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Earthworks’ Balmorhea Springs Fracking Report Relies on Unfounded Claims and Scare Tactics

Yesterday, Washington, D.C.-based Earthworks released a report claiming that energy development near Balmorhea, Texas, could impact the region’s groundwater, including Balmorhea State Park, known for its springs and spring-fed pool. However, author Tom Myers fails to prove that any groundwater contamination would occur, instead claiming “potential” risks based on an all-too-familiar collection of unfounded claims, unreliable scientific literature and misrepresentations designed to scare the public about hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Earthworks, an activist group that supports banning fracking nationally, perfectly illustrates its penchant for ignoring science in favor of fear mongering in the opening summary of the report. Myers acknowledges the report’s failure to prove a link between development in the region and groundwater impacts, only to contradict himself with a warning that contamination is still a “significant” risk. According to the report:

These risks are not quantifiable but the probability that contamination will occur is significant.” (pg. 3; emphasis added)

This statement is not only puzzling, it is indicative of the other severe flaws found throughout the report.

Debunked Modelling

While fracking in West Texas occurs at depths of almost two miles or more, the crux of Myers’ argument rests on his assertion that formation water or fracking fluid could migrate upward from the well into shallower aquifers through fractures. As Myers’ writes:

“Fracking would occur in formations that are very deep, over 10,000 feet, below the springs. However, faults could provide a pathway that connect the target formations to shallow groundwater (the faults are generally described in the Geology of the Spring System section above). It therefore is possible that upward gradients enhanced by fracking pressures could cause fluids to reach shallow groundwater as studied in other formations.” (pg. 22)

While the argument that fluid migration could lead to contamination of shallow groundwater sources is not new and has been debunked before (even the EPA has found no evidence of it occurring) Myers attempts to support this claim by referencing a flawed paper that he wrote in 2012.  In this previous study, Myers used modeling to argue that fissures created by fracking could move formation water or fluid up one to two miles into shallow aquifers — similar to his argument in the current report.  But Myers’ modeling and assertions were so flawed in 2012 that experts were prompted to refute them.

As Don Siegel, Professor of Hydrogeology at Syracuse University wrote:

As it relates to this particular paper, Myers has developed an implausible model that predictably leads to implausible, and in my judgment, completely wrong results — from simple first principles of geologic and hydrologic understanding, let alone acceptable model development.” (emphasis added)

But it wasn’t just academics who felt the need to rebut Myers’ conclusions four years ago. Scientific professionals and environmental agencies debunked the conclusions as well. As Kristen Carter, Chief of the Mineral Resources Division of the Pennsylvania Geological Survey, along with others on the Pennsylvania Council of Professional Geologists (PCPG) noted in their response:

“The lack of objectivity in Myers’ work, along with an insufficient conceptual site model and inappropriately parameterized and calibrated numerical model, result in the polarizing conclusion that fracing-induced aquifer contamination in the Appalachian basin is imminent and unavoidable.” (emphasis added)

Equally troubling is that in this latest report, Myers is applying his flawed modeling from the Appalachian Basin in Pennsylvania to the Permian Basin in West Texas. These two regions are very different geologically and to equate the two in order to justify claims of possible contamination– even if the modelling was accurate – would be, at the very least, misrepresentative.

Myers’ acknowledges this fact, but as before, he nonetheless asserts that migration could still occur. According to the report:

“Although none of these studies focused on the Permian Basin, the pathways described would be similar and if there is a force to drive fluids to the surface, these model studies are relevant to the hydrogeology near the Balmorhea Springs.” (pg. 22-23)

He continues to elaborate on how, according to his model, fluid and gas migration could occur, stating that because the springs are fault controlled, there is a potential for contamination. However, for a third time, Myers admits that there is no evidence of such a pathway existing, only to confusingly again claim that it could still be a possibility. According to the report:

There is no way to quantify this risk because of the lack of knowledge of the properties and the fact that this type of pathway has never been verified to transport fracking fluid; however, transport of formation water from similar depths to the surface has been documented in other areas, such as the Marcellus (Llewellyn 2014).” (pg. 23; emphasis added)

No Evidence of Methane Migration

In addition to fluid migration, the report argues that shallow aquifers could be negatively impacted by fugitive natural gas from the fracking process. Myers cites well-known and thoroughly debunked studies from Duke University to support this claim, stating:

“Many studies have highlighted the increase in CH4 concentration in water wells within one kilometer of fracked wells, with the CH4 being identified as thermogenic — meaning it was sourced from deep formations (Darrah et al. 2014; Jackson et al. 2013; Osborn et al. 2011).”

While an entire blog post could be written (one has) about the problems with these studies, it should be noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not find substantial evidence of thermogenic methane in water supplies in the same region focused on in the Duke studies.

As the EPA stated in the draft assessment of its own five-year study:

“Multiple researchers (e.g., Jackson et al., 2013b; Molofsky et al., 2013; Révész et al., 2012; Osborn et al., 2011) have described biogenic and/or thermogenic methane in ground water supplies in Marcellus gas production areas, although the pathways of migration are generally not apparent.” (pg. 6-17; emphasis added)

It’s important to note that he EPA found no instances of water contamination from fugitive gas from the fracking process, and it clarified that thermogenic methane in a water well does not indict development as the cause because the source the methane could be naturally occurring.

More Unfounded Assertions

In addition to misleading readers about the threat of contamination through fluid or natural gas migration, the report also suggests that fracking in the region would result in significant groundwater use, thus negatively affecting the springs. As the report lists as one of the risks to the springs:

“5) The effect of pumping groundwater for fracking to reduce spring flow.” (pg. 5)

EID has previously reported that water use for fracking is fairly minimal – less than one percent of total U.S. water consumption. And discussing issues of water use linked to development around Balmorhea Springs is especially absurd, as Apache Corporation, the company planning to develop the area, has invested heavily in water-related technology for years. For example, the company has been praised for using “100 percent” of the produced water from wells in the South Permian, or brackish water from the Santa Rosa aquifer, as opposed to potable freshwater in fracking operations.

Finally, Myers cites induced earthquakes stemming from hydraulic fracturing as potentially impacting the flow of the springs. However, as Myers must know, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) states:

“Fracking is NOT causing most of the induced earthquakes. Wastewater disposal is the primary cause of the recent increase in earthquakes in the central United States.”

Nevertheless, Myers attempts to compare potential seismicity associated with fracking – which he knows is not a significant concern – to the 6.0 earthquake that affected flow in San Solomon Springs for three days in 1932. That Earthworks would make such a comparison indicates that it is not engaged in any serious science-based enterprise to better understand energy development in West Texas.

Conclusion

Myers notes multiple times in the report that there is a dearth of scientific facts – and certainly not concrete examples – to support his assertions of tangible potential harm. This is in keeping with Earthworks’ history of alarmism over substance. This, coupled with reliance on previously debunked studies that intentionally perpetuate fear over facts does a disservice to all of those – from the industry to policymakers to honest environmentalists — working to ensure that oil and gas development is safe and protective of the environment.

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