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A Few Questions for Phelim McAleer

April 11, 2013

Phelim McAleer, the new darling of the Marcellus Shale Coalition and of the shale gas industry more generally, is the perfect master of spin. Specializing in personal invective delivered with such a charming Irish accent that some audiences are apparently taken in rather than being repelled by his viciousness, McAleer is on tour with his film, “Frack Nation.”  Susan Phillips of StateImpact (WHYY/NPR) reviews Frack Nation here: “Dueling Fracking Films Battle for Pennsylvanians’ Hearts and Minds.”

In “Frack Nation,” McAleer works hard to make it appear “as if” it is just one person, Josh Fox, and not all the scientists, engineers, physicians, researchers and impacted people — residents and workers alike — who is galvanizing a large, increasingly well-developed and well-organized movement. His film makes it appear “as if” Dimock is the only place impacted by fracking, and provides a shameless rewriting of the history of impacts in Dimock.  In reality, there are hundreds of places badly impacted by fracking and many films of many lengths, not just GASLAND, documenting those impacts. So the “dueling films” is not a duet but a chorus.  “Triple Divide” is another important, well-made film now available on vimeo. “Gas Rush Stories” is a series of short documentaries by Kirsi Jansa (several posted on this blog).  “Fracking Hell: The Untold Story” is a short, professionally produced 18-minute overview; more raw, powerful new interviews are available on the emerging “Fracking Our Future” series.

You wouldn’t learn any of this, or much of anything, from attending “Frack Nation” screenings anywhere, but we recommend you do go. And we recommend you go prepared to ask McAleer a few questions (though he will only let you ask, at most, one; he is an absolute control freak with that microphone, confident of his right to dominate any who disagree).

Q and A? or Performance Art?

During “Q and A” sessions with McAleer, questions of substance are generally not tolerated, nor (if someone manages to ask one) answered. Instead, McAleer changes the subject multiple times in the course of avoiding answering a question such as, “Mr. McAleer, Ireland has a moratorium on fracking, yet here you are promoting shale gas in the U.S.  Can you explain why Ireland has a moratorium on fracking?”

While speaking at a Q and A session in Montrose, PA earlier this week, McAleer pretended the Ireland moratorium question had not been asked at all, preferring to make fun over and over of a Dimock resident whose water was contaminated by Cabot Oil and Gas drilling… because the Dimock resident wore a baseball cap.

That’s right. A baseball cap, apparently, disqualifies a person from speaking about their own contaminated water, in the twisted world of Phelim McAleer.

Sound stupid? It is. Phelim also talks (and talks and talks) about how interested he is in accuracy, truth, and science. But when a scientific study is actually mentioned by a knowledgeable person in the audience — such as the SUNY Buffalo study that shows that fracking mobilizes uranium which naturally occurs in the shale — then he will not only change the subject at lightning speed, but actually cut off the questioner.  In Bryn Mawr, he talked over a questioner, trying to make it look like the questioner was misbehaving for attempting to ask, “Phelim, the actual Marcellus cement casing failure rate in Pennsylvania for 2012 is 8.9% (up from 6.2% in 2010); why don’t you include any real facts or data such as that in your film, which is supposed to be all about accuracy?”

Coincidental Choreography: The Same Question Every Night

Phelim also manages his “performance art” — which is what his Q and A sessions really are — in such a way that coincidentally, towards the close of his performance, a person from the audience asks an identical question each night: “Phelim, what do you think the motivations of people like Craig Sautner and Josh Fox are?”  This piece of touching choreography enables Phelim to pontificate in an ugly way and call Craig Sautner a greed-driven liar over and over again, knowing full well that Craig is legally bound not to answer back because the Sautners  signed a non-disclosure clause with Cabot Oil and Gas as part of the legal settlement over the water contamination that turned his and his family’s lives upside down for years.  Non-disclosure clauses are part of the corporate legal infrastructure that enable the Phelims of the shale gas industry, with its army of PR hacks, to spout lies and libel without consequence.

Asked the same coincidental question each night, Phelim moves on from the Sautners back to Fox again. He rants and raves about Josh Fox being a “true believer,” which somehow turns into painting Josh Fox as “un-American,” which shortly thereafter becomes “anti-American.”  Phelim has collapsed in his own mind that most democratic of all roles, the whistle-blower, into its opposite.  Apparently, in Phelim’s mind, it is “un-American” and possibly criminal to expose damage and to  stand up for clean water, clean air, and a sustainable future.  And it is all-American to blame victims, such as Craig and Julie Sautner, whose water first went bad on September 11th, 2008.

While I’d heard people saying that Phelim is a “charlatan,” and that his reputation in Ireland is not that of a journalist but rather that of a “limelight-seeking joke” to those who knew him there, it took first-hand experience to understand just how dangerous this spinmaster actually is. When you go to see Frack Nation, go prepared.

Eight Questions for Phelim McAleer

Scott Cannon, of Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition, has written eight questions for people attending Q and A sessions or any kind of talks with Phelim McAleer to ask. We recommend not asking a question he can answer with a yes or no, because that gives him a quick out. Ask him to explain. For example, what is it that he thinks he is debunking regarding earthquakes? Activists have been explaining to the general public for years that re-injection wells cause earthquakes (in Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia) — and geologists clearly agree — which is a major issue. In addition, fracking itself has been documented to produce small man-made seismic events which Oklahoma geologists have measured, Pennsylvania residents have felt, and which are significant enough for the UK to call off fracking after measuring seismic events underground during shale gas exploratory drilling. What exactly is it that he thinks he is debunking, then?

Here are Scott Cannon’s eight questions for Phelim McAleer:

#1  Phelim, you have said that the water in Dimock has always been fine, but that statement is false. Could you please explain why PA DEP issued a Consent Order against Cabot Oil and Gas for Cabot’s contamination of 18 water wells, affecting 19 families, in Dimock? Here is the link to the final Consent Order on the PA DEP website.

You also say the water in Dimock is fine right now, but that statement is also false. There are problems that still aren’t resolved in 2013; read “Dimock Water Problems Continue,” by Tom Wilber.

Perhaps, Phelim, you could also explain why former PA DEP Secretary John Hanger repeatedly affirmed that the methane contamination had been proven by DEP’s scientific isotopic testing to be caused by Cabot’s drilling? When Cabot continued to deny responsibility for the methane migration, Hanger issued a press release on September 29th, 2010 and told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the DEP had amassed “overwhelming” evidence that Cabot’s gas drilling caused the contamination. “It’s as though Cabot lives on a planet or a universe in which it gets to choose its facts…” Hanger said.

Phelim, since you claim to value accuracy, truth, and science, what is your comment about PA DEP’s scientific evidence that gas drilling by Cabot Oil and Gas caused the contamination in Dimock? If you choose not to address that evidence, does that prove that you, like Cabot Oil and Gas, live on a planet where the facts don’t matter?

# 2
Phelim, you’ve said that “Fracking’s been done safely since 1947, if there were problems, we’d know about it.” (Fox Money TV Show).  But the PA DEP’s Abandoned Wells and Orphaned Wells Program states that there are approximately 180,000 orphaned unplugged wells. Of the 8,000 that the PA DEP know about, 550 are considered problem wells. Approximately 129 are prioritized as extremely dangerous and leaking and polluting water and soil. That’s just in Pennsylvania alone.

#3
Phelim, you say there hasn’t been one case of fracking causing groundwater contamination, but you don’t say what does cause most of the groundwater pollution problems, which are spills and methane migration from the drilling process. Could you explain why you omit the truth about shale gas development and its impacts on water?

Among the many reported cases of fracking causing groundwater contamination is this confirmed case of fracking causing ground water contamination in Edmonton, Canada by Caltex Energy Inc., Hydraulic Fracturing Incident,16-27-068-10W6M, on September 22, 2011.

A study of fracking causing groundwater contamination is ongoing in Pavilion Wyoming, where researchers have confirmed that fracking is the only explanation for the presence of fracking contaminants, such as benzene and 2-butoxyethanol, at high levels in the groundwater there.

#4
Phelim, several Dimock residents have come forward claiming that you told them you were making a film to save Ireland from fracking, in order to obtain interviews with them. Is this true?

#5
Phelim, you claim, early in your movie, that Josh Fox had one of your videos removed from YouTube and Vimeo and allege that was because he had something to hide. You failed to mention that you committed copyright infringement by uploading scenes of the HBO owned “Gasland” in your clips. YouTube copyright policy states that YouTube cannot determine what is considered “Fair Use.” It would have to be settled in a court of law. Did you have this settled in a court of law?

#6
Phelim, you say that some water has had enough methane in it to be able to be lit on fire for centuries, (Fox Money TV Show), which is true. But you don’t say the methane migration from the drilling process is confirmed to produce concentrated methane in people’s water wells – at levels which make the water flammable and which create an explosion risk for those people’s homes — where there was no flammable amounts of methane before. Can you explain why you don’t mention this? You seem to accuse Josh Fox of these omission tactics, yet you do them yourself.

#7
Phelim, you make the statement in your film that environmentalists say that “Fracking is completely unregulated.” That statement is false. We don’t say that. We say it is exempt from requirements in the underground injection control (UIC) program of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which is true.

We also point out that flaring, shale gas drilling flowback waste, drill cuttings; air emissions from well pads, separators, dehydrators and compressor stations, as well as greenhouse gas emissions, are vastly underregulated, which is true.

#8
Phelim, Loren Salsman, the resident of Dimock who shows you the Sautner home in your film, shows up in the film Truthland produced by Energy in Depth. He holds a crystal clear glass of water with the star of the film and says “Let’s drink some Dimock water” and they drink. The film doesn’t show the elaborate water filter system it went through provided by Cabot Oil and Gas because they were found guilty of contaminating his well by the DEP. Can you comment on that? Here is the video link.

Your Questions and Observations

Phelim has been at it for a while; for a tidbit from recent history, a pro-Tea Party blog called “ecosense” raves about Phelim’s masterful arguments against slowing down climate change here.

Please feel free to report your experiences with Phelim McAleer, and write your own questions, in our Comments section below this blog post. Thanks.

13 Comments
  1. April 11, 2013 7:01 pm

    It was horrible and painful to watch Phelim in action as he denigrated any and all environmentalists, Josh Fox, the Sautners, myself and called all liars and the audience mostly supported him and clapped as his sick jokes and comments. Very disturbing to watch the muckraking actions of this person who is not an American and who wants to turn Americans against others , who exercise their 1st Amendment Rights and who claim their rights to “clean air and pure water” under the PA Constitution !

    • Iris Marie Bloom permalink
      April 12, 2013 12:30 pm

      Vera, thanks for your hard work and documentation. Due to your recording in Montrose, the choreography of Phelim’s style of dominance and control, rather than discourse; his penchant for attack and performance in order to avoid any serious exploration of the issues, the facts, or the science, became more clear and obvious. One small point: Phelim is not a muckraker. The term muckraking was invented to describe sincere and honest investigative journalists who expose damages done to the underdog. “Muckraker” is far too good a term for Phelim, a spinmaster who tell outright lies, attacks and blames victims, promotes pro-industry myths, obfuscates the science, avoids actual data, and uses word tricks to rewrite history in favor of major corporations. Let’s continue our own good, accurate, and powerful muckraking, which is making a great and positive difference, even though it’s painful to know so many people are being hurt and so much time is being lost in the struggle for a clean, healthy and sustainable world.

  2. April 11, 2013 7:08 pm

    Vera, (above comment), i don’t know how you handled being there. what was being spewed (and i listened to his post-film comments for over an hour!) was scary stuff of the vilest evil. anyway, as far as video series, please don’t forget “From the Front Lines” by Jay Wilcox of NY and Marcellus Shale Reality Tour by Scott Canon of GDAC. Iris, thanks for taking the time to address all of this, because i don’t have the patience due to excessive neuronal explosions in the face of these patent absurdities…i feel like i am going insane to try to process Phelim’s Orwellian claims.

    • April 12, 2013 12:15 pm

      was not easy; it is Orwellian; scary stuff out of Phelim’s mouth and mind; anything to deride, divide and malign.

  3. Tom Frost permalink
    April 11, 2013 8:27 pm

    How about the fact that after he’s done standing in the theatre for an hour calling Josh Fox a stenographer as opposed to a journalist, he goes home to his computer and starts being a STENOGRAPHER LIGHTWEIGHT HIMSELF by CALLING ME AN ANTI without so much as having bothered to walk about 8 more feet toward the street to read my more-like-PRO-drilling, message that’s on the rear pail of my bike that’s parked right there in the same Independent Weekender photo and which he’d seen me ride up on!

  4. Robert F. permalink
    April 11, 2013 9:58 pm

    Phelim also regularly states (Young Turks) that chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are fully disclosed and only the amounts are withheld.

    Patently false information.

    Doctors in PA and CO are being asked to sign non disclosure agreements to discover what chemicals are injected into gas wells near where they may be treating patients.

  5. April 12, 2013 12:51 pm

    Posted this article on Frack Nation’s FB page, lets see if we get any type of response. His ego is too big not to take such bait!

  6. Ann Dixon permalink
    April 13, 2013 10:02 am

    I attended the Bryn Mawr showing of Frack Nation. It looked like 95% of the audience was from the Delaware Valley Marcellus Association.

    I think the movie contains just enough truth to convince an uninformed person that fracking is okay. Blog article has wonderful questions to bring to a showing. The movie stated something along the lines of the EPA did extensive testing in Dish, Texas and found nothing wrong. I wondered if this was true (or partially true ) and so looked at the EPA site and googled ”EPA tests in Dish, Texas”. Couldn’t find anything definitive. Huffington Post states benzene in air. “Energy in Depth” states that in 1990 nothing in water. Maybe the movie refers to EPA water testing, not air testing?

    McCleer’s talk during the Q&A veered into the bizarre. It felt odd to be lectured about being anti American and to be told that the ”EPA has the best scientists in the world”. I felt like I had stepped into a 1950s McCarthy hearing.

    • Iris Marie Bloom permalink
      April 13, 2013 11:08 am

      This shows how easy it is for even well-informed people to be confused by misinformation! The folks who did the air testing Phelim talks about in DISH, Texas were definitely not the EPA. That was the TCEQ, the Texas equivalent of the PA DEP — a state agency highly motivated for political and economic reasons to facilitate shale gas drilling, which requires them to do their testing in a way that does not show what’s wrong. (Also, EID is an industry PR group which is anti-science, which engages in vicious personal attacks a la Phelim; — in fact Phelim is basically copying and verbalizing their style in his film and in his Q and A sessions; so something on EID about water in 1990 is irrelevant to this discussion).

      It is no coincidence that children near the DISH compressors suffered nosebleeds, horses went blind, and adults suffered many other well documented health symptoms. Here is just one excerpt from the independent scientific testing results on air contamination in DISH, Texas:

      “The air sample from 9203 Chisum – behind white barn 5 ft. contained 10 chemicals that exceeded the TCEQ ESLs. Benzene, a known human cancer causing agent, was present in the second highest concentration of all stations sampled. The concentration of Benzene in the air exceeded the Long-term ESL by 8.7 times the standard. Carbon Disulfide was present in a concentration that exceeded the Short-term (10.7 times) and Long-term (107 times) ESLs by the largest factor of any of the chemicals detected at this station. 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene was detected in the air at this station in the highest concentration of any station sampled. Xylenes (m & p), a neurotoxin, exceeded the Long-term ESl by a factor of 1.1 times. Naphthalene, a potential human carcinogen, exceeded the long-term ESL by a factor of 3.6 times. The other chemicals in the air at this station that exceeded the Short-term and Long-term ESLs were Carbonyl Sulfide (exceeded Long-term ESL), Trimethyl Benzene (exceeded Short-term and Long-term ESLs), and Diethyl Benzene, Methyl-methylethyl Benzene, and Tetramethyl Benzene (exceeded the Long-term ESLs).”

      Obviously there is not room here to post more details, but you can find the analysis of the Wolf Eagle study in DISH here at this link: http://www.texassharon.com/2009/09/25/evaluation-of-town-of-dish-texas-ambient-air-monitoring-analysis/ It is written by Wilma Subra, a MacArthur Genius Award-winning chemist. You may remember that McAleer’s film went to great lengths to attack Wolf Eagle Environmental, and the reason is simple: the shale gas industry did not like the scientific results of that study — not one bit.

      It is really important for this kind of misinformation campaign not to succeed, because that leaves shale country residents who are suffering nosebleeds, and other symptoms including some that are severe, painful and debilitating, with even less protection. U.S. shale country residents are suffering nosebleeds and many other symptoms from air emissions not just out West but right here in Pennsylvania, most recently in Susquehanna County where an elderly resident had such a severe nosebleed that he had to be rushed to the hospital in December 2012 just in order to stop the bleeding. He was 80 years old. He had never had a nosebleed in his entire life prior to that, and it appears that it was caused by the gas separators / dehydrators, the first pieces of equipment at a yet-to-be-permitted compressor station in Susquehanna County.

      How are doctors, public health officials, regulators and researchers supposed to protect residents from these health impacts when disinformation is so abundant, maximizing the confusion intentionally? The former Mayor of DISH, Texas had to move away because his own sons’ nosebleeds were too severe and too persistent. He is the best person to explain how the TCEQ managed to take their samples in such a way as to avoid recording the actual compressor station emissions. What we do know is that state agencies, from Wyoming and Texas to Pennsylvania, are often under orders to move shale gas drilling forward at any cost, leaving independent scientists and underfunded and unfunded grassroots groups like us providing the urgently needed information about real impacts on the ground, to the general public.

      Lastly, I would say it is likely that the EPA probably does have some of the best scientists in the world. But that doesn’t mean that EPA is free from corruption; it’s well-known, for example, that their 2004 assessment of coalbed methane impacts on groundwater was corrupted by pro-industry bias on the panel that wrote up those result; as EPA whistle-blower Wes Wilson has documented, the actual study done by the actual scientists did NOT support the conclusion that coalbed methane gas drilling was safe for groundwater. Results of EPA tests are mis-reported frequently, and sometimes intentionally. To be clear, almost all the headlines about the EPA tests in Dimock had inaccurate implications. One of the most obvious aspects of Phelim’s disinformation campaign is simply this: he says that EPA said the water in Dimock was not contaminated by gas drilling. That’s simply not true. EPA did not investigate that question, but rather, they tested for a narrow range of contaminants for which they have established MCLs for healthy adults. And Phelim knows that. One of the better, dispassionate, accurate summaries of the water testing results from independent scientists in Dimock, compared to the EPA, is here: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Pennsylvania_and_fracking

  7. April 25, 2013 11:00 pm

    Thank you for this great write up. It was good to see that many of the concerns I had with the film are echoed by others. I was really appalled pretty much the entire time I watched it. I sent a link to it off to a friend’s dad who works in the oil and gas industry and had suggested I watch it as another independent discussion about fracking, after he heard me talking about Gasland. In my opinion, it was complete rubbish. The questions to ask in the Q&A are really great and I hope it changes some minds in the audiences.

  8. Sean Parker permalink
    May 9, 2013 3:55 pm

    Why do the pro-frackers apparently attempt to obfuscate, and the anti-frackers apparently attempt to use a sense of logic? Who has what to hide?

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