Appalachian Basin

Digging Into the Real Facts Behind Hydraulic Fracturing

CBS Sunday Morning recently had a segment on hydraulic fracturing that offered a pretty good perspective on the process. The segment missed the mark on a few key points, though, and so we’ve taken a moment to set the record straight.

A few weeks ago CBS Sunday Morning produced a segment on hydraulic fracturing entitled “digging into the practice of fracking.”  The feature offered a refreshing look at natural gas development and a lot of good information on its development and production.  However, in spite of its overall success, the segment made a few errors and featured remarks from some very controversial figures who have made claims that run counter to what established science has to say about the process of hydraulic fracturing.

Equipment on a hydraulic fracturing site in the Marcellus, November 2011

The segment’s mistakes begin when Ramsey Adams, Executive Director of Catskill Mountainkeer, is interviewed to discuss his opinions on the negative externalities associated with hydraulic fracturing. Ramsey, predictably says that HF contaminates water aquifers.  Of course, we won’t bother telling Ramsey that accusation is refuted by regulators in over 20 U.S. states and three presidential administrations.  Most recently by former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson who noted to Congress last year that there “I am not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself affected water” and also indicated that “states are stepping up and doing a good job [in regulating HF].”

Facts, of coures, don’t matter all that much to folks like Ramsey, who spend significant time and energy fighting HF’s advance in New York, it appears.  One example, take a look at Mountainkeeper’s website where they declare New York has “no plan” for disposing of wastes from the fracturing process.  This would be news to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation who outlined a clear plan in the dSGEIS which will subject HF wastewater to specific treatment options and will require record keeping tracking the waste from hauling to final disposition.  The plan outlined, in fact, puts in place a similar program used for treating medical waste, which requires more stringent controls than handling conventional wastewater.

The reporter then interviews Robert Jackson, a professor at Duke University who is well-known for overseeing controversial and disputed studies on impacts from natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale. In discussing additives used in HF and the process impacts on water Jackson notes:

“These are chemicals you don’t want in someone’s drinking water and you don’t want sloshing around in the environment.”

Well, it’s worth noting that in over 1.2 million applications hydraulic fracturing has never caused chemicals to enter a source of groundwater and there is certainly no “sloshing around” as in many states HF solutions used are tracked from cradle to grave.  In the event there is a spill or other unforeseen accident, there are multiple layers of protection in place that limit the impact and allow for quick remediation.  In fact, well pads in Pennsylvania are required to have state approved liners in place so that if, a spill does occur none of the drill cuttings, water, sand or HF solution comes into contact with the environment.  No kidding, in fact, entire businesses have sprouted servicing just this one aspect associated with shale development.

Robert Jackson is fairly well known for making statements and observations not necessarily supported by scientific inquiry. For example, he touted his study’s findings that Marcellus Shale operations caused methane to migrate into water supplies in the Marcellus Shale fairly aggressively to the press, even authoring a piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

It’s worth noting these findings were reached only after Jackson’s researchers conducted a study that included no baseline information, making it impossible to determine pre-existing methane in the wells being reviewed, and using a sample size so small (nowhere near hundreds of homes) that drawing any reliable conclusions from it is difficult.

None of that mattered to Jackson, because as he noted in his statements to the press, “The simplest explanation for what we observed is probably leaky well casings.”  This is just the beginning, to learn more about the significant oversight in Jackson’s research as well as the criticism it invoked from his peers read these previous reports we filed on the study.

Jackson also, in the CBS segment, declares; “depending on where you are 5, 10, to 20 percent of oil wells have problems with their integrity through time.” This, of course, is one of the main talking points of anti-natural gas activists originally levied by Josh Fox last year in his short film “the Sky is Pink” which we already showed is not supported by historical data from the nation’s experience in developing onshore oil and natural gas wells.

The segment also featured Cornell veterinarian Michelle Bamberger and her husband Robert Oswald who provided a synopsis of their study which noted a supposed link to animal health impacts from natural gas development.  We’ve covered that one before too and you can read our previous critique here, but for this piece will let others, including the authors themselves, note why this study is faulty and far from a reliable scientific exercise.

  • 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.
  • This might be why 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.

Finally, at the end of the segment the reporter notes, “I was really hoping I’d be able to tell you once and for all whose right, the gas companies or the worried environmentalists.  But, I’m sorry I can’t there’s so much we don’t know.  We don’t know exactly what chemicals they are using.”

Well, that’s not true.  FracFocus hosts information on solutions used in over 34,000 wells that underwent hydraulic fracturing last year.  That’s pretty impressive considering reports show approximately 35,000 natural gas wells were developed in shale basins last year. Even in cases where exemptions are requested, in most cases the type of additive, and its uses, are still listed and often the chemical abstract numbers is the only item withheld.

In the end, this feature was fairly benign and likely won’t change many hearts and minds either for or against the hydraulic fracturing but it’s important that folks understand the full range of what is, and what is not, being discussed.


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