A clean up effort is underway to address a serious data reporting error at The Department of Environmental Protection in Pennsylvania. The overburdened state agency has been cited several times for insufficient records-keeping, yet this latest DEP misinformation incident is proving difficult, if not impossible, to contain.
As a result, reliable Marcellus production figures, eagerly sought by both those opposed to fracking as well as those seeking to profit from it, are in dangerously short supply. According to BloombergBusinessweek, Associated Press: Critics Say PA DEP Gas Data Has Serious Flaws.
In what appears to be the PA DEP equivalent of valve failure, the department recently released an incomplete Marcellus production report which, in turn, was derived from sloppy gas driller input. As a result, the official DEP report was missing key information from Chesapeake’s wells in Bradford County - the largest operator in the state's most heavily drilled county.
Fracts Still Emerging
This isn’t the first time DEP screwed up on important Marcellus production data. In 2011, DEP lost track of nearly 500 Marcellus shale wells, as was widely reported in papers like The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in DEP's Marcellus Shale Drilling Numbers Do Not Add Up by Sean D. Hamill, January 8, 2012, and The Wall Street Journal/AP in Report: Pa. Data Missing Nearly 500 Gas Wells.
The biggest problem with PA DEP’s fuzzy math:
YOU CAN’T INSPECT A GAS WELL IF YOU DON’T KNOW IT'S THERE.
No Containment In Sight
When it comes to gas figures from Harrisburg, it’s caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, according to EnviroPolitics Blog in PADEP: You Take Our Numbers, You Take Your Chances.
At the very least, a proper and prominent disclaimer would have been nice. And ethical.
Instead, PA DEP promoted the faulty data, which showed a dramatic drop in new permits, and resulted in some quizzical coverage, such as this widely shared examiner.com item by Robert Magyar on August 17, 2012, Drilling Permits Decline Sharply For The Pennsylvania Marcellus Formation, and this lesser linked post by Matt Kelso on Fractracker.org, Unconventional Permits Declining Sharply In PA.
Initially, the DEP report was accepted as fact, just another piece in the perplexing polemic puzzle that is the Marcellus. Only days later did it come to light that, around the same time Governor Corbett was signing an executive order for expedited gas drilling “Permit Guarantees”, PA DEP was promoting its fatally flawed report, without a disclaimer, or even a lick of remorse.
"Energy and financial experts say such mistakes are a serious problem and just the latest example of sloppy and incomplete "official" data from the Department of Environmental Protection, which keeps reports on production and waste from the booming, multibillion-dollar resource..." reports BloombergBusinessweek.
The reaction from DEP spokesperson, Kevin Sunday in the same article:
“DEP isn't apologizing for not mentioning the missing data. ‘Any analysis is incumbent upon the user to make his own interpretations,’ DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said in a statement Monday, adding that ‘what appears is what we have.’”
Longtime Marcellus reporter Laura Legere not only covered the error of DEP’s ways in Shale Gas Production Data Missing Key Driller, CitizensVoice.com, August 18, 2012, she points to the impacts of the department’s mistake:
“Chesapeake's absence went unnoticed by some of the data's earliest analysts and prompted news reports of a ‘plummet’ and ‘dramatic drop’ in Bradford County's production.”
Possible Systemic Failure
After more than 72 hours of uncontrolled, negative press, DEP may be feeling the heat. Today, spokesman Sunday was a bit more forthcoming with the AP, taking time to point an accusatory finger at Chesapeake as the source of the faulty data in Gas Driller Chesapeake Energy’s Production Report Rife With Errors, DEP Claims via The Times-Tribune:
“ 'DEP’s production database functioned exactly as designed by rejecting reports that contain obvious data entry errors,' Sunday said...
"Pennsylvania officials cannot control the quality of data they receive, but one expert said they should have let the public know that an important database was incomplete, even if they probably did not have a legal obligation to do so.
“ ‘I think they botched their professional obligations,’ said Michael Dworkin, director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School and a former chairman of that state’s public service board.
“Dworkin said it appears the DEP knew the reports were missing data from the state’s largest natural gas producer, but did not bother to include a note to that effect.
“He said if the agency left it out in front of the public, looking complete when it was not, then that was a problem."
If the first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one, then PA DEP needs an intervention.
Trouble At The Tribune
DEP’s bad attitude towards the minutia of public accountability starts at the top, with its brash secretary, Michael Krancer, who has slammed everyone from The EPA to the state of Delaware. It trickles down to the similarly brusque spokespeople, and on down to its hapless employees who are lucky to still have a job, according to paindependent.com.
More significantly, DEP’s surliness extends to the general public, too.
As recently as July, 2012, the depertment found itself locked in a legal battle with The Times-Tribune for not disclosing “a known universe of records” to the Northeastern Pennsylvania newspaper. DEP found the notion of providing the public with public information too “burdensome” so they were only willing (or able) to produce a portion of the records requested. In early August, however, after being sued for the missing records, Laura Legere reports in Commonwealth Court: Agencies Can't Refuse To Disclose Hard-To-Find Records, in The Times-Tribune, that the PA state appeals court considered DEP’s actions, or lack thereof, to be illegal:
“The three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court agreed with an earlier decision by the state's Office of Open Records and found that the DEP cannot deny a sufficiently specific request under the state's Right to Know Law because the documents would be 'burdensome' for the agency to find. It also noted that the DEP never physically searched its files to find the documents.”
DEP has until late August to appeal the ruling.