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Open Letter to Google: Anti-Fracking Activism is Fake News

May 8, 2017

Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043

RE: Open Letter on Anti-Fracking Activism and Fake News on Google


To whom it may concern:

According to a recent report in Bloomberg News, Google is “making a rare, sweeping change to the algorithm behind its powerful search engine to demote misleading, false, and offensive articles online.” (1) In your company’s official release, you noted that you would be targeting “content on the web [that] has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information.” (2)

We believe many of the most prominent anti-fracking websites have content that is misleading, false, or offensive – if not all three. As a result, we urge you to consider purging or demoting these websites from your algorithm, which in turn will encourage a more honest public discussion about hydraulic fracturing, and oil and natural gas development in general.

For example, Sierra Club, one of America’s oldest and largest environmentalist organizations, declares on its website: “Fracking has contaminated the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of Americans.” (3) The group provides no evidence to support this, likely because numerous peer-reviewed studies have concluded the exact opposite. (4) Experts from the the U.S. Government Accountability Office met with regulatory officials in eight of the largest oil and gas producing states in the country, and concluded “the hydraulic fracturing process has not been identified as a cause of groundwater contamination within their states.” (5)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s multi-year investigation of fracking and drinking water – the most comprehensive assessment to date – found no evidence of widespread water contamination, much less evidence to support the notion that “hundreds of thousands” of people had their drinking water contaminated. (6) According to the Wall Street Journal, EPA Deputy Administrator Thomas Burke stressed that EPA “found only a small number of cases of contamination.” (7) If fracking had contaminated hundreds of thousands of Americans’ drinking water supplies, it would have been a topline finding in the EPA report– but it was not.

Curiously, in an editorial a few days after the release of EPA’s report, the Wall Street Journal suggested it was “fake news” to say EPA’s findings suggest fracking poses a major risk to groundwater. (8) The Wall Street Journal also wrote:

“Yet after reviewing more than 1,000 studies, the EPA couldn’t find more than limited evidence—mostly alleged by plaintiff attorneys—of operational failures causing contamination. That the EPA uncovered only a few instances of contamination among a million some wells reinforces its prior conclusion that fracking doesn’t threaten the drinking-water supply.”

The Sierra Club, however, is not the only group peddling fake news about fracking and groundwater. For example:

  • Earthworks, which has compared fracking to sexual assault (9) and declared a “war” on the process, (10) says of hydraulic fracturing: “Not only does the injection of these chemicals pose a short-term threat to drinking water quality, it is quite possible that there could be long-term negative consequences for USDWs [Underground Sources of Drinking Water] from these fracturing fluids.” (11) Earthworks’ blog currently appears in Google news searches about fracking.
  • Food & Water Watch claims widespread water contamination is one of many reasons why fracking is “simply too unsafe to pursue” and that “a ban is the only solution.” (12)
  • Environment America claims there are hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of fracking contaminating groundwater. Importantly, Environment America arrives at this by literally redefining what fracking is, e.g. “In this report, when we refer to the impacts of ‘fracking,’ we include impacts resulting from all of the activities needed to bring a shale gas or oil wells into production using high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracturing operations that use at least 100,000 gallons of water), to operate that well, and to deliver the gas or oil produced from that well to market.” (13) In other words, Environment America admits that it has redefined the word in order to ascribe more negative impacts to it – which is a deliberate attempt to misinform the public, aka“fake news.”

There are certainly other environmental groups that have made similarly false claims about fracking and groundwater risks, despite the conclusions of the EPA and other scientific experts. But the above examples hopefully provide a helpful snapshot into the kind of deliberate misinformation that these groups hope to continue spreading through Google searches and elsewhere online. To be clear: their goal is to reach the public through Google in order to misinform them about fracking.

It is worth noting that widespread groundwater contamination is not the only false claim peddled by anti-fracking groups and environmentalist websites. Food & Water Watch claims, for example, that “Fracking Equals Climate Change.” (14) The Sierra Club claims there is “clear evidence that natural gas and oil extracted by fracking are major greenhouse gas contributors.” (15) Earthworks alleges that “fracked shale gas is part of climate change problem, not solution.” (16)

But the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded:

“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal-drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply and allowed for a more extensive switching of power and heat production from coal to gas (IEA, 2012b); this is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.” (17)

The Sierra Club has said the IPCC report cited above is the “gold standard for getting a big-picture understanding of what’s happening to our climate.” (18)

Data from the EIA, meanwhile, show that between 2006 and 2015, natural gas prevented the emission of more than 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in the United States. (19) The International Energy Agency also recently found that global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were flat in 2016, (20) adding:

“The biggest drop came from the United States, where carbon dioxide emissions fell 3%, or 160 million tonnes, while the economy grew by 1.6%. The decline was driven by a surge in shale gas supplies and more attractive renewable power that displaced coal. Emissions in the United States last year were at their lowest level since 1992, a period during which the economy grew by 80%.”

Other organizations have pushed similarly false or misleading information.

Recently the environmental website EcoWatch published a story under the headline, “What If Fracking the Marcellus Shale Doesn’t Pan Out?” (21) The purpose of this headline is to instill doubt in the public’s mind about the Marcellus Shale and its productivity – a claim that is wholly without merit.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the Marcellus Shale is by far the most prolific onshore natural gas play in the United States. In 2008, natural gas production in the Marcellus was below two billion cubic feet per day (bcf/d). Today, it is over 18 bcf/d. New-well gas production per rig has grown more than seven-fold since 2008. (22) The EIA also recently found that Pennsylvania and Ohio increased natural gas production more than other states in 2016, with Pennsylvania natural gas production increasing by about 1.2 bcf/d. (23)

In other words, the EcoWatch story is nothing more than fake news. Purposely trying to instill doubt about the productivity of one of the most productive natural gas regions in the entire world is not real news; it’s deliberate fiction masquerading as news. EcoWatch has also pushed doubt about genetically-modified crops and questioned their safety, (24) despite mountains of scientific evidence showing that GMOs are safe. A report from the prestigious National Academies “found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between currently commercialized genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and- effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops.” (25)

Conclusion

Claims made by the radical environmentalist campaign against hydraulic fracturing are protected by the First Amendment. Groups that wish to peddle misleading information about oil and natural gas are fully within their rights to do so. Many of the groups engaging in anti-fracking advocacy have devoted significant resources to Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and as a result they receive significant web traffic.

But that is no reason for Google to reward such misinformation with its powerful search engine. We urge you consider adding these groups’ websites to your review of fake news and the kinds of content that you do not wish to promote.

Sincerely,

FrackFeed

 

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*Note: FrackFeed is a project of Texans for Natural Gas, a grassroots advocacy campaign with more than 200,000 members. It receives support from four natural gas companies. More information can be found at www.FrackFeed.com and www.TexansforNaturalGas.com


1 Mark Bergen, “Google Rewrites Its Powerful Search Rankings to Bury Fake News,” April 25, 2017:  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-04-25/google-rewrites-its-powerful-search-rankings-to-bury-fake-news
2 Ben Gomes, “Our latest quality improvements for Search,” Google Blog, April 25, 2017: https://blog.google/products/search/our-latest-quality-improvements-search/
3 “Fracking for Natural Gas and Oil,” Sierra Club. Statement approved by Board of Directors on January 22, 2015 (website accessed on April 27, 2017): http://www.sierraclub.org/policy/energy/fracking
4 “Scientific Studies Confirm No Water Contamination from Fracking,” Texans for Natural Gas, November 2, 2015: http://www.texansfornaturalgas.com/no_fracking_water_contamination
5 “OIL AND GAS: Information on Shale Resources, Development, and Environmental and Public Health Risks,” U.S. Government Accountability Office, September 2012: http://www.gao.gov/assets/650/647791.pdf
6 “Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States (Final Report),” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, December 2016: https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/hfstudy/recordisplay.cfm?deid=332990
7 Amy Harder, “Fracking Can Taint Drinking Water, EPA Report Finds,” Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2016:  https://www.wsj.com/articles/fracking-can-impact-drinking-water-epa-report-finds-1481652649
8 “The EPA’s Science Deniers,” Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2016: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-epas-science-deniers-1482099327
9 Lachlan Markay, “Prominent Green Group Likens Fracking to Rape,” Washington Free Beacon, April 1, 2015: http://freebeacon.com/issues/prominent-green-group-likens-fracking-to-rape/
10 Earthworks tweet, September 22, 2014, accessed via Twitter: https://twitter.com/Earthworks/status/514164931156250624
11 “Hydraulic Fracturing 101,” Earthworks, Accessed April 27, 2017: https://www.earthworksaction.org/issues/detail/hydraulic_fracturing_101
12 “The Urgent Case for a Ban on Fracking,” Food & Water Watch, March 2015: https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/sites/default/files/Urgent%20Ban%20on%20Fracking%20Report%20March%202015.pdf
13 “Fracking by the Numbers: Key Impacts of Dirty Drilling at the State and National Level,” October 3, 2013: http://www.environmentamerica.org/reports/ame/fracking-numbers
14 “Fracking Equals Climate Change,” Food & Water Watch, September 16, 2014:  https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/news/fracking-equals-climate-change
15 “Fracking for Natural Gas and Oil,” Sierra Club. Statement approved by Board of Directors on January 22, 2015 (website accessed on April 27, 2017): http://www.sierraclub.org/policy/energy/fracking
16 “Jennifer Krill, “Fracked shale gas is part of climate change problem, not solution,” Earthworks, June 25, 2013: https://www.earthworksaction.org/media/detail/fracked_shale_gas_is_part_of_climate_change_problem_not_solution#.WQIXVhMrKUk
17 Bruckner T., I.A. Bashmakov, Y. Mulugetta, H. Chum, A. de la Vega Navarro, J. Edmonds, A. Faaij, B. Fungtammasan, A. Garg, E. Hertwich, D. Honnery, D. Infield, M. Kainuma, S. Khennas, S. Kim, H.B. Nimir, K. Riahi, N. Strachan, R. Wiser, and X. Zhang, 2014: Energy Systems. In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA
18 Michael Brune, “5 Things You Need to Know About the Big New Climate Report,” Sierra Club, September 27, 2013:  http://sierraclub.org/outings/michael-brune/2013/09/5-things-you-need-know-about-big-new-climate-report
19 “U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 2015,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, March 16, 2017: https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/
20 “IEA finds CO2 emissions flat for third straight year even as global economy grew in 2016,” International Energy Agency, March 17, 2017: https://www.iea.org/newsroom/news/2017/march/iea-finds-co2-emissions-flat-for-third-straight-year-even-as-global-economy-grew.html
21 Nancy LaPlaca, “What if Fracking the Marcellus Shale Doesn’t Pan Out?” EcoWatch, April 27, 2017: http://www.ecowatch.com/marcellus-shale-gas-play-2378324293.html
22 “Marcellus Region: Drilling Productivity Report,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, April 2017: https://www.eia.gov/petroleum/drilling/pdf/marcellus.pdf
23 “Ohio and Pennsylvania increased natural gas production more than other states in 2016,” April 25, 2017: https://www.eia.gov/petroleum/drilling/pdf/marcellus.pdf
24 “Is GMO Corn Safe to Eat?” EcoWatch, January 3, 2017: http://www.ecowatch.com/is-gmo-corn-safe-to-eat-2177185201.html
25 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/23395