Damage Control: Oil and Gas Industry Reeling from Bad Press


You can tell that Ian Urbina’s New York Times series on natural-gas drilling is hitting an industry nerve when the third-party “damage control” machine roars to life.

It looks to me like an expensive “crisis management” program this time around, so we can expect to hear more along the lines of a recent Forbes blog post by Michael Economides, identified as a professor of engineering at the University of Houston (in the heart of Oil Country).

But aside from his university affiliation, Dr. Economides is best known in the community as a frequent apologist for the “energy extraction” industry. He came to nest in Houston’s oil-soaked academia after comfortable stints with global chemical giant Celanese and “Dowell Schlumberger,” the offspring of a Dow Chemical merger. Wikipedia reminds us of the Schlumberger tie to the BP spill: “…Schlumberger performed wireline logging on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. A Schlumberger standby crew had been released by BP and left the rig earlier on the same day of the Deepwater Horizon explosion…” Sounds like Economides might be carrying a bit of professional baggage.

The Forbes post is, well, nonsense (for lack of a more colorful word) but certainly worth responding to – if only for reasons of objectivity and scientific integrity. It’s clear that Dr. Economides is a fully committed, “bought and paid for” industry apologist. He is well trained and versed in what will become echo-chamber messaging and talking points.

Let’s take a quick look at the state of the well-used art of “scientific” bait and switch. Dr. Economides frames his argument in this way: “…for starters, Urbina’s claim that ‘wastewater [from unconventional gas well fracturing] contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for [wastewater] treatment plants to handle’ is irresponsibly sensationalized. In fact, standards for NORM (naturally occurring radioactive material) have been observed for years.”

Here’s the bush league bait and switch: Dr. Economides cites one danger, wastewater, and then says “standards for NORM” have been observed for years. In terms of regulation, the two are very different. My clients and I helped develop the “standards” Econdomides mentions. And those standards have been observed in many cases – but not the ones the NYT profiled. So by introducing one topic (i.e., wastewater), then commenting on another (i.e., naturally occurring radioactive material), you create the lie Dr. Economides is trying to sell.

The “almighty gall” winner from the Economides blog post may be this:

While many people do not know it, numerous activities, including basic construction such as digging a basement, uncover tailings that contain radioactive materials that naturally occur in the ground. The radiation levels observed in these tailings or at treatment plants do not indicate risks to human health, since, as Urbina notes, radioactivity, ‘can be blocked by thin barriers, including skin, so exposure is generally harmless.’ The true threat to human health is from drinking water levels that rise above safe parameters. Urbina’s reports admit there is no evidence that this is the case.

This argument counters the allegation that there are no standards by arguing that there is no evidence – of course not, there are no standards. That’s the point of the report and why people are up in arms. As for the commentary about naturally occurring radiation, again, it only sets up the importance of drinking-water safety.

Then the industry, via its ally in Economides, goes for what in a slightly different industry would be called the money shot, saying: “…sensationalism and scare tactics are dangerous when dealing with such complicated and technical matters. It’s important the public clearly understand the one indisputable fact in all of this: halting hydraulic fracturing will also halt the many benefits that result from natural gas production — mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, reduced mercury output from coal, reduction of U.S. energy imports, creation of American jobs, and many more.”

Translation: This issue is WAY too complicated for the little old public to worry its pretty little head over. We need the gas, and if people have to die or live in agony, we need the jobs, right? Right!

Look for this trash pile to get bigger and bigger as the entire energy extraction industry takes aim at Mr. Urbina and the New York Times. It’s unfortunate for the industry that its targets no longer stand alone – every community identified in the NYT report is responding, and the implications are among the most important trends we’re likely to see.

Combined with the aftermath of the BP spill, we are fast approaching a tipping point for energy extraction in the United States. And no amount of “third-party apologist bait-and-switch” rhetoric is likely to change that.

See what one industry shill has to say about fracking here: http://blogs.forbes.com/greatspeculations/2011/03/07/dont-be-swayed-by-faucets-on-fire-and-other-anti-fracking-propaganda/

For more (balanced) information on “fracking” and related radiation issues, see our new Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Hydraulic-Fracturing-Support-Group/192748310749814?sk=info

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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