California Lawsuit Filled With False Fracturing Claims

Earthjustice and other activist groups – including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club – filed a lawsuit this week against the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).DOGGR has only recently concluded a series of public hearings seeking to gather information from the public for the express purpose of updating how the State of California regulates hydraulic fracturing, and its proposals are expected soon.It is shameful that Earthjustice’s filing once again seeks to inject fear-mongering and misstatements of fact into what should be a scientific discussion about the safety of hydraulic fracturing at the very time regulators are seeking the most credible information.

It is inconvenient for the professional activist groups that this lawsuit comes only a few days removed from the release of a comprehensive study on the Inglewood Oil Field near Los Angeles, which identified no significant environmental harm from hydraulic fracturing.

This is a story we’re all too familiar with: scientists and experts conclude (yet again) that hydraulic fracturing is safe, but opponents don’t want to hear it, so, to distract the public, they scream even louder that it is not safe.

To be sure, this strategy does wonders for those groups’ fundraising efforts, as they can quickly gain a forum in the media by making headline-grabbing, but unfounded, assertions. But as we also know, the ability to raise money does not necessarily establish credibility, especially when the core message is a flat-out rejection of independent, peer-reviewed scientific evidence.

Right out of the gate, Earthjustice tries to ascribe legitimacy to its own filing by declaring there to be “several significant environmental and public health impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing,” a claim that one would expect to be followed with hard evidence and meticulously researched data to support it. But no such evidence or data are presented. Instead, Earthjustice simply parrots activist talking points that have been debunked countless times in the past.

Below is a list of some of the “impacts” that Earthjustice identified, followed by what the facts actually tell us.

CLAIM: “…the contamination of domestic and agricultural water supplies…” (p. 2)

FACT: Hydraulic fracturing has been used more than 1.2 million times and there are zero confirmed cases of water contamination resulting from the process. Evidence? Here’s what the experts say:

  • Lisa Jackson, current EPA Administrator: “In no case have we made a definitive determination that [hydraulic fracturing] has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” (April 2012)
  • Jackson: “I’m not aware of any proven case where [hydraulic fracturing] itself has affected water.” (May 2011)
  • U.S. Dept. of Energy and Ground Water Protection Council: “[B]ased on over sixty years of practical application and a lack of evidence to the contrary, there is nothing to indicate that when coupled with appropriate well construction; the practice of hydraulic fracturing in deep formations endangers ground water. There is also a lack of demonstrated evidence that hydraulic fracturing conducted in many shallower formations presents a substantial risk of endangerment to ground water.” (May 2009)
  • U.S. EPA: “EPA did not find confirmed evidence that drinking water wells have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing fluid injection…” (2004)
  • Carol Browner, former EPA Administrator: “There is no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing at issue has resulted in any contamination or endangerment of underground sources of drinking water.” (May 1995)
  • CardnoEntrix (Inglewood Oil Field Study): “Before-and-after monitoring of groundwater quality in monitor wells did not show impacts from high-volume hydraulic fracturing and high-rate gravel packing.” (October 2012)
  • John Hanger, Former Pa. DEP Secretary: “We’ve never had one case of fracking fluid going down the gas well and coming back up and contaminating someone’s water well.” (2012)
  • Dr. Stephen Holditch, Department of Petroleum Engineering, Texas A&M University: “I have been working in hydraulic fracturing for 40+ years and there is absolutely no evidence hydraulic fractures can grow from miles below the surface to the fresh water aquifers.” (October 2011)
  • Dr. Mark Zoback, Professor of Geophysics, Stanford University: “Fracturing fluids have not contaminated any water supply and with that much distance to an aquifer, it is very unlikely they could.” (August 2011)

Also, state regulators from nearly a dozen states have repeatedly affirmed that hydraulic fracturing does not contaminate water supplies.

CLAIM: “…the use of massive amounts of water…” (p. 2)

FACT: Earthjustice chose only to mention the number gallons used without putting the numbers in any relevant context. The reason is simple: the context completely undermines the group’s alarmist claims about water consumption.

For example, as the New York Times reported earlier this year, the amount of water that oil and natural gas companies in Colorado will use constitutes only 0.1 percent of the state’s overall water use. The Times added that water used for oil and gas – including hydraulic fracturing – was “paltry” compared to other major sources, such as irrigation and agriculture, which also happen to be major industries in California as well. This observation is completely consistent with the findings of the U.S. Department of Energy and Groundwater Protection Council – hydraulic fracturing water use ranges “from less than 0.1% to 0.8% of total water use by basin.”

While in some parts of the country hydraulic fracturing requires two to four million gallons of water, spread out over several days, in California the fracturing process takes a day or two and generally uses a small fraction of this amount of water — a couple hundred thousand gallons.

A little perspective: the average California golf course uses 312,000 gallons of water per day. If we assume 200,000 gallons per fracturing job, and 628 fracturing operations (out of more than 2,000 new wells drilled), the total water use of all the hydraulic fracturing in California last year equals the amount of water used by California’s 1,140 golf courses in half of one day.

You can get more facts – with context! – about hydraulic fracturing and relative water demand by clicking here.

CLAIM: “…the emission of hazardous air pollutants…” (p. 2)

FACT: As with the water claim, Earthjustice goes on to list certain emissions (i.e. VOCs, benzene, etc.) in a rhetorical vacuum, providing no information about health thresholds or even how those emissions compare to other sources. And once again, had it done that, the claim would have been completely undermined.

Here is a list of conclusions from regulators and other scientists regarding air emissions and hydraulic fracturing (or shale development as a whole):

  • CardnoEntrix (Inglewood Oil Field Study): “Emissions associated with high-volume hydraulic fracturing were within standards set by the regional air quality regulations of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.” (October 2012)
  • Texas Department of State Health Services: “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.” (May 2010)
  • Texas Commission on Environmental Quality: “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.” (2010)
  • Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection: Tests conducted in the southwestern portion of the state “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” (November 2010)
  • NOTE: A similar assessment from DEP in the northeastern portion of the state came to the same conclusion. (January 2011)
  • Mickley & Blake report: “[W]e studied the health trends and trajectory of the North Texas county of Denton – epicenter of Barnett shale development in the state. What did we find? Well, for starters, even 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.” (October 2011)

As with any chemical, it’s not the presence that signifies harm, but rather the level and type of exposure. The facts show that emissions related to oil and natural gas development are below public health thresholds established by regulatory agencies at the state and federal level. That’s not to say that operations cannot improve, or even that they aren’t constantly evolving to reduce impacts. But it’s important that a legitimate conversation about potential air impacts is grounded not only in science, but also in an understanding of thresholds and other contextual information. Simply stating the presence of something in isolation, without the proper context and supporting data, is highly misleading.

CLAIM: “…and the potential for induced seismic activity.” (p. 2) Earthjustice later writes: “In June 2012, the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science released a report finding that the injection of wastewater for disposal poses a risk of causing seismic events.” (p. 9)

FACT: California is no stranger to seismic activity, but contrary to what groups like Earthjustice would have us believe, hydraulic fracturing poses no serious risk for major earthquakes. As U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Bill Ellsworth said earlier this year: “We don’t see any connection between [hydraulic fracturing] and earthquakes of any concern to society.”

The most recent assessment of hydraulic fracturing in the Inglewood oil field also concluded that “high-volume hydraulic fracturing and high-rate gravel packs had no detectable effects on vibration, and did not induce seismicity (earthquakes).”

And that same NRC report that Earthjustice cites? The researchers concluded that “hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events.” It’s right there in the report’s key findings.

Earthjustice is doing what opponents of hydraulic fracturing (and, unfortunately, many media outlets) have commonly done: conflating “hydraulic fracturing” with “wastewater disposal.” Injection wells that receive wastewater are used by a variety of industries, including oil and gas but also chemical manufacturers, among others. The risk of seismicity from injection wells – regardless of the source of the wastewater – has long been recognized and understood.  Geothermal operations in fact often record some of the highest level of induced seismicity of any injection operation.

As Deputy U.S. Interior Secretary David Hayes has explained:

The fact that the disposal (injection) of wastewater produced while extracting resources has the potential to cause earthquakes has long been known. One of the earliest documented case histories with a scientific consensus of wastewater inducing earthquakes, is at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal well, near Denver. There, a large volume of wastewater was injected from 1962-1966, inducing a series of earthquakes (below magnitude 5).

And Stanford University’s Mark Zoback, who is also an adviser to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, recently assured Congress that wastewater injection is safe:

No earthquake triggered by fluid injection has ever caused serious injury or significant damage. Moreover, approximately 140,000 Class II wastewater disposal wells have been operating safely and without incident in the U.S. for many decades.

What experts at the Department of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, the National Academies of Science and Stanford University understand – and that Earthjustice clearly does not – is that hydraulic fracturing and wastewater disposal are two completely separate processes.

CLAIM: “However, the precise chemical makeup of most fracking fluids has not been disclosed because the oil and gas industry has argued that it is proprietary information and/or a trade secret.” (p. 8)

FACT: This is quite an interesting claim, because one page earlier in the filing Earthjustice says this: “The fracking fluid typically consists of 95% water, 4.5% proppant (such as sand, ceramic pellets, or other particles), and 0.5% chemicals that serve various purposes, including biocides, oxygen scavengers, enzyme breakers, acids, stabilizers, gels, and rust inhibitors.” (p. 7)

In other words, Earthjustice itself described the composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids – then claimed that the composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids “has not been disclosed.”

Obvious carelessness aside, anyone with access to the Internet can look find what additives are used during hydraulic fracturing – including on a well-by-well basis – by visiting

In summary, Earthjustice is suing DOGGR based upon alleged environmental impacts from hydraulic fracturing, but those impacts are either non-existent or unrelated to hydraulic fracturing. Plus, the lawsuit was filed despite the fact that DOGGR is already updating California’s strict regulations for oil and gas well construction to increase the state’s oversight of hydraulic fracturing and provide more information to the public about where and how this technology is used.

When you consider the context, it’s seems pretty clear that the nature and the timing of these allegations against hydraulic fracturing are simply meant to distract regulators, elected officials and citizens, and prevent them from engaging in a sensible and scientifically based discussion about hydraulic fracturing and domestic oil and natural gas development. That’s probably because a rational discussion about hydraulic fracturing will show that California can responsibly develop its resources, create jobs, grow the economy, reduce oil imports, and protect the environment.

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