Corrected, But Not Enough

This morning’s New York Times contained the following correction:

An article on May 7 about the Obama administration’s appointment of a panel of experts to find ways to make hydraulic fracturing safer misstated the prevalence of cases in which fluids from the gas drilling process have been proven to have contaminated drinking water. There are few documented cases, not numerous ones, although federal and state investigations into reports of such incidents are continuing.

That is obviously a significant correction, but to understand how serious you have to go back to the original article, linked above. The article describes the Obama administration’s setting up a panel to find ways to make hydraulic fracturing safer and cleaner. This is how the Times explained the rationale for new regulations:

Hydraulic fracturing involves the high-pressure injection of fluids into underground shale formations to break open natural gas pockets. The technique, which has been in limited use for decades, is expected to significantly increase recovery of domestic gas supplies and keep prices moderate for years.
But the process also pours millions of gallons of dangerous chemicals into the ground and into wastewater treatment systems, which in some cases cannot remove all the potential toxins. There are also numerous documented cases in which fracking fluids leaked into aquifers and contaminated drinking water.

If that were the case, it would be easy to see why the Obama administration thought it was critical to make the process safer. The paragraphs above were followed by this characterization of the Republicans’ position:

Within hours, House Republicans issued a press release denouncing the study as wasteful, duplicative, and another example of red tape run amok. They said that fracking has been used safely for more than 60 years and that the Environmental Protection Agency already has sufficient authority to regulate it.

Nearly every reader no doubt reacted to that paragraph with the thought that fracking has hardly been used “safely” if there are “numerous documented cases” in which water has been contaminated. Certainly that history demands further regulation.
So the Times reported the story so as to make Republicans look stupid or venal. In fact, the House Republicans were right: hydraulic fracking has a long, safe history. We need to get going on developing our vast natural gas resources, not appoint another panel to stall development in the name of a barely-existent environmental problem. But only the handful of readers who saw the correction would have any idea how misleading the Times’ original article was.

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