Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson Blames the Roaring ’20s For Gas Contamination in Underground Water

In posting this, some may accuse me of having an ax to grind, just because at lunchtime yesterday at the Hall Arts Center Parking Garage I got stuck behind a long line of cars belonging to Exxon shareholders that were leaving the company’s meeting at the Meyerson Symphony Center.

But I hold no particular grudge against them, or against CEO Rex Tillerson, who has (refreshingly, for an oil company executive) been willing to acknowledge that human activity and greenhouse gases contribute to climate change. However, as a member of the media, I bristle at Tillerson’s claim, noted by the Dallas Morning News, that it’s the media’s fault that people have come to believe that modern natural gas drilling can lead to contamination of underground water tables.

Sure, there have been a number of documented instances in which people have been able to set their faucet water on fire shortly after natural gas drilling began nearby. But, Tillerson said:

Maybe an old gas well was disturbed and began leaking. Or maybe when the population grows in rural areas, people drill more water wells and draw more water from the underground table, stirring up naturally occurring gas, or gas that leaked many decades ago.

“You don’t have to be too much of a snoop-dog reporter to think there were probably wells drilled in the 1920s, and that people didn’t care about contaminating the water table,” he said.

“All of that water withdrawal has moved a lot of this contamination around and made it very difficult to know where it originated.”

I suggest all media outlets immediately hire a snoop-dog reporter.


  • Eric
  • Glenn Hunter

    Sorry, Jason, but I think Tillerson’s right. Many reporters probably do take it as an article of faith that fracking has been contaminating the water, because that’s the simple and trendy “green” position to have these days. Repeat it often enough, many people will believe it.

  • @Glenn: Maybe fracking isn’t to blame. Maybe it’s something else involved in natural gas drilling. Maybe drilling has got nothing to do with the contamination.

    But to blame the mainstream media for this widely held belief is bogus. It has a lot more to do with the number of flaming faucet videos you can see online and elsewhere. Most MSM accounts I’ve seen have been incredibly even-handed in their reporting on the matter, because the evidence is indeed circumstantial in these cases.

    And look at what Tillerson is really saying in that last sentence: it’s “very difficult to know where it originated.”

    He’s not denying that water is contaminated by gas. It’s just that, since no one can definitively pin this on Exxon and XTO and fracking, they should have the right to keep drilling where and how they like.

    But if it’s “difficult to know where it originated,” how’s he so damn sure his company isn’t contributing to the problem?

    Shouldn’t he be encouraging the government to study and regulate this strictly so that he too can be certain that our collective assets – air and water – are being protected?

  • Laray

    There is basic chemistry that could be employed to put Tillerson’s assertions to the test, except it looks like such measures will not make it into the Fracking Disclosure Bill. From The Texas Tribune:

    “Three amendments authored by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, were voted down. They would have required studies of issues like the possibility of using a tracer in fracking fluid to make it potentially easier to sort out any water-contamination allegations.”

  • Sammy

    I’m still wondering when our health and safety became a “liberal” cause? At what point did conservatives decide that under no circumstances are we to do anything whatsoever to save our planet?

  • Edgar

    @Sammy: I think the conservative reaction, like most political reactions these days, is measured to counter the extreme position that all fracking is evil (i.e., the position to which Glenn refers). Unfortunately, the environmentalist message has been hijacked (whether abetted by the media or not) by a very loud group which insists that all modern production methods are unworkable and evil. Conservatives are responding in kind with unfortunate rhetoric. If the screamers at both ends would go away, it would be easier to have a sensible discussion that would serve everyone’s best interests.

  • Peterk

    @laray you don’t need to use a tracer turns out gas from different formations have unique “fingerprints”

    I just wish that the press were a bit more skeptical of the environmentalist groups. Just about everytime i read a story about fracking the story is fully accepting of what the fracking opponents have to say. Reminds me of the stories about alar and sudden acceleration in Audis and other cars. but when the story is disproved we rarely see that story pushed at the same level as the original.
    What I expect is for the press to be the middle man reporting both sides objectively and questioning both sides in an equally hard manner. unfortunately i rarely see that. rather I see a bias

  • Peterk

    jason wrote “But if it’s “difficult to know where it originated,” how’s he so damn sure his company isn’t contributing to the problem?”

    and how are the antis so sure that it does conribute to the problem?. you’re asking the drillers to disprove a negative. ask the antis for solid objective proof that the problem comes from the well and not some other source.

    i am more likely to accept Tillerson due to his years of experience in the industry over someone who doesn’t know the first thing on how a well is drilled

  • @Peterk: There’s gas that recently began contaminating well water. Tillerson doesn’t dispute that. Sure, it could be from something done 90 years ago. Surely it’s just as likely (if not more) that it’s from something done in the last couple years. Tillerson himself is saying that it’s extremely difficult to know where it originated.

    Whatever the reason, there’s gas contaminating well water. If there’s even a possibility that the nearby gas drilling is contributing, don’t we need the government to step in and get all the facts about the situation to determine just what’s going on?

    Why do drillers have a god-given right to continue drilling when there’s even a chance that they’re harming the air and water that belongs to you and me and everyone we know?

    The evidence against them is circumstantial at this point, but it’s still evidence. And until we can actually answer the question about what’s contaminating these wells, why not put things on hold until we have answers? Tillerson doesn’t have answers. Says so himself. Why doesn’t that bother him more?

    I’m sure natural gas drilling has been done safely in hundreds of sites. But to suggest that there are no cases anywhere in which drillers have screwed up, and that techniques are so well-proven that there’s no chance for problems to occur, that’s absurd.