Environment America’s Five Fracking Fictions
The fundamental safety of hydraulic fracturing continues to get confirmed by new studies and by federal and state regulators, and legislators continue to follow science rather than the anti-fracking ideology. Activist groups seeking to ban domestic energy development, therefore, are going to increasingly absurd lengths to motivate their most loyal supporters into taking action.
A recent case in point is an effort by anti-fracking activist group Environment America (EA), which, like so many environmental groups that operate outside the environmental mainstream, doesn’t have science on its side. Instead, it resorts to gimmicks.
This week, EA treated its social media followers to “5 of the most common myths spread by the oil and gas industry and their [sic] allies.” Each day of the week EA presented a “Frack Fiction,” supposedly answered with a “Fact.” The social media push was followed by a Halloween article in the Huffington Post by EA executive director Margie Alt, which simply repeated the same fictions of the week’s campaign.
Let’s look at the actual facts – not from the industry’s perspective, but from the perspective of the scientists and regulators that study hydraulic fracturing every day.
How can industry allies like Senator Inhofe claim that fracking has never contaminated water? They do it by narrowly defining “fracking” as just the moment where shale rock is cracked open with fracking fluid.
To indict fracking as harmful, EA and its allies have tried to redefine the word to mean “anything that ever happens in the life of a well” to suit its ideological agenda. However, fracking has been clearly defined since Harry Truman was in the White House. Has the definition changed? Is “the industry” the only place hydraulic fracturing refers to actual hydraulic fracturing? Of course not.
Click here to see confirmation that regulators from the Obama Administration and from the states where oil and gas development takes place all consider fracking fundamentally safe, with manageable risks, and that it has never been directly linked to groundwater contamination.
In fact, just this week in an interview with the Huffington Post, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said “it [fracking] is being done safely and responsibly…”
Is the Obama Administration an “industry ally”? Hardly. The fact is that the scientific consensus around the safety of fracking is so overwhelming as to make the Administration’s support for it unremarkable.
Somebody should ask, for example, California Governor Jerry Brown – one of the most prominent environmentalists of the last 40 years — if his Administration is an “industry ally” or simply following the best science in an effort to protect California’s environment and economy.
Scientists in the academy and the public health community agree, as evidenced by this infographic which features such institutions as Stanford University, the University of Michigan, University of California, Berkeley, the Breakthrough Institute and many others.
EA was off to a bad start, but it unfortunately got worse as the week went on.
Methane emissions from natural gas production are not only low, but they are falling dramatically, even as natural gas production has increased just as dramatically. Anti-fracking activists routinely trot out the debunked claim that the clear climate benefits of natural gas are cancelled out by methane emissions, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The graph in this article tells the story.
The graph reflects that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory found that methane emissions have fallen 16.9 percent since 1990, with field production emissions falling more than 40 percent since 2006.
Further, EPA states that this decrease is “due to increased voluntary reductions” by oil and gas producers, including the increased use of “green completions” that capture fugitive methane.
Last year, the University of Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund found a methane leakage rate of only 1.5 percent, using direct measurements from 190 natural gas well pads. These data – which are consistent with the EPA’s findings – show methane leakage rates well below what’s needed for natural gas to maintain its climate benefits.
Of course, the significant environmental benefits of natural gas are well documented. In a recent assessment, no less a body than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – which anti-fracking activists like Bill McKibben and Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune have called the “gold standard” in climate science – credits natural gas and fracking with greenhouse gas emission reductions:
“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply… this is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.” (Ch. 7, p. 18)
It is in the United States where the climate benefits of natural gas production – and the hydraulic fracturing that it requires – have been the most significant, as the following graph shows.
In fact, the U.S. leads the world in greenhouse gas emissions reductions and, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. carbon emissions are at their lowest level since 1994 – thanks primarily to the shale revolution. It is no wonder that EPA administrator Gina McCarthy recently said “Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change.”
This is something that any environmentalist genuinely concerned about global carbon emissions should celebrate.
For more on methane, see the following video from EID: “Methane Emissions Decline as Shale Gas Production Skyrockets”
As hump day rolled around, EA continued misleading the public about basic and scientifically accepted facts, curiously making a charge that even dedicated environmentalists consider ludicrous. Not much science is required for this one, only common sense. It’s also a bit odd because EA’s Wednesday “Frack Fiction” doesn’t have anything to do with fracking at all.
Before getting into more detail, it is worth noting that this entry betrays EA’s complete ignorance of the oil and gas development process. The photograph above shows a well pad, which appears to have been recently abandoned. This photograph was taken prior to reclaiming, which is a process to return the area of the pad to the approximate state and appearance it had before drilling. Note the apparently pristine surrounding countryside (hardly the “industrial zone” that EA claims); in fact there are no visible permanent impacts in the photo and there is absolutely no way of knowing if the well that once produced here was ever hydraulically fractured. It would make no difference.
This is because hydraulic fracturing is only a temporary – albeit important – process in the course of developing and completing a well. It is a routine technique carried out after drilling is completed. Fracking, if it is employed, takes from a few hours (in California) to a few days (elsewhere), and then a well can produce energy for many decades.
To the extent that hydraulic fracturing has any impact on the environment while it is being deployed, it is an entirely positive impact for the reason expressed by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell at a recent National Press Club luncheon:
“By using directional drilling and fracking, we have an opportunity to have a softer footprint on the land.”
This is common sense. When a single wellhead can turn and drill horizontally for up to several miles, this produces significantly more hydrocarbons from a single wellhead than had previously been possible. One wellhead has a lot less impact on land – in terms of physical incursion, wildlife impacts, and even an aesthetic footprint – and thus much less impact on the surrounding environment.
The following infographic below shows how a single wellhead might replace as many as nine wellheads. It also includes additional confirmation of fracking’s environmental benefits from the National Park Service, the Energy Information Administration and even extreme anti-fracking group Earthworks (which two months ago scrubbed any mention of directional drilling from its website, seemingly for ideological reasons).
Coming into the backend of the week, EA seems to have lost the plot entirely.
Kathryn Klaber, Former President of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, says that: “I know of no [wastewater] tank trucks being dumped onto roads.”
…and then adds…
According to a Connecticut Office of Legislative Research report some states use treated wastewater as a de-icer for roads.
A vague photograph of a truck accident that could have occurred for any number of reasons.
And there you have it: the overwrought story of an industry representative supposedly saying something, “evidence” of flowback water being disposed of in a particular way, and a terrifying tangentially related picture to tie the whole thing together. There’s nothing really connecting them, except for EA’s cherry-picking narrative.
Here’s the real story. Susan McGinnis of Clean Skies conducted an interview with Ms. Klaber in the Winter of 2010. McGinnis asks:
“We’re hearing concerns about chemicals like Benzene, Arsenic and low-level radioactive matter, some residents are even complaining of tank trucks just dumping wastewater right on to the roads.”
“Well first of all we have no tank trucks dumping wastewater on to roads and if [that’s the case] they’re certainly not a member of the Marcellus Shale Coalition. The issue of groundwater contamination from fracking fluid has been the single most misinterpreted issue that’s out there right now. When you are drilling a well 8,000 feet deep and you’re casing it with three levels of steel and cement—the EPA, agencies including the DEP, have documented that there is no connection between groundwater contamination and the natural gas and frack fluid coming from the subsurface.”
That’s the segment. No mention of de-icing, water treatment options or truck accidents. In fact, if you listen to the entire clip that EA provides, none of the above topics are covered at all. This is yet another example of an activist group piecing together a scene that attempts to advance its ideological agenda.
EA also sources a state report from Connecticut — where shale development does not occur — that some states use treated flowback water to de-ice roads. The caption EA uses provides little context regarding the treatment and reuse of water. Like any process in oil and gas development, water treatment and recycling are very tightly regulated at both the state and federal levels.
Environment America’s caption reads: “New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania all currently use of [sic] fracking production brine as a de-icing agent on public roads…” This unsubstantiated claim, like others that EA makes, lacks a source.
In Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale Coalition is based, the legal avenues exist to permit the use of treated wastewater on state roads; however, no action has ever come of it. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spokesman Kevin Sunday said that the DEP has never allowed brine from hydraulically fractured wells to be used on state roads.
The industry has to rely on facts and the best science to be able to develop an important resource that our economy depends on to function. If oil and gas operators were to take a page out EA’s playbook, the U.S. energy revolution would be not what it is today. Luckily for all of us, that’s not case.
By Friday, EA wasn’t even trying anymore. Halloween brought a very lazy “fiction” that, once again, had nothing to do with fracking.
While the ideal rate of well leakage is zero, it can happen; studies show that its occurrence impacts a fraction of a percent of all wells. Like any process, oil and gas development carries a degree of risk and takes place subject to a panoply of federal and state regulations to protect public health.
When activists like those at EA talk about “fracking wells” they are trying to perpetuate the falsehood that there is something permanent about the fracking process when in fact, as noted earlier, fracturing takes between a few hours and a few days and happens once in the life of a well. The well is thereafter like any other.
With its final “fiction,” EA is again attempting to create disconnect between industry statements and what actually occurs during shale development. The leading statement, “Proper well cementing ensures groundwater protection” is clearly intended to imply that the industry believes that accidents do not happen. This is obviously absurd; developing energy resources is a process that carries a degree of risk, but these risks are manageable as a host of regulators and scientists have confirmed.
EA then refers to a published scientific study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stating that, in fact, wells can leak and sometimes they do. No question.
EA then goes off the rails. To make misleading claims about leakage rates, EA leaned on perhaps the most thoroughly discredited academic writing about fracking: Cornell Professor Anthony Ingraffea, a well-known anti-fracking activist whose work on methane has been savaged by environmentalists and even his own colleagues at Cornell. A sampling of this criticism can be found here.
Ingraffea, then, is not a disinterested observer. He has close ties to activist/celebrities Yoko Ono and Mark Ruffalo, in addition to playing a starring role in Josh Fox’s thoroughly debunked “documentary” Gasland. He also heads up a group called Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, an organization funded (and essentially created) by the anti-fracking Park Foundation, whose primary mission is to attack shale development.
An exhaustive list of the serious flaws in Ingraffea’s study can be found here.
The most damning flaw for Ingraffea, and for EA’s reliance on him, is that his basis for claiming such a high leakage rate is founded on data concerning sustained casing pressure (SCP). SCP often pertains to pressure buildup within a well that is still sealed off from groundwater, due to the outer layers of the well remaining intact. In no way is SCP analogous to a well leak.
So Ingraffea’s claims about well leaks are not about well leaks, and thus neither are EA’s. Because even one leak is too many, however, it is fair to ask what actual leakage rates are.
As EID has reported elsewhere:
The Associated Press recently completed an investigation of water contamination and well integrity in four of the most prolific oil and gas states. It found no confirmed cases of water contamination in Texas; in Ohio there were only six cases; in West Virginia there were four. Finally, based on Pa. DEP data, the AP found a well failure rate of only about one-third of one percent (0.33 percent) of all the oil and natural gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 2005.
That research follows a 2011 study by the Ground Water Protection Council which looked at more than 34,000 wells in Ohio from 1983 to 2007 and more than 187,000 wells in Texas between 1993 and 2008. The GWPC found a well failure rate of 0.03 percent in Ohio and only about 0.01 percent in Texas. That was well before many of the new casing regulations across the U.S. and Canada were implemented – Texas, for example, adopted tough new standards last year.
Most recently, researchers at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia recently released two reports finding that the risk for water contamination and well integrity failure from hydraulic fracturing is quite low. As one study puts it, “[t]here is a low likelihood of casing integrity loss.”
It is always important for the industry to get the well leakage rate as close to zero as possible, so it is good to examine ways to reduce risk even further. What is not acceptable is to simply manufacture high well leakage rates using flawed science in order to call the fundamental safety of oil and gas development into question, which is what EA and Ingraffea do.
Of course leakage – whether it happens 0.03 percent or 0.33 percent of the time – needs to be mitigated, which is why the oil and gas industry not only has robust environmental safety and health protocols in place but is heavily regulated by the government.
In its Monday entry, EA wrote of pro-fracking information:
“Those public relations campaigns have included distortions of the truth or outright falsehoods.”
One would be hard-pressed to examine the scientific credibility of the distinguished individuals and institutions cited in this article and to call their assertions “falsehoods” or “distortions.” The industry, after all, couldn’t operate if it followed unsound science.
The same is not true for ideologically motivated activist groups like EA. They are not held to the same standards of accuracy and rigor as the industry, which is under a very public microscope, and “distortions of the truth and outright falsehoods” are the stuff of which gimmicky Facebook and Twitter campaigns, and “scary” Halloween articles, are made.