the end of the article, Dobb concludes:

To believe the old lifestyle will survive intact is to ignore the wrenching changes that have already reshaped this corner of the prairie.

Note: In August 2010, National Geographic published a package of stories — “The Great Shale Gas Rush” — on the Marcellus Formation.

The Ashcroft #1

Another example of a spud unconventional gas well omitted from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Act 13 report, this one in the West Falls Formation.

Ashcroft #1

In December 1975, St. Joe Petroleum Corporation spud the Richard J. Ashcroft #1 well in Greene Township, Beaver County, ultimately drilling to a total depth of 7,519 feet in the Queenston Shale (Heyman & Cozart, 1978). The Ashcroft #1 was originally drilled as a test of the Lower Silurian Medina Group (Piotrowski & Harper, 1979), and reportedly completed on December 6, 1975. Although there was a slight show of gas, the well was initially shut-in, pending further production tests (Heyman & Cozart, 1978). The well was later plugged back, and, on February 19, 1976, was reportedly completed in the Devonian Rhinestreet shale (Piotrowski & Harper, 1979). However, after being hydraulically fractured, there was no sustained flow, and as of 1979, the well was again reported as shut-in (Piotrowski & Harper, 1979). The Ashcroft #1 was assigned Permit #BEA-20060 (Heyman & Cozart, 1978), now API #37-007-20060 (Ryder, 2004; Ryder et al., 2012; Trippi & Crangle, 2009). See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Ashcroft #1 Gamma Ray Log 


Source: Trippi & Crangle, 2009


Heyman, L., & Cozart, C. L. 1978. Oil and Gas Developments in Pennsylvania in 1977. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Geological Survey, Fourth Series, Progress Report 191.

Piotrowski, R. G., & Harper, J. A. 1979. Black Shale and Sandstone Facies of the Devonian “Catskill” Clastic Wedge in the Subsurface of Western Pennsylvania. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy.

Ryder, R. T. 2004. Stratigraphic Framework and Depositional Sequences in the Lower Silurian Regional Oil and Gas Accumulation, Appalachian Basin: From Ashland County, Ohio, through Southwestern Pennsylvania, to Preston County, West Virginia. Washington, DC: U.S. Geological Survey, Geologic Investigations Series, Map I-2810.

Ryder, R. T., Trippi, M. H., Swezey, C. S., Crangle, R. D., Jr., Hope, R. S., Rowan, E. L., et al. 2012. Geologic Cross Section C–C’ through the Appalachian Basin From Erie County, North-Central Ohio, to the Valley and Ridge Province, Bedford County, South-Central Pennsylvania. Washington, DC: U.S. Geological Survey, Scientific Investigations Map 3172.

Trippi, M. H., & Crangle, R. D., Jr. 2009. Log ASCII Standard (LAS) Files for Geophysical (Gamma Ray) Wireline Well Logs and Their Application to Geologic Cross Section C-C’ through the Central Appalachian Basin. Washington, DC: U.S. Geological Survey, Open File Report 2009-1021.

The Fleck #1

Another example of a spud unconventional gas well omitted from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Act 13 report, this one in the West Falls Formation.

Fleck #1

In 1975, Peoples Natural Gas Company spud the James Fleck #1 in Sandy Creek Township, Mercer County, reaching a total depth of 9,246 feet in “Precambrian granite” (Lytle et al., 1977: 23). The well was plugged back and fractured in the Lower Silurian Medina Group from 4,990 to 5,040 feet, discovering the Fleck Pool in the Sheakleyville Field (Lytle et al., 1977). In 1977, the Pennsylvania Geological Survey reported two different completion dates for this well: August 27, 1975, and March 12, 1976, creating indeterminacy as to when these events took place (Lytle et al., 1977). Regardless, initial production was reportedly 231 Mcfgpd, and the well was assigned Permit #MER-20116 (Lytle et al., 1977), or API #37-085-20116 under current nomenclature (Baranoski, 2002). The well was then shut-in (Heyman & Cozart, 1978). According to later reports, “although a significant amount of gas was encountered, it was not deemed sufficient to justify the expense of putting the well on line” (Harper & Abel, 1979: 41).

Around this same time, the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) had launched a five-year study of Devonian organic-rich shales in the Appalachian Basin (Piotrowski & Krajewski, 1977).[1] As it relates to the James Fleck #1, in addition to production from the Medina Group, well logs indicated gas production in so-called Zone I facies, which were then thought to be “approximately equivalent to the Rhine Street Shale of New York” (Piotrowski & Krajewski, 1977: 41). Seizing upon this potential, Peoples Natural Gas Company and the ERDA began negotiating the possibility of using the James Fleck #1 to test the West Falls Formation (Frohne, 1978; Piotrowski & Krajewski, 1977).

These negotiations succeeded, and in March 1978, the newly formed U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) “attempted to stimulate the Rhinestreet facies … by means of a massive hydraulic fracturing treatment” (Harper & Abel, 1979: 41). In preparation for the treatment, the Devonian Shale was perforated with 50 holes between 3,112 and 3,360 feet deep (Frohne, 1978). The planned hydraulic fracturing treatment called for 270,000 gallons of nitrogen-water foam fracturing fluid, 324,000 pounds of sand proppant, and 12 major pieces of fracturing equipment (Frohne, 1978). Additionally, 6 gallons of surfactant, 1 gallon of clay stabilizer, and 44 pounds of calcium chloride per thousand gallons of water were injected with the foam (Frohne, 1978). The job also included 2,000 pounds of flaked benzoic acid to be used as a temporary diverting agent to insure that the entire perforated interval accepted some fracturing fluid (Frohne, 1978). See Table 1 for complete specifications of the planned massive hydraulic fracture treatment.

Table 1. Fleck #1 Massive Hydraulic Fracture Treatment Schedule


Source: Frohne, 1978

However, during the hydraulic fracturing treatment, unexpectedly high pressures were encountered, as well as a mechanical packer problem, resulting in a catastrophic downhole casing failure (Frohne, 1978). During the curtailed foam frac operation, 1,582,000 SCF of nitrogen gas, 18,500 gallons of water, and 19,700 pounds of sand had been pumped into the well, most of which then rapidly escaped from the fractured interval and returned to the surface. During the flowback, a substantial amount of sand proppant was sprayed over the backside of the well location. Trees about 30 to 50 yards away had coats of sand plastered on trunks and branches, and there was a solid layer of sand over the rear quadrant of the well site (see Figure 1). “This served to illustrate the potential hazards associated with any stimulation effort, as well as the need for good wellhead arrangement and spectator control” (Frohne, 1978: 5).

Figure 1. Fleck #1 Massive Hydraulic Fracture Treatment Schematic


Source: Frohne, 1978

Despite extensive remedial efforts, the treatment had to be aborted, and the well was plugged and abandoned (Frohne, 1978; Piotrowski, Cozart, Heyman, Harper, & Abel, 1979; Piotrowski & Harper, 1979). Following these events, the Pennsylvania Geological Survey published another completion record for this well, dated March 16, 1978 (Piotrowski et al., 1979).

[1] The ERDA was created on Oct 17, 1974 as part of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974. On October 1, 1977, the ERDA was combined with the Federal Energy Administration to form the United States Department of Energy.


Baranoski, M. T. 2002. Structure Contour Map on the Precambrian Unconformity Surface in Ohio and Related Basement Features. Columbus, OH: Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Frohne, K.-H. 1978. Technical Assessment: Massive Foam Stimulation Attempt in Mercer Co., Pa. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy.

Harper, J. A., & Abel, K. D. 1979. Devonian Shale Research in Pennsylvania: An Update. In R. G. Piotrowski, C. L. Cozart, L. Heyman, J. A. Harper, & K. D. Abel (Eds.), Oil and Gas Developments in Pennsylvania in 1978: 34–43. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Geological Survey, Fourth Series, Progress Report 192.

Heyman, L., & Cozart, C. L. 1978. Oil and Gas Developments in Pennsylvania in 1977. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Geological Survey, Fourth Series, Progress Report 191.

Lytle, W. S., Heyman, L., Piotrowski, R. G., & Krajewski, S. A. 1977. Oil and Gas Developments in Pennsylvania in 1976. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Geological Survey, Fourth Series, Progress Report 190.

Piotrowski, R. G., Cozart, C. L., Heyman, L., Harper, J. A., & Abel, K. D. 1979. Oil and Gas Developments in Pennsylvania in 1978. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Geological Survey, Fourth Series, Progress Report 192.

Piotrowski, R. G., & Harper, J. A. 1979. Black Shale and Sandstone Facies of the Devonian “Catskill” Clastic Wedge in the Subsurface of Western Pennsylvania. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy.

Piotrowski, R. G., & Krajewski, S. A. 1977. Devonian Shale Research in Pennsylvania. In W. S. Lytle, L. Heyman, R. G. Piotrowski, & S. A. Krajewski (Eds.), Oil and Gas Developments in Pennsylvania in 1976: 33–42. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Geological Survey, Fourth Series, Progress Report 190.