Harvard Study Confirms Shale’s Benefits
Just a few months in, 2013 is proving to be a very frustrating year for ideologically motivated environmental activists seeking to ban hydraulic fracturing. Now, a new report from researchers at Harvard makes clear why activists’ efforts are failing -- and will likely continue to do so.
Just a few months in, 2013 is proving to be a very frustrating year for ideologically motivated environmental activists seeking to ban hydraulic fracturing. So far, they have been confronted with three important facts: a plurality of Americans supports the technology, politicians in both parties are accepting it as a means to improve both the economy and environment, and the President’s nominees to lead the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency have both declared that natural gas, and by extension hydraulic fracturing, is a key component of the nation’s energy future.
Now, compounding this frustration, a new report from researchers at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs makes clear why activists’ efforts are failing — and will likely continue to do so. Specifically, the report found that, on a global scale, “a long-term domestic supply of natural gas is expected to yield environmental benefits,” as the fuel “has the lowest carbon dioxide emission factor at combustion of any fossil fuel.” The study also observes that shale development is certain to continue well into the future, noting that “unconventional fossil fuel extraction from shale formations has already transformed the U.S. energy portfolio,” and that, as a result, “unconventional oil and gas are poised to dominate the U.S. market in the coming decades.”
The study also took a closer look at development in the Bakken, Barnett and Marcellus shale basins to identify environmental concerns and whether or not practices are being implemented to mitigate those concerns. Here again, activists were served a bitter pill. Even though the researchers suggested the industry typically has a “slow rate of adoption” of environmental mitigation (which simply isn’t true), they nonetheless concluded that “the degree of adoption across available technologies highlights characteristics of successful environmental mitigation strategies.” In other words, the industry is proactively addressing environmental concerns through the rapid advancement of new technology.
Now, that’s not to say the study didn’t find any areas in need of improvement. Indeed, there were about twenty items — ranging from “laying reusable mats over well pad site and planned access routes, rather than laying gravel” to “setting surface casing at greater depths.” But, as you can see, the suggestions offered by the researchers don’t point to any inherently troubling concerns with hydraulic fracturing and shale gas development. A few examples:
- Wastewater recycling and reuse
- Laying impermeable liners over well pad sites to reduce the risk of oil and surface water contamination
- Cementing intermediate casing, if present, to surface
- Collection and analysis of surface and subsurface data, used to inform planning and real-time management of hydraulic fracturing jobs
- Conducting small-scale test run before commencing full hydraulic fracturing job
- Reuse of drilling fluids and muds
- Capturing fugitive methane by implementing green completions, replacing high-bleed valves, and installing vapor recovery units on tanks
- Burying corrosion-resistant lines and pipes for longer-term operations
- Planning multiple wells per pad
What ties these (and many others in the report) together is that they’re already being implemented across the country, something that the Harvard researchers also noted. Closed-loop systems are in use in the Marcellus, and many operators are already recycling fluids and drilling muds. Operators have also begun implementing central water conveyance systems in many areas, and green completions are also increasingly being utilized (MIT previously found that such technology had been adopted at a far higher rate than previous studies had estimated). Green completions will also be required for nearly all natural gas wells beginning in 2015.
So, in summation, one of the nation’s pre-eminent academic institutions took a closer look at a process that fringe environmental groups describe as being an “inherently dirty and dangerous process that decimates entire landscapes.” Because they were interested in facts instead of hysteria, they came to a completely different conclusion. Indeed, their review indicated that shale development will provide significant environmental benefits, and that reducing environmental footprints even further is not only possible, but is actually a task already in progress.
In sum, the Harvard study is good news for those of us who view shale development as a valuable part of our energy future, as well as those of us who are interested in solutions and progress. In that sense, it’s yet another reminder that those who want to demagogue “fracking” in order to raise funds from wealthy donors are actually arguing against expert consensus.
*UPDATE XX* EPA Official: “Crucify” Operators to “Make Examples” of Them
According to a recently released video, EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz told an audience during a city council meeting in DISH, TX, that his philosophy of enforcement was, to put it nicely, less than objective.
UPDATE XX (2/22/2013, 9:33 am ET): As part of his last desperate defense of the baseless endangerment order against Range Resources, then-EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz circulated a list of alleged casing problems due to Range’s operations — in Pennsylvania. Why a regional administrator would seek to highlight potential issues of a company operating in a different geological formation (and in a different EPA region) is unclear, although Armendariz’s comments about wantonly “crucifying” operators suggests a personal animosity could have been a factor. How else could one explain his decision to tarnish the company’s reputation in a manner that had absolutely nothing to do with operations in Parker County, Texas?
The list was uncovered in the latest EnergyWire report (subs. req’d) on the Parker County case, although it was buried several paragraphs deep in the story.
UPDATE XIX (2/8/2013, 10:51am ET): New emails obtained by EnergyWire show that then-administrator of Region 6, Al Armendariz, was discussing with others inside the EPA the possibility of Range not being at fault for methane concentrations in the Parker County water wells. Here’s how Mike Soraghan summarized the correspondence in his story earlier this week:
On Dec. 27, 2011, Armendariz outlined a position to take to Washington officials. His “least preferable” option included settling without requiring Range to provide water. But EPA would reserve the right to go after Range again with penalties if testing showed the company had contaminated the aquifer. (emphasis added)
So, a little over a year after Armendariz gleefully emailed local activists to “Tivo channel 8″ to see his agency impose a baseless endangerment order against Range Resources, and 11 months after clear scientific evidence was presented to state regulators confirming Range was not at fault, the EPA finally began quietly and confidentially discussing the possibility that their order was without merit.
This also raises important questions: Shouldn’t the EPA have had clear testing results showing contamination from Range’s activities before issuing its endangerment order against the company? And what does that say about the EPA’s own case against Range if the agency itself didn’t have enough evidence even a year after the fact? Of course, given Armendariz’s stated willingness to “crucify” gas companies solely so he could more easily control them, perhaps this strategy was bizarrely consistent with his method of enforcement.
UPDATE XVIII (1/15/2013, 9:02am ET): EnergyWire has obtained data from the EPA — made available through a FOIA request, full story here — showing naturally occurring methane in the water wells that now-former EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz had claimed beyond all doubt were contaminated by natural gas development. The data came from tests conducted by Range Resources as part of an agreement with the EPA, and the specific findings suggest water quality is consistent with historical conditions in Parker County. Put differently, data obtained directly from the EPA even show that Armendariz’s endangerment order against Range Resources was baseless, a fact already strongly suggested by nearly all scientific evidence that was available to the EPA when the order itself was issued in 2010.
Perhaps Armendariz, who now works for the anti-natural gas Sierra Club, should have paid more attention to credible evidence instead of working behind the scenes with local activists to “crucify” oil and gas companies.
UPDATE XVII (10/31/2012, 10:45am ET): At a recent event sponsored by the Society of Environmental Journalists, Al Armendariz doubled down on his baseless finding of water contamination in Parker County. In response, Range Resources has sent a letter to the former EPA official, reminding him that his recent comments are “contradicted by facts, science, independent expert analysis, the final adjudicated decision of the Railroad Commission of Texas, the EPA’s internal documents, and sworn testimony from EPA’s sole witness to testify about [his] order.” The letter further requests that Armendariz stop making “false and disparaging comments” about the company that he wrongfully maligned.
It’s not clear why Al Armendariz, recently removed from a top post at the Environmental Protection Agency for saying that the government should “crucify” bad actors in the energy industry, abruptly canceled plans to testify before a House panel on Wednesday.
But it is clear that he was in Washington that day and met with someone — at the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest environmental organization.
On Wednesday afternoon, when a reporter visited the Sierra Club’s Washington headquarters just a few blocks from Capitol Hill, Armendariz’s name was written on the sign-in sheet as having been the last person to visit the office. The visit apparently came only a few hours after Armendariz had infuriated Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee when he canceled his scheduled testimony on EPA enforcement issues without offering a reason.
So, just to recap: Prior to becoming Region 6 administrator for the EPA, Al Armendariz’s claim to fame was authoring a study about air emissions that, even at the time, air quality regulators for the state strongly disavowed, and since then have definitively debunked. As administrator, he maintained a close relationship with anti-shale activists, said his method of enforcing regulations was to “crucify” oil and gas companies, and even issued an endangerment order against Range Resources that was so lacking in scientific merit that the EPA itself had to withdraw the order. And now, instead of attending a hearing in front of a House committee at which he had agreed to appear, he chooses to meet with the Sierra Club, an activist organization that has made no apology for being for natural gas before it was against it.
Tough day for those who claim Mr. Armendariz has never been improperly swayed by professional opponents of oil and gas development.
UPDATE XV (5/4/2012, 8:21am ET): A must-read editorial from the Washington Post says the EPA is “earning a reputation for abuse,” citing the Sackett case and the events surrounding Al Armendariz. The final two sentences are particularly apt:
The agency’s officers must have a clear sense when to deploy its mighty power and when to exercise discretion. That’s true for the sake of the economy and to ensure that the EPA will be able to continue its necessary work for years to come.
Also be sure to check out Kim Strassel’s piece in the Wall Street Journal today, which has much more on the preceding events in Parker County than what most other outlets have included in their stories.
UPDATE XIV (4/30/2012, 3:42pm ET): Armendariz’s replacement will be Sam Coleman, who served as EPA’s point man in New Orleans during the response to Hurricane Katrina. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, meanwhile, issued the following statement: “I respect the difficult decision he made and his wish to avoid distracting from the important work of the agency. We are all grateful for Dr. Armendariz’s service to EPA and to our nation.”
UPDATE XIII (4/30/2012, 12:04pm ET): The Dallas Morning News reports that Al Armendariz has resigned, and has posted his letter of resignation (which is also below):
I have been honored to serve as your regional administrator for EPA’s region 6 office the last 2 and 1/2 years. I never once forgot that the reason I was appointed was to serve you, to act as your voice, and to work day and night to better protect the environment and your safety.
Today I am resigning my position as regional administrator. This was not something that was asked of me by Administrator Jackson or the White House. It is a decision I made myself. I had become too much of a distraction, and no one person is more important than the incredible work being done by the rest of the team at EPA.
I leave with an incredible sense of pride for the things the Agency accomplished and it was fantastic to be a part of the effort. Administrator Jackson has overseen a renaissance in the Agency and it is again the global leader in environmental protection. President Obama has been incredibly supportive of me and my work and the Agency. He’ll undoubtedly go down as the most environmental president we have ever had.
Thank you all for letting me into your homes and communities, and showing me the challenges you face every day from pollution and lack of infrastructure. Your stories are now part of my fabric and the fabric of the Agency.
UPDATE XII (4/27/2012, 3:50pm ET): EPA Region 6 covers five states — Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico — and now more than half of the U.S. Representatives from those states are calling for Armendariz to “be relieved of his position” as administrator. In a letter signed by 29 of the 42 U.S. Representatives from Region 6, as well as by Iowa Rep. Steve King and Arizona Rep. Trent Franks, the members of Congress also state: “We are deeply disappointed in not only the statements of Mr. Armendariz, but also the abrasive, hostile posture that his office has struck during his tenure.”
UPDATE XI (4/27/2012, 12:12pm ET): EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has now weighed in, calling Armendariz’s comments “inflammatory,” “disappointing,” and “not representative” of the Agency. She also declined to say whether any disciplinary actions would be taken, noting only that she and the EPA “will continue to review” the situation.
This once again begs an important question, though: Armendariz described his comments as “my philosophy of enforcement,” so if those comments are “not representative” of the EPA, then how does the Agency continue to reconcile two diametrically opposed views by allowing Armendariz to remain as Region 6 administrator?
UPDATE X (4/27/2012, 9:39am ET): The case of the missing video just got a little more interesting. Apparently the video was originally uploaded by a gentleman named David McFatridge, who posted the video to a YouTube page called “Citizen Media for We The People.” But McFatridge cited a copyright infringement, so the website yanked the video. It’s little wonder why McFatridge wanted the video pulled down, though: he’s apparently a member of the Sierra Club Activist Network. And when it comes to opposing oil and gas development, the Sierra Club is one of the largest and most active organizations, so it wouldn’t want to have its fingerprints on this at all. Too late? (h/t Lachlan Markay)
UPDATE IX (4/27/2012, 8:33am ET): Some pretty big developments overnight, starting with former Obama White House economic adviser Jared Bernstein calling Armendariz’s comments “absolutely reprehensible” on CNBC (his comments begin around the eight minute mark). Later in the segment Bernstein even brags, “I used to work for President Obama.”
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) has also joined the growing chorus (subs. req’d) calling for Armendariz to resign.
And in another interesting twist, YouTube has taken down the video of Armendariz making his inflammatory comments, citing a copyright issue. More to come on that development, for sure.
UPDATE VIII (4/26/2012; 9:18pm ET): Four more U.S. Representatives are now calling for Armendariz’s resignation: GOP Congressmen Steve Scalise, Rodney Alexander, and Charles Boustany (all from Louisiana), as well as Rep. Pete Olson from Texas. That brings the running total to seven total members of the U.S. Congress calling publicly for Armendariz to step down or even be fired.
UPDATE VII (4/26/2012; 9:04pm ET): Add U.S. Rep. Ted Poe to the list of members of Congress calling for the resignation of Al Armendariz. The Texas Republican took to the House floor to condemn the Region VI administrator this evening by saying, in part: “He needs to be replaced with someone that cares more about the environment than personal crusades against industry.” Both the Wall Street Journal and Investor’s Business Daily have also called for Armendariz to step down.
UPDATE VI (4/26/2012; 4:42pm ET): “Unacceptable and embarrassing.” That’s the way the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is characterizing Mr. Armendariz’s remarks in a joint statement issued just now by TCEQ chairman Bryan Shaw, Ph.D, and commissioners Carlos Rubinstein and Toby Baker.
Their statement in full: “The EPA’s ‘crucifixion’ philosophy and agenda is unacceptable and embarrassing. The EPA Region 6 director’s outlandish comments significantly cheapen the role of the state and federal regulators who strive to ensure that sound environmental rules and policies are promulgated and enforced. Furthermore, such a philosophy flies in the face of the sound science, the law, and common sense that TCEQ regularly utilizes in pursuing legitimate enforcement actions where violations do in fact exist.
“We believe the way to protect human health and the environment is through vigorous enforcement, utilizing the state’s administrative procedures that are afforded to the public and the regulated community.”
UPDATE V (4/26/2012; 4:14pm ET): Simon Rosenberg, former staffer to President Clinton and Michael Dukakis and now the president of the New Democratic Network, a leading progressive think tank in D.C., told FOX News this afternoon that Al Armendariz needs to go. According to Rosenberg: “First of all, I think this EPA official should be fired, immediately. He’s clearly not fit to be serving the country, talking the way that he is.” Clip is available here – Rosenberg’s comments come in at minute 3.
UPDATE IV (4/26/2012, 3:33pm ET): At least two members of Congress, Reps. John Fleming and Jeff Landry (both from Louisiana), are publicly calling for Armendariz to resign or be fired. This follows in the wake of comments last month from Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter, who cited Armendariz’s use of “fear mongering, gross negligence and severe mishandling” of the Parker County case as a reason for him to be removed from his position as Region VI Administrator. We’ll be monitoring the news to see if any additional members of Congress or other officials make similar requests, so stay tuned.
UPDATE III (4/26/2012, 2:20pm ET): Ed Henry, previously with CNN but now the White House correspondent for FOX News, just asked Jay Carney, the President’s press secretary, if the administration had a response to Armendariz’s inflammatory remarks.
Henry, citing President Obama’s promise to foster and promote a “new tone” among members of his administration, posed the following question to Carney: “If somebody’s saying we should crucify the industry, why is that person still working at the EPA as a political appointee?” Carney responded: “He apologized, and what he said is clearly not representative of either this president’s belief in the way that we should approach these matters, or in the way that he has approached these matters, either from this office here in the White House or at the EPA.”
Carney’s response still begs the question, though: If what Armendariz described as “my philosophy of enforcement” is, in fact, “not representative” of what the president (who appointed him, and whom he represents) believes, then how does the White House reconcile the fact that Armendariz is still representing the administration as its EPA Region VI administrator?
UPDATE II (4/26/2012, 9:51am ET): U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is demanding an investigation into Armendariz’s comments, is not buying the Region VI Administrator’s apology. “His apology was meaningless,” Inhofe said. “You’re going to treat people like the Romans crucified the church? Get real.” The Senator also noted, as EID did below, that Armendariz has never apologized for grabbing headlines by (wrongly) accusing oil and gas companies like Range Resources of harming the environment, only to withdraw those complaints once the EPA realizes its accusations are, in fact, completely unfounded. Such actions certainly appear to reinforce the strategy Armendariz articulated in the video.
UPDATE (4/26/2012, 8:48am ET): Armendariz has issued a statement apologizing for the comments he made in the video. However, Cynthia Giles, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, didn’t exactly deny the philosophy Armendariz articulated, noting in a statement: “Strong, fair and effective enforcement of the environmental laws passed by Congress is critical to protecting public health and ensuring that all companies, regardless of industry, are playing by the same rules” (full statement can be found here). Armendariz still has not apologized for his emails to activists urging them to “Tivo channel 8″ prior to his office issuing what turned out to be a scientifically baseless charge against Range Resources in 2010.
—Original post from April 25, 2012—
EID has followed closely the actions of EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas, and specifically its decision to issue an endangerment order against Range Resources back in 2010 despite clear scientific evidence in contradiction of its charges (embarrassingly for the agency, EPA had to withdraw that order earlier this year). This includes pointing out how the Administrator for that office, Al Armendariz, gleefully emailed activists in the area (prior to the official announcement) that EPA was “about to make a lot of news” and that it was “time to Tivo channel 8.”
That news, of course, was that EPA “determined” Range Resources had contaminated drinking water in Parker County, Texas. Local anti-shale activist Sharon Wilson cheerfully responded, “Hats off to the new Sheriff and his deputies!”
But as it turns out, the story behind Mr. Armendariz’s actions is much deeper, and indeed much more troubling.
According to a recently released video, Armendariz – who also appeared in Josh Fox’s infamous film Gasland – told an audience during a city council meeting in DISH, TX, that his philosophy of enforcement as an official public servant was, to put it nicely, less than objective.
Here’s a breakdown of what Armendariz said in May 2010, a few months before Region VI issued its endangerment order against Range Resources:
“But as I said, oil and gas is an enforcement priority, it’s one of seven, so we are going to spend a fair amount of time looking at oil and gas production.”
Nothing too inflammatory there, really…other than the fact that an EPA administrator — tasked as a public servant to operate objectively in his capacity as a regulator — was essentially putting a bulls-eye on a particular industry. But the next part of what Armendariz said is where things got really interesting. And shocking:
“I was in a meeting once and I gave an analogy to my staff about my philosophy of enforcement, and I think it was probably a little crude and maybe not appropriate for the meeting but I’ll go ahead and tell you what I said. It was kind of like how the Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.”
Armendariz went on to explain more about how this works with the oil and gas industry specifically, stating “you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them” and that one should “go aggressively after them.” Of course, Armendariz knew that taking such an aggressive course would also sock it to the industry financially, adding: “Compliance can get very high, very, very quickly.”
Strangely enough, Armendariz had initially described this as his own philosophy, but after he finished explaining how to “make examples” out of hardworking oil and gas workers, he said “that’s our general philosophy.”
One U.S. Senator has already sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asking (among other things) if Armendariz’s statements about sacking Turkish villages are, in fact, reflective of EPA’s “general philosophy” when it comes to regulation and enforcement.
So, not only was Armendariz working closely with ideological opponents of oil and gas development before issuing a scientifically-baseless endangerment order against a particular oil and gas company, he was also operating under a broader philosophy that sees the industry as villagers who can and indeed ought to be crucified, for the sole purpose of making an example out of them.
But the story, tragically, doesn’t end there.
One of Armendariz’s original claims to fame — or infamy, perhaps — was his paper in 2009, which found that “the oil and gas sector likely has greater emissions than motor vehicles” in the five counties comprising the Dallas-Fort Worth region (“emissions,” in this case, referred to nitrogen oxides [NOx] and volatile organic compounds [VOCs]). That paper, written while Armendariz was a professor at Southern Methodist University, was widely celebrated by activists, who — possibly as a “thank you” to the professor — actively pushed for Armendariz to be appointed Administrator of EPA’s Region VI office. Upon assuming office, groups like the Sierra Club celebrated, calling it “great news” because the industry was “having an ‘oh sh–’ moment” about the appointment. Other shale opponents, including area resident Sharon Wilson, appeared happily in pictures with Armendariz.
To this day, opposition groups still cite the talking point that oil and gas production generates more emissions than all the cars and trucks in the DFW region, a claim that ultimately gets traced back to Armendariz’s paper.
But as it turns out, Armendariz’s original claim to fame — that snazzy talking point about cars and trucks — is just as dubious as the headline-grabbing endangerment order his office issued against Range Resources.
According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), Armendariz’s conclusion that oil and gas operations emit more smog-forming emissions than mobile sources is simply not true. In 2009, TCEQ wrote that Armendariz’s paper provided “an incomplete picture” of emissions in the area, adding that several critical flaws contributed to “misleading conclusions” in the paper. In addition, the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council (BSEEC) took a hard look at the Armendariz paper and dismantled its underlying premises, noting along the way that Armendariz’s conclusions were based on “an inaccurate and flawed interpretation of the facts.”
Furthermore, TCEQ recently responded to an inquiry about regional emissions levels (the full response was obtained by EID and can be found here), which included an updated assessment of sources of emissions in the DFW area. TCEQ pointed out that VOC emissions from oil and gas production are less than half those from mobile sources (63 tons per day [tpd] vs 129 tpd). For NOx, TCEQ states that mobile source emissions “are approximately 15 times higher” than those generated from oil and gas production.
Sure, TCEQ’s latest findings are much more current than what Armendariz published back in 2009. One would expect (and, frankly, hope) that technological developments over time would facilitate more accurate readings.
But it’s also difficult to lend much credence to the argument that Armendariz’s findings were simply due to a methodological or technological difference, especially in light of the fact that his two most significant actions in attempting to “crucify” and “make examples” of the oil and gas industry have been rendered completely and unequivocally bogus by actual scientific inquiry.
The question is, with Al Armendariz’s troubling and offensive “philosophy of enforcement” no longer a secret kept by activists, but rather a part of the public record, does the Region VI office — and indeed the entire EPA — have any credibility as long as he remains in his current position?
*UPDATE II* Public Health and Hydraulic Fracturing: A Review of the Data
We’ve all seen the frightening headlines and read about so-called “experts” linking any number of negative health impacts to oil and gas development, specifically hydraulic fracturing. But what’s more telling about these allegations is what they are missing, namely: a basis in fact.
UPDATE II (9:53 am ET, 10/26/2012): New data released from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that injuries in the oil and natural gas industry declined in 2011 by an amazing 33 percent — from a rate of 1.2 to 0.8 for every 100 workers. A story from E&E News (subs. req’d) points out that the injury rate for oil and gas extraction (and indeed for the entire mining industry) is also “below the national incidence rate of 3.5 cases per 100 workers.”
UPDATE (10:21 am ET, 5/17/2012): NPR has been running a series of stories about the alleged horrors of hydraulic fracturing, relying mostly on anecdotal reports about health impacts to say there “isn’t an answer” to questions about whether the wells are emitting hazardous levels of pollutants (news flash: there is an answer, it’s just not convenient to folks who want to write scary stories.) Nonetheless, one of NPR’s segments actually let the cat out of the bag, specifically in reference to the town of Dish, TX (which was featured in Gasland and was also where Dr. Al Armendariz made his infamous “crucify” comments). From NPR (emphasis added):
Quite a few of the 225 people who live in Dish, Texas, think the nation’s natural gas boom is making them sick.
They blame the chemicals used in gas production for health problems ranging from nosebleeds to cancer.
And the mayor of Dish, Bill Sciscoe, has a message for people who live in places where gas drilling is about to start: “Run. Run as fast as you can. Grab up your family and your belongings, and get out.”
But scientists say it’s just not clear whether pollutants from gas wells are hurting people in Dish or anywhere else. What is clear, they say, is that the evidence the town has presented so far doesn’t have much scientific heft.
It’s truly amazing the kinds of conclusions one will reach when relying on scientific facts.
—Original post from April 18, 2012—
We’ve all seen the frightening headlines and read about so-called “experts” linking any number of negative health impacts to oil and gas development, specifically hydraulic fracturing. But what’s more telling about these allegations is what they are missing, namely: a basis in fact.
The claims have also made us wonder: If suggestions about negative health impacts were true, wouldn’t the men and women who are working in the industry – many as long as 60 to 70 hours per week, year round – be suffering from some of the worst health conditions? After all, if hydraulic fracturing or shale development as a whole were emitting dangerous levels of pollutants, then those working on the well pads day in and day out would be more exposed than anyone else. Right?
As it turns out, the facts tell a completely different story than what we’ve read in the newspapers or heard from opponents of shale. And to clear the air, we’ve done the research so you don’t have to. All of the information that follows, we should point out, is not based on anecdotal horror stories or unverifiable reports, but rather easily accessible data via the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). No smoke and mirrors, no secret decoder rings, just the facts.
According to the BLS:
- Among the industries with the highest rates of injuries and illnesses, oil and gas extraction is not even in the top 25. Veterinary services, soft drink manufacturing, hospitals, pet and pet supplies stores, and ship building all register higher injury and illness rates than oil and gas.
- In terms of injuries specifically, the oil and gas industry is quite safe. In fact, the national injury incidence rate average is three times higher than the rate for oil and gas extraction specifically.
- As for illnesses specifically, oil and gas operations register comparatively few total cases. Here is a list of just a few industries that record more total illnesses than oil and natural gas: ice cream and frozen food manufacturing, wineries, bottling water, book publishers, tortilla manufacturing, recyclable material merchant wholesalers, boat dealers, novelty and souvenir stores, radio and television broadcasting, investment banking, accounting and tax preparation, and real estate. Once again, oil and gas operations don’t even come close to being in the top 25 in terms of industries with the highest rates of illnesses.
- And those working in oil and natural gas development aren’t taking much time off, either. The BLS compiled a list of industries with the highest rates of injuries and illnesses requiring days off from work, and – lo and behold – oil and gas extraction didn’t make the list.
This data also matches the conclusions of scientific research for specific areas across the country, including for two of the largest shale-producing areas in the country.
An air quality report for northeastern Pennsylvania, which was issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” And although the report’s scope did not include an assessment of longer-term impacts, it did conduct air sampling for carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone. The sampling “did not detect concentrations above the National Ambient Air Quality Standards at any of the sampling sites.” A DEP report issued two months earlier for southwestern Pennsylvania came to the same conclusions.
In addition, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has conducted extensive air monitoring for the Barnett Shale in North Texas. Here’s what TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw said of TCEQ’s findings:
“After several months of operation, state-of-the-art, 24-hour air monitors in the Barnett Shale area are showing no levels of concern for any chemicals. This reinforces our conclusion that there are no immediate health concerns from air quality in the area, and that when they are properly managed and maintained, oil and gas operations do not cause harmful excess air emissions.”
In addition, a report issued by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) collected blood and urine samples from residents in and around the town of DISH, which is located over the Barnett Shale. Here’s what the report concluded:
“Although a number of VOCs were detected in some of the blood samples, the pattern of VOC values was not consistent with a community-wide exposure to airborne contaminants, such as those that might be associated with natural gas drilling operations.”
DSHS concluded that the sources of exposure were likely tobacco (all those who recorded elevated levels of benzene were smokers); public drinking water systems, which include disinfectant byproducts; and common consumer products such as cleaners and lubricants. DSHS did note some limitations (including the fact that VOCs only stay in the body for a relatively short period of time), but nonetheless concluded that their assessment “did not indicate that community-wide exposures from gas wells or compressor stations were occurring in the sample population.”
A separate assessment of the Barnett Shale area took an in-depth look at health statistics, specifically in Denton County, Texas. The researchers concluded that “even as natural gas development expanded significantly in the area of the past several years, key indicators of health improved across every major category during those times.” The researchers also made this important observation:
“Health records indicate that while production increased, fewer residents were diagnosed with serious illnesses such as cancer, respiratory disease, strokes, and heart disease. This improvement occurred even as the population of residents age 65 or older increased by over 13,000, a significant uptick for any population segment.”
Bottom line: It’s easy to claim that any sort of nearby business or industrial activity – be it oil and gas, the construction of an apartment complex, or the opening of a new hardware store – has correlated with an increase in nosebleeds, headaches, or any other ailment. But that doesn’t mean such accusations are based in fact. More importantly, we’re not doing any justice to those suffering from those ailments – and we’re certainly not solving any problems – if we misallocate blame and focus attention on activities that are not responsible, merely because it’s convenient to do so.
*UPDATE* SEJ Award-Winner a Litigant against Industry She Covers
We've pointed out here at EID on several occasions how the press has chosen all too often to cover hydraulic fracturing without a full grounding in the facts. Many times, this is borne not necessarily of a willingness to distort the truth, but there are unfortunately too many examples of the opposite being true. And for at least one reporter, a conflict of interest is actually being rewarded.
UPDATE (9/6/2012, 12:14pm ET): It seems that the Society of Environmental Journalists caught wind of EID’s coverage about the Denton Record-Chronicle — or, perhaps, just did some research of its own. In any event, an update has been posted about the awards ceremony next month, in which the SEJ Awards Committee acknowledges “the appearance of a conflict of interest” at the Record-Chronicle. The update also notes that the newspaper has declined the award, which we can only speculate was due to the issues surrounding one of its reporters suing the industry that she was tasked with covering objectively.
—Original post, July 16, 2012—
We’ve pointed out here at EID on several occasions how the press has chosen all too often to cover hydraulic fracturing without a full grounding in the facts. Many times, this is borne not necessarily of a willingness to distort the truth, but simply because explaining complex geological and engineering processes is tough work. Let’s be honest: Can you explain what an annulus is without using Google?
But there are examples – far too many, in fact – where coverage of this important issue cannot be explained in any way other than “agenda-driven.” These examples are especially troubling, not because the reporters have an opinion (don’t we all?), but because it’s clear the reporters’ motivations and opinions are actively preventing them from being objective.
One such is example is at the Denton Record-Chronicle in north Texas, for which reporter Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe covers shale development in the region. The headlines for her columns stories include things like “Lowering the Boom” and “Practice Lays Waste to Land,” and the content for those stories flows seamlessly from there. In one particularly inflammatory piece, she suggested the incidence of breast cancer in the area was related to natural gas development in the Barnett Shale – even though the counties that have the most Barnett Shale activity actually have breast cancer rates well below the national average (independent public health professionals have also confirmed the safety of development in the area). Not exactly a commitment to objectivity, huh?
When EID discovered that fact last summer, we contacted the Record-Chronicle and asked how such an egregious conflict of interest could be allowed. Certainly if a reporter on the shale beat was found out to own large shares of stock in a natural gas company, there would be justified outrage at the inability of that reporter to remain objective. Doesn’t the same thing apply if the shoe were on the other foot?
The newspaper’s response: Nope.
The Record-Chronicle said it had already reported on the lawsuit once (a single line buried several paragraphs deep in a lengthy article, mind you), and Ms. Heinkel-Wolfe agreed not to report on the specific companies she was suing. (Of course, if she’s reporting about an entire drilling practice or the industry writ large, then she’s including, by definition, every company in that industry – including the ones against which she is a plaintiff.)
That the referee was also trying to play in the game was damaging enough. But the story actually just got a lot worse.
Not only has the newspaper refused to acknowledge the serious problem with this situation, but the Society of Environmental Journalists recently announced that Ms. Heinkel-Wolfe was actually being rewarded for “outstanding in-depth reporting” for her stories about natural gas development. SEJ said the series “is the result of a strong commitment to quality journalism” – a statement made apparently without irony, either.
Also of note: SEJ suggested the series contributed to a new public disclosure law for the state of Texas. Let’s set aside the fact that deliberations on that law were taking place more than a year before it was enacted – a fact that contradicts SEJ’s interesting timeline of events. But is SEJ really touting the ability of this particular reporter – who refused to adequately disclose vital details about her own background to the general public – to force public disclosure?
SEJ’s “Vision and Mission” page says that the organization’s purpose is to “strengthen the quality, reach and viability of journalism,” all with respect to ensuring that the public is better informed about environmental issues. But how does a conflict of interest “strengthen the quality” of journalism, and what message does it send that SEJ would reward it?
Reporters have difficult jobs, especially those tasked with covering the oil and gas industry. The many processes involved in drilling and completing a well would be difficult for anyone to comprehend, especially journalists who live under tight deadlines and must turn the complex into the simple, often in half as many words as they need.
But reporters also have an obligation to the public, who rely on their stories to become informed citizens, and from which their own opinions can be formed. When bias is injected into a newspaper story, how is the public to know about that bias unless it is clearly stated? And if a reporter has financial interests or existing legal disputes that can be materially impacted by his or her reporting, shouldn’t basic journalistic ethics dictate that the person abstain from covering that subject – or at the very least explain that potential conflict with a disclaimer before every story?
All of this begs an important question: How could a professional organization overlook such a significant issue?
Recall that it was SEJ that sent a letter to a House subcommittee objecting to the arrest of Josh Fox (who had broken committee rules by attempting to film a hearing in February without credentials) on the basis that he is a “journalist” who is merely “informing the public” about hydraulic fracturing. No other organization would consider it proper to award a reporter for covering an issue over which she’s also a litigant. But then again, no other group would seriously suggest that Josh Fox is a journalist – except, apparently, SEJ.
And finally, because we believe in disclosure – of which SEJ is also apparently a big supporter – there’s one other thing worth pointing out: One of the SEJ’s sources of funding is none other than the Park Foundation.
Fact-Checking the Dallas Drilling Debate
The temperature has been 105 degrees in the Metroplex for what feels like 105 straight days, but this afternoon, the Dallas City Council attempted to let cooler heads prevail in a briefing it organized on natural gas development. EID decided to lend some facts to the debate, which opponents are fighting tooth and nail to obscure.
The temperature has been 105 degrees in the Metroplex for what feels like 105 straight days, but this afternoon, the Dallas City Council attempted to let cooler heads prevail in a briefing it organized on natural gas development. For months, the Council has been considering changes to the city’s oil and gas ordinance, and today it invited two panelists to speak about the proposed changes (And no, J.R. and the rest of the Ewings were not invited; they were too busy plotting their revenge against the Venezuelans who beat up John Ross).
The two panelists were Ed Ireland, with the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, and Terry Welch, a Dallas lawyer with Brown & Hofmeister, LLP. You can view Mr. Ireland’s prepared slides here, and Mr. Welch’s can be found here.
Ed’s presentation focused on several important facts about shale development, particularly in the Barnett Shale of north Texas: It’s a major source of employment (100,000 jobs over the past decade, including direct and indirect jobs), has generated billions of dollars in tax revenue, and boasts an impressive safety record. There have been more than 18,000 wells drilled into the Barnett Shale (including several thousand in the floodplains of the Trinity and Brazos Rivers), and there hasn’t been a single confirmed case of ground water contamination from hydraulic fracturing. And thanks to state-of-the-art air monitoring from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), we also know that Barnett development is not producing air emissions at a level that would impact public health.
That’s great news, and certainly something we should embrace and even encourage, right?
Not according to Mr. Welch. Indeed, Welch’s presentation focused on negative health and environmental impacts from development. Actually, to clarify, his presentation was all about impacts that may happen; little to no evidence was actually provided. Yet, Mr. Welch still wants the Council to believe that the impacts are very real – he’s just not sure if or even when they’ll ever materialize.
It’s also worth pointing out that Mr. Welch, as a member of the Gas Drilling Task Force, was actually presenting a minority report of the Task Force, which other members of the city’s Task Force felt was unfair. Those other members weren’t afforded the same opportunity to present their problems with the Task Force’s recommendations to the full City Council, a problem that Task Force Chair Lois Finkelman identified at the conclusion of the hearing.
But because we think evidence is important, here’s a sampling of the claims and recommendations made in Mr. Welch’s prepared slides, along with some important facts that folks in the Dallas area, including the City Council, might find useful:
WELCH: “Scientific studies currently differ as to the effect of gas drilling/hydraulic fracturing on human health, and doubt should be resolved in favor of public health and safety.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)
- Mr. Welch is creating doubt by decree, not based on hard evidence. Consider:
- Associated Press: Hydraulic fracturing critics using bad science, experts say (AP, July 22, 2012)
- NPR: Scientists say it’s “not clear” what is causing negative health impacts; evidence presented by opponents “doesn’t have much scientific heft” (NPR, May 2012)
- Texas Dept. of State Health Services: The “pattern of VOC values was not consistent with a community-wide exposure to airborne contaminants, such as those that might be associated with natural gas drilling operations.” (DSHS report for Dish, TX, May 12, 2012)
- Public Health Experts: “Health records indicate that while production increased, fewer residents were diagnosed with serious illnesses such as cancer, respiratory disease, strokes, and heart disease.” (Mickley/Blake report for Denton County, Oct. 2011)
- TCEQ: “After several months of operation, state-of-the-art, 24-hour air monitors in the Barnett Shale area are showing no levels of concern for any chemicals…. [W]hen they are properly managed and maintained, oil and gas operations do not cause harmful excess air emissions.” (TCEQ, 2010 [via EID])
- Pennsylvania regulators “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” (Pa. DEP air quality reports, Nov. 2010 and Jan. 2011)
- The bottom line: There are differing scientific studies on virtually every human activity. The question is whether the available evidence actually tilts toward one side or the other, and when it comes to shale development, the facts speak for themselves.
WELCH: “Imagine these setbacks in a Dallas neighborhood.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)
- Mr. Welch is attempting to frighten the public about a potential drill site in the middle of a jam-packed residential area. Luckily for the City of Dallas (and inconveniently for Mr. Welch) this supposition is completely divorced from reality.
- There are no leases or proposed drilling sites located inside a dense neighborhood as Mr. Welch suggests here. It would have been just as erroneous to suggest a rig would be centered at City Hall – which, interestingly, Mr. Welch actually does earlier in his presentation.
- Here’s what City Council Member Jerry Allen said in response to this information from Mr. Welch: “I don’t see the value of that slide.” Ouch!
WELCH: “Floodplains by definition are subject to flooding, and flooding of gas well sites may result in release of undisclosed hazardous chemicals, along with significant amounts of salt and hydrocarbons, into water channels.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)
- Notice the key phrasing – “may result” – in Mr. Welch’s slide. There is no evidence of this, but by suggesting there is a chance, he’s forcing the other side to prove a negative, which is impossible. This is essentially a rhetorical device, not a fact- or evidence-based observation.
- What we do know is that, according to the Texas Railroad Commission, there are more than 4,300 oil and gas wells already located in floodplains in Tarrant, Dallas, Johnson, and Denton counties. To date there have been no significant impacts to water or floodways.
WELCH: “Drilling in the floodplain would allow drilling in the Trinity River corridor.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)
- Again, there are more than 4,300 oil and gas wells located in floodplains in Tarrant, Dallas, Johnson, and Denton counties. All of these wells in Tarrant, Dallas, and Denton counties are located in the Trinity River floodplain specifically (roughly half of the wells in floodplains in Johnson County are in the Brazos River floodplain). And again, there is no evidence of significant impacts to water supplies.
WELCH: “Dallas development regulations currently allow landfills and electrical substations in the floodplain; however, those activities are subject to several existing federal water pollution prevention laws that gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations are exempt from.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)
- It’s difficult to know which laws Mr. Welch is referencing, but his suggestion that oil and gas development are “exempt” from water pollution laws is categorically false.
- For example, waste from oil and gas operations is tightly regulated by individual states and federal hazardous waste laws. Any waste sent to public treatment plants must pretreatment guidelines established by EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. If the waste is not sent to a treatment plant and instead sent to an underground injection well, the U.S. EPA already tightly regulates that process – which the EPA also says is a “safe and inexpensive option” for wastewater disposal.
- Lisa Jackson, EPA Administrator: “[Hydraulic fracturing] requires smart regulation, smart rules of the road. What it doesn’t necessarily require…is that all that smart rule of the road setting be done at the federal level. There are states that have been regulating oil and gas development for a long time.” (Remarks at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, February 2012 [via Truthland])
- Steve Heare, Director of EPA’s Drinking Water Protection Division: “I have no information that states aren’t doing a good job already [with regulating hydraulic fracturing].” (Houston Chronicle, February 2010)
WELCH: “All parkland is valuable and a limited public commodity, and if drilling is allowed, that area may be diminished or effectively eliminated as parkland for decades.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)
- Once again, Mr. Welch has created a hypothetical (“…may be diminished…”) and then advances an argument based on a situation that doesn’t exist.
- Here’s a picture of a completed and reclaimed well site in the Barnett Shale in Burleson, TX. Was the land “effectively eliminated” for recreational use? Hardly. Fore!
WELCH: “If these concerns are later determined to be without merit, the City Council may amend its ordinances accordingly.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)
- It seems even Mr. Welch lacks confidence in his own dire assessment, to the point that he’s flat out stating that his claims could very well “be without merit” in practice.
- This is also a dangerous method of approaching public policy. Companies have already paid more than $33 million to the City of Dallas for oil and gas leases, which the city then used to pay down its debt. Arbitrarily changing the terms underlying those leases – on the dubious basis that the Council can simply “amend” the new rules later – means the city would be reneging on its promises to companies looking to invest further in the City of Dallas. Is that the kind of investment climate the City wants to promote?
- The City Council has an obligation to enact (or uphold) ordinances that are in the best interest of the city, not to experiment with the community on the misguided assumption that the damage it causes can be wished away through another set of amendments later down the road.
It’s one thing to exercise caution when making decisions, but it’s quite another to hide behind a wall of uncertainty (real or perceived) to justify serious restrictions or even outright bans on certain types of activity. What Mr. Welch has presented is not a list of proven impacts of development, but is instead largely a series of hypotheticals designed to frighten the City Council through manufactured uncertainty. And then he suggests that if his proposals end up being too burdensome, they can just be adjusted later – as if there are no repercussions in the interim. Does anyone really believe that would be the case?
Because the facts and the data don’t back them up, opponents of development in Dallas (and across the country, really) are trying to shift the burden of proof away from themselves and onto the industry. They suggest that it’s not necessary to prove their statements about negative impacts, but it is the responsibility of the industry to prove a negative (i.e. “There’s no evidence of water contamination? Prove it!”). This is not only absurd; it’s also not a legitimate basis for any meaningful public policy discussion.
Besides: If the damage and destruction to which Mr. Welch repeatedly alluded in his slides (and which opponents have similarly referenced) were actually happening, wouldn’t he have mentioned the specific examples?
- YouTube: Lisa Jackson affirms safety of HF
- Report: Data Show Health Impacts from Development are Overstated
- EID: Public Health and Hydraulic Fracturing: A Review of the Data
- TX DSHS: Exposure investigation for Dish, TX [PDF]
- Fact Check: Natural gas development and air quality in Dallas-Fort Worth
Natural Gas Use at the Wellsite: Makes Sense (and Cents)
The culture of innovation continues to bring down the cost and lighten the environmental footprint of responsible oil and gas development. For example, companies are starting to convert the machinery at well sites from diesel to natural gas.
America’s oil and gas industry has gone through many changes since it started in Titusville, Pennsylvania, more than 150 years ago. But one thing that hasn’t changed with the times is the industry’s culture of innovation – a constant drive to find new and better ways of developing and delivering the energy that supports our way of life. That’s what brought us the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in deep shale formations, which is probably the best-known oil and gas innovation in decades, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of jobs it’s created and billions of dollars it’s saved consumers in lower energy costs.
The culture of innovation continues to bring down the cost and lighten the environmental footprint of responsible oil and gas development. For example, companies are starting to convert the machinery at well sites from diesel to natural gas. According to a recent report from Reuters:
“Apache Corp, the largest U.S. company focused solely on oil and gas exploration and production, is in the process of converting its first rig to run on power generated by liquefied natural gas (LNG). Canada’s Encana … already has 15 of its more than 40 rigs driven by gas, and plans to convert even more.”
Reuters says some of Encana’s gas-fueled rigs used trucked-in LNG, while others used gas from the well itself. So what’s the big attraction? Another report from Bloomberg spells it out:
“Encana, Canada’s largest natural-gas producer, reduced fuel costs 47 percent, or $830,000, compared with diesel use, at a shale-gas drilling site in the Haynesville formation which spans the border of Texas and Louisiana…
The savings were based on consumption of almost half a million gallons of fuel and average prices of diesel of $3.28 a gallon and $1.11 a gallon for LNG over a period of about 160 days. The company plans to use LNG at more of its operations…
Gas emits 20 percent to 30 percent less carbon dioxide than oil-based fuels and has a fraction of the emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and particulate matter, which are linked to respiratory health problems such as asthma, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”
Another selling point, according to Reuters, is that natural-gas engines are quieter than their diesel counterparts. That could be a big help in shale-development areas that are densely populated, like the Dallas-Forth Worth region and parts of Pennsylvania. Prometheus Energy Group, which operates mobile LNG storage and vaporization units that can fuel the machinery at well sites, tells Reuters customers are lining up:
“’We’ve seen interest just kind of explode in the last six to eight months,’ said Ron Bertasi, chief executive officer of Prometheus…”
But Reuters points out there’s more than one innovation in this field:
“Chesapeake Energy Corp, the most active U.S. driller, is working to convert its rig fleet to run on diesel natural gas (DNG). Chesapeake aims to have more than 40 rigs running on DNG by the end of the year.
‘To our knowledge, this will by far be the largest rig fleet utilizing natural gas,’ Kent Wilkinson, vice president of Chesapeake Natural Gas Ventures, said.”
This may be an emerging practice, but it actually builds upon what the industry has been doing for a long time – harnessing the energy of natural gas to get it from the well to the customer. According to the Department of Energy, Green Energy Sources, roughly 9 percent of the gas produced from U.S. wells is actually used to power the equipment that processes and transports the fuel to homes and businesses across the country.
*UPDATE* Cornell Veterinarians Go Into “Beast Mode” on Shale
When it comes to the issue of responsibly developing oil and natural gas resources from shale, we’ve seen a lot of wacky things come out of Ithaca, New York over the past couple years. So it was no surprise when a pair of veterinarians associated with Cornell wrote an article attacking shale development...
UPDATE (4/6/2012, 1:15pm ET): Some intrepid research by the EID team has uncovered a meaningful critique of the Bamberger-Oswald paper, and the source is no slouch: Dr. Ian Rae, a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia and a Co-chair of the Chemicals Technical Options Committee for the United Nations Environment Programme, says the paper is “an advocacy piece” that suffers from poor referencing, and the authors themselves “cannot be regarded as experts” in the field in which they are commenting. Rae’s full comments about the paper can be found here, but we’ve excerpted the most significant items below:
- “It certainly does not qualify as a scientific paper but is, rather, an advocacy piece that does not involve deep…analysis of the data gathered to support its case.”
- “The data in Table 2 are incomplete in that no dates or places are provided, and no references to other commentary on the events it reports, so it’s hard to assess the weight of the evidence. Surely there were reports to or by regulatory agencies. It could be that this is old evidence and that note has been taken of the hazards and appropriate regulations put in place to mitigate them. We just don’t know.”
- “Contributions to the journal are said to be refereed, but the refereeing process evidently was not very stringent. For example, better refereeing would have forced the authors to provide the details I identified above as missing from their compilation. As well, it might also have curtailed some of the less-well supported statements and asked for more recent references to the scientific basis for expressions of concern that material dated to the 1960s and 1970s.”
- “As far as I can see, neither [Bamberger nor Oswald] has a track record of investigation in environmental studies. This does not mean they are wrong to sound a note of concern, but it does mean that they cannot be regarded as experts in the field with broad experience and attainments.”
- “I have not had time to read the articles in recent issues of the journal, but the titles show that they are advocacy pieces dealing with issues that are matters of concern, and for that reason are also extensively covered by other journals.”
—Original post from January 11, 2012—
When it comes to the issue of responsibly developing oil and natural gas resources from shale, we’ve seen a lot of wacky things come out of Ithaca, New York over the past couple years.
The primary recipient of millions of dollars every year of anti-shale advocacy provided by the Park Foundation (also based in Ithaca), Cornell University has become to anti-energy activists what “Linebacker U” was once to Penn State — with the debunked-ad-nauseum Howarth paper on shale emissions serving as the movement’s main playbook. Ithaca also happens to be the place from which outlets like the New York Times pull “data” on mineral leasing, notwithstanding the fact that no actual Marcellus development even takes place there.
So it was no surprise when a pair of veterinarians associated with Cornell wrote an article attacking shale development for its supposed link to animal health impacts. (One of the authors, Robert Oswald is a professor at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine; the other, Michelle Bamberger, received her doctorate from Cornell.)
Now, needless to say, we don’t have any bones to pick with veterinarians, and in fact the scientific research they provide on a daily basis is without question critical to us better understanding the natural world (plus, we love dogs). But the authors here did not produce a scientific assessment, a fact they freely admit in their article. Instead, Oswald and Bamberger chose to highlight a handful of personal testimonials that cannot be independently assessed or verified because they decided to keep all relevant details anonymous. Thus, we’re left with a 27-page unscientific article making bold assertions about oil and gas development, without a single shred of data or independent corroboration to back any of it up.
While the article contains many flaws, we’ve highlighted a few of the key problems below, all of which should raise serious doubts about the “scientific” nature of this particular article.
- Right off the bat, the paper leads with a philosophical quote from Sandra Steingraber, who has described hydraulic fracturing as “the tornado on the horizon” that will destroy people’s ability to do everything, from local gardening to even riding a bicycle (Orion Magazine, Sept./Oct. 2010). Ms. Steingraber has also called for an end to all fossil fuels to “avoid human calamity.” With respect to shale development, Ms. Steingraber has stated: “If we mitigate fracking to kill fewer people, we’re still killing people” (The Vindicator, Jan. 10, 2012).
- The authors assert that developing natural gas from shale is “moving forward without benefit of carefully controlled studies of its impact on public health” (p. 52). Aside from the fact that the authors readily admit in the paper that their own conclusions are not the result of controlled experiments, their claim is simply not true. For example, a study from earlier this year by the city of Fort Worth, TX, concluded there were “no significant health risks” from nearby shale development (July 2011).
- A separate scientific assessment of the Barnett Shale in north Texas concluded: “[E]ven as natural gas development expanded significantly in the area over the past several years, key indicators of health improved across every major category during those times” (Oct. 19, 2011). The Barnett Shale is one of the most productive shale fields in the United States, with more than 15,000 producing wells.
- Instead of seeking out the answer to a legitimate question – what, if any, are the health impacts of developing natural gas from shale? – the authors simply accuse the industry of taking a position “similar to the tobacco industry that for many years rejected the link between smoking and cancer” (p. 52). The report goes on to suggest that “epidemiologic studies [that] linked smoking to human health impacts…could be used to assess the health impacts of gas drilling operations on human beings” (p. 53). It seems the authors have already made up their minds.
- The authors clearly admit that the study is not sound science: “This study is not an epidemiologic analysis of the health effects of gas drilling, which could proceed to some extent without knowledge of the details of the complex mixtures of toxicants involved. It is also not a study of the health impacts of specific chemical exposures related to gas drilling” (p. 53).
- Later in the article the authors further concede: “By the standards of a controlled experiment, this is an imperfect study, as one variable could not be changed while holding all others constant” (p. 55). Instead, the article is merely a compilation of unsourced and unverifiable case studies.
- The report conceals names and locations, which means independent review of the claims and parties involved cannot be completed; statements from the researchers about their findings are simply asserted as fact. Ironically, much of the paper is committed to critiquing the industry for not disclosing enough information to independently verify data.
- Despite its lack of scientific bent, the authors nonetheless conclude definitively that their assessment “strongly implicates exposure to gas drilling operations in serious health effects on humans, companion animals, livestock, horses, and wildlife.” They go further and, without any scientific evidence, state that “a ban on shale gas drilling is essential for the protection of public health” (p. 72).
Calling for a ban on responsible oil and gas development without any scientific basis? Wait, we’ve heard this one before…
Again, those interested in the supposed health impacts of developing natural gas from shale should reference this assessment from October, in which two public health professionals studied conditions in the Barnett shale region of north Texas. Their conclusion? Even though the area has been one of the highest gas producing regions of the country, “key indicators of health improved across every major category.” That followed a study from last summer for the city of Fort Worth which “did not reveal any significant health threats” from shale development.
In 1981, Mitchell Energy – led by legendary oilman and wildcatter George Mitchell, who’s widely considered the father or shale gas development – started drilling the Barnett Shale in an effort to unlock its enormous natural gas reserves. Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of Mitchell and others, the Barnett remains a powerful job creation machine and economic catalyst for Texas.
And it’s no surprise that a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce-commissioned study released yesterday finds that the Barnett Shale has produced 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas while enabling the creation of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment over the past decade. The study — entitled “The Impact of the Barnett Shale on Business Activity in the Surrounding Region and Texas: An Assessment of the First Decade of Extensive Development” — takes an in depth look at the Barnett’s positive effect on the Lone Star State. Here are key findings from the study:
- Regionally, Barnett Shale-related activity has created 100,268 jobs. For Texas as a whole, more than 119,200 jobs have been created. Over the 2001-2011 period, local taxing entities received an estimated $5.3 billion in tax receipts. The state received $5.8 billion.
- Personal income in the region is almost 8.5% higher than it would be in the absence of Barnett Shale-related activity. Wage and salary employment in the region is about 8.7% higher than it would be without the Barnett Shale.
- Over the entire 2001-2011 period, The Perryman Group estimates that local taxing entities received an additional $5.3 billion in tax receipts, with another $5.8 billion to the State.
SCHOOLS GET MAJOR BOOSTS
- Independent school districts in the Barnett Shale region received approximately $2.7 million in royalty payments, $2.5 million in bonuses, and $45.8 million in tax revenue from natural gas and mineral rights last year. Indirect revenues from collateral development are even higher…At a time when most government entities and schools are facing difficult budgetary conditions, the Barnett Shale provides an important source of additional revenues.
Some maintain that shale gas development is only a “boom” and cannot be sustained. As thePhiladelphia Inquirer reports, “Daniel Yergin, one of the most influential voices in the world of energy, says shale gas is here to stay.” And this new study reinforces that fact:
- Only a small portion of total estimated production has occurred to date, and the Barnett Shale is expected to continue to generate economic stimulus for local area and state economies for decades to come.
With more than 70 rigs already drilling in the Barnett Shale, the new study reconfirms the positive impact of America’s natural gas industry on local, state, and regional economies. The Dallas Business Journalspoke with Fort Worth Chamber President and CEO Bill Thorton about the positive report:
“We commissioned the study to see how or if the economic downturn had impacted past projections about the industry,” said Bill Thorton . “What we found was that it’s a bulwark of our economy.”
Bud Weinstein, associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University, spoke to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to further highlight Perryman Group’s findings:
“What’s important is that we have an industry in North Texas that basically didn’t exist a decade ago,” he said. “While gas prices have fallen over the last couple of years and the rig count is way down, and the Barnett may no longer be the biggest shale-producing play in the U.S., the technology of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has clearly added a new dimension to our economy, added thousands of jobs, and helped cities, counties, school districts.”
If it wasn’t clear already, this report confirms it. Responsible shale gas development in the United States has provided millions of jobs, generated billions of dollars in revenue, and is a vital part of our domestic energy and economic security. Texas found the lucky pot of gold at the rainbow – all thanks to hydraulic fracturing.
Yesterday, a lengthy, $1 million study evaluating air emissions associated with natural gas development from the Barnett Shale near Ft. Worth, Texas was released. The city of Ft. Worth announced this upon the study’s release: “A comprehensive evaluation of gas exploration and production sites ‘did not reveal any significant health threats.’”
Ft. Worth Mayor Betsy Price notes that “It’s good to hear that ERG didn’t find an immediate health risk from these gas production sites.” Overwhelmingly, the media reported this positive environmental news accurately, save for Bloomberg News.
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Mike Middlebrook, petroleum engineer and Range’s Vice President of Operations
Question: “Throughout the process of drilling those wells and completing them and producing them in the summer of 2009, were there any problems or issues that developed in real-time as those wells were being drilled and completed and developed?” Answer. “Not at all. We had zero issues while drilling the wells. The completions went flawless. No problems whatsoever.” (pg. 20)
Q: “Prior to the issuance of the EPA order … did the EPA provide Range any data on which it based the December 7th order?” A. “No, they did not.” Q. “Prior to issuance of the December 7th order by the EPA, had Range been continuing to work with the Texas Railroad Commission on the investigation related to the Lipsky water well issue?” A. “Yes, we had.” (pg. 36)
Q: “Was there discussion about hydraulic fracturing in the meeting with the EPA?” A. “Yes.” Q. “What was the EPA’s response to that?” A. “Mr. [Chris] Lister [of EPA] acknowledged that hydraulic fracturing likely had nothing to do with it based on the distance of the Barnett Shale from the water aquifer, in this case over a mile.” (pg. 43)
Q: “Between December 16, 2010 and today, has Range been able to actually accomplish all of this testing, sample all those water wells and do all the gas testing and get the results back to be able to present here today?” A: “Yes, we have.” Q. “Has this protocol — or what does it cost to do all this?” A: “Extremely expensive … Almost unprecedented with the time frame and the dollars that we spent to do this work. In my 19 years I have never witnessed the kind of work that has gone on in the last 30 days.” (pg. 47)
Mark McCaffrey, Ph.D., geochemical gas fingerprinting expert
“We found that nitrogen … can be used to distinguish Barnett formation reservoir gas from Pennsylvanian Strawn reservoir gas. Specifically high nitrogen, low CO2 samples are characteristic of gasses produced from the shallower Pennsylvanian reservoirs. The natural gas component of the most recently collected Lipsky well headspace gas samples, which is the two that were shown in the previous table on the previous slide, contain higher nitrogen than is in Barnett gas.” (pg. 12)
“[The EPA order] does indicate that there is thermogenic [natural gas], but it doesn’t indicate that they are likely to be from the same source anymore than the presence of wings can tell you whether it’s a bat or a bird because the other sources also have the same carbon isotopic composition. It is not distinctive between the different sources. So it is not a basis for linking the Lipsky gas to the Range gas at all.” (pg. 39)
“[I]t’s hard to imagine a scenario by which the Barnett gas is migrating to the shallow aquifer and yet the bradenhead gas that is open to the whole — this thousands of feet of Pennsylvanian section, that bradenhead gas sample doesn’t contain Barnett gas. It clearly contains Pennsylvanian reservoir gas. It also … contains some bacterial gas as well, which is also not in the Barnett.” (pg. 27)
“[I]t calls into question any scenario whereby gas would be migrating from the Barnett up to a shallower aquifer. … The approach used by the EPA to correlate the Lipsky gas sample to Range Resources production was fundamentally flawed.” (pg. 31-33)
“[T]he two most recently collected Lipsky samples lay in the zone of higher nitrogen, indicating a Pennsylvanian [Strawn] origin. The sample that the EPA collected has lower nitrogen … Lipsky, two most recent samples, Pennsylvanian gas. Purdue well, the well closest to the Range wells, Pennsylvanian gas. The bradenhead of the Butler well, Pennsylvanian gas. How can it be that gas is migrating from the Barnett to this much shallower aquifer and yet all of these samples are showing up Pennsylvanian gas?” (pg. 28-29)
“[T]hey … indicate that both gasses are thermogenic in origin. If you were to stop there it is absolutely true. But then whoever wrote it says, ‘and likely to be from the same source.’ They can’t know that from the data they have. They can’t know that because they do not know if these parameters that they measured here would distinguish Barnett gas from shallower reservoirs. Therefore they have no foundation to say that — there is no support for saying that they are likely to be from the same source.” (pg. 37)Q. “Based on your study, based on the study undertaken by you and Dr. Kornacki, based on your over 20 years of experience in geochemical gas fingerprinting, did the EPA use a scientifically correct method to attempt to fingerprint the Lipsky gas as being sourced from either the Barnett Shale or from Range’s wells?” A. “No.” (pg. 40)
John McBeath, P.E., expert petroleum engineer
“Basically from the information we have in these wellbores, there is no evidence of faulting that could be — that could join up with a potential hydraulic fracture even if you could get past the physics of not having enough volume or enough pressure to reach all the way from the Barnett through a mile of rock up to the surface.” (pg. 5)
Q. “Do you have an opinion whether there is any scenario in which hydraulic fracturing could be a source for contamination in the freshwater wells in this area?” A. “With the facts that I have looked at, I have been able to rule that out also.” (pg. 6)
“I don’t see how [EPA]s order] can be justified … based on the actions that have gone on through the fall of 2010, and the ongoing investigation. So I am somewhat confused by that finding. I certainly don’t agree with it.” (pg. 16)
“I have concluded that the presence of gas in the Lipsky well and the other wells in the area is due to a natural connection between the Cretaceous and the Strawn that is probably exacerbated with the water wells being drilled either too deep.” (pg. 18)
- Hearing Documents: Actual facts associated with Parker Co. wells
- Issue Alert: EPA MIA In Austin
- ICYMI: EPA Staff Acknowledge HF, Range Not to Blame for Parker Co. Wells
The positive and overwhelming economic and energy security benefits enabled by hydraulic fracturing – a tightly regulated 60-year old energy stimulation technology – continue to be realized across the nation. These benefits – affordable supplies of reliable homegrown energy and thousands of good-paying jobs – are a reality in major energy-producing states, particularly North Dakota and Texas.
And while New York was the birthplace of natural gas production, a de facto ban on Marcellus Shale production through the use of 21st century horizontal drilling technology continues to deny landowners their right to responsibly develop privately-owned, clean-burning, job-creating resources.
Facts are stubborn things, as they say. So for your edification, here are a few about fracturing.
In a Fort Worth Business Press column today, Bruce Vincent, chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of American (IPAA) and president of Swift Energy, underscores the critical role that fracture stimulation has played, and continues to play, in safely producing homegrown, job-creating energy oil and natural gas resources over the past 60 years. Here are key excerpts from Vincent’s column, which speaks directly to the devastating consequences that bills like the FRAC Act would introduce to American consumers:
This process is tightly regulated by energy-producing states, and is subject to a host of federal laws and regulations as well. In fact, federal law mandates that these fluids – which as stated, are made up of more than 99.5 percent water and sand – be disclosed at every single well-site. Many states even provide these lists online.
In commercial use since 1949, hydraulic fracturing has been – and continues to be – the linchpin to American oil and natural gas production. With surgical-like precision, using high-pressure fluids made up of more than 99.5 percent water and sand, with a small percentage of everyday additives used to kill bacteria and reduce wellbore friction, fracturing stimulates oil and gas production thousands of feet below ground, allowing increased amounts of energy to be produced.
But is it safe, and what steps do producers take to ensure groundwater protection? The short answer: yes, and many.
Unfortunately, some members of Congress believe that they know better than Texas, and that Washington bureaucrats ought to regulate fracturing, rather than individual energy-producing states who understand the geology best and have amassed an impressive track record of overseeing this critical technology. These advocates say their legislation is about disclosure of fracturing fluids. At its core, though, these efforts are aimed at stopping fracturing altogether, which would significantly blunt the positive economic growth and job creation in Texas, as well as in other energy-producing states, and ultimately, increase the cost of energy for America.
More than 1,500 miles away from Ft. Worth, in bucolic Syracuse, NY, folks are also talking about fracturing’s long and clear record of environmental safety and effectiveness. In yesterday’s Syracuse Post-Standard, Alfred Station, NY-native Chris Kulander – who holds a Ph.D. in geophysics with a focus on petroleum seismology – write this about fracture stimulation, and the benefits this proven technology stands to help generate through responsibly developing New York’s portion of the Marcellus Shale:
No evidence directly connects injection of fracking fluid into shale with aquifer contamination. In 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a study finding no confirmed instances of drinking water contamination by fracking fluids in the ground. This finding is not surprising, as fracking fluid is pumped through heavy steel pipe surrounded by a concrete liner to formations thousands of feet below aquifers.
Fracking has made production from the Marcellus Shale possible and created thousands of jobs.
An unfortunate push exists in New York to ban all fracking, purportedly until the technology can be “proven” safe, and to require federal oversight of fracking.
While a responsive state regulatory framework and vigorous, impartial enforcement of those regulations are necessary, draconian measures such as rolling moratoriums or federal oversight of fracking are not. New York is well able to regulate fracking while at the same time allowing development of natural gas and enjoying the jobs and revenue it brings.
Or why the foliation perpendicular to stress in the context of subsurface ductile deformation matters in the debate over shale and hydraulic fracturing
We’ve spent some time over the past couple months taking a critical look at some of the key assertions made in the HBO documentary GasLand, putting forth in that time two separate rebuttal documents that we believe address in a substantive way a number of the misconceptions upon which the film, and its broader political message, is based.
But one of the issues we haven’t tackled yet is the suggestion that fissures made in the process of fracturing a shale formation are so long, and so upwardly vertical, that they have the potential to create conduits (or cleavages) through which fracturing-related fluids can travel to water-bearing formations thousands of feet above – including the water table. In his brief explanation of what the fracturing process is all about, GasLand director Josh Fox includes the following image in his film:
According to Fox, the fracturing process “is like a mini-earthquake,” and “blasts a mix of water and chemicals 8,000 feet into the ground.” At least he gets the depth right. But according to New York Department of Environmental Conservation (page 127 of this document), “No blast or explosion is created by the hydraulic fracturing process. The proppant holds the fractures open, allowing hydrocarbons to flow into the wellbore after injected fluids are recovered.” Guess there’s no need to call in the bomb squad after all.
But basic mechanics aside, the message the director is attempting to advance through the image above is simple: Hydraulic fracturing completely decimates the shale formation, creates massive gaps in the underlying rock, and produces vertical chasms that travel all the way up to the surface. Within that context, it becomes a lot easier to understand how the technology could lead to the drinking water contamination – as long as pathways and pressure exist, who can say for sure what’s actually happening down there, or up here?
Serious geologists have known since time immemorial that such a phenomenon is a virtual impossibility – and so has the EPA, which wrote in 1995 that “given the horizontal and vertical distance between the drinking water well and the closest methane production wells, the possibility of contamination of endangerment of USDWs [underground sources of drinking water] in the area is extremely remote.” And that letter, keep in mind, was in reference to a coalbed methane well – which reside thousands of feet closer to the water table than shale wells.
But thanks to the good folks over at Pinnacle Technologies, we now have some solid data to express this separation in quantitative terms. As reported by Pinnacle general manager Kevin Fisher in July’s edition of the American Oil & Gas Reporter, the following graphs plots actual field data from tens of thousands of fracturing operations conducted over the past decade – this first one, in the Barnett Shale, which shows quite clearly that even the most shallow fissures created through the hydraulic fracturing process remain separated from the water table by more than 3,500 feet:
But that’s just the Barnett, right? Everyone knows there’s no problem out there. Isn’t the real area of concern the Mighty Marcellus – where activists continue to claim that gas, chemicals, salt, metals, and Lord knows what else regularly get dredged up from the depths and beamed into every well, sink and stream in sight? Well, Pinnacle ran the numbers on the Marcellus as well, and although the data set isn’t quite as robust as what you’d find in the Barnett (remember: we’ve been developing that one a bit longer), the story in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio is remarkably similar. To wit:
Here we see an even greater separation between fractures in the underlying rock and sources of potable water above – with the closest the two shall ever meet clocking in at roughly 4,300 feet.
In other words, the deepest formations holding drinking water and the most shallow depth in which you’ll find a fracture in the Marcellus Shale are still separated by the equivalent of three-and-a-half Empire State Buildings – or three Petronas Towers, for our Malaysian friends. And by the way: they’re not exactly separated by air either. Between the two, you’ll find millions of tons of solid, impermeable rock – rock that has for literally hundreds of millions of years acted as an immutable barrier preventing salty water below from communicating with fresh water above.
But just to be sure we got this right, we sent these graphs and data up to Williamsville, N.Y. so that Ph.D. geologist Michael P. Joy might give them a gander and share some technical insights into what makes this phenomenon possible. Below is a (small) excerpt from the email he sent us in reply:
The hydraulic fracturing process creates fractures that are very small, usually an 1/8th inch or less in width. There is not enough pressure that could be exerted on the column of water to create a fracture matrix long enough to reach anywhere close to near surface aquifers. … The gas and water in these deep shale formations exist in hydrostatic equilibrium; the pressure acting down on the formation fluid is equal to the pressure being exerted from the bottom upward and the formation fluids act under the immutable laws of physics and stay in place.
Right. Exactly what he said.
Texas Dept. of State Health Services: “The only residents who had higher levels of benzene in their blood were smokers. Because cigarette smoke contains benzene, finding it in smokers’ blood is not unusual.”
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