Evidence is Not the Plural of Anecdote

EID responds to NRDC’s running list of conjectures, distortions targeting safety, performance of hydraulic fracturing

Last month, our friends over at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) started up a running tallyon their blog identifying “incidents where drinking water has been contaminated and hydraulic fracturing is a suspected cause.”

Of course, in a country with more than 470,000 active natural gas wells in operation, providing American consumers with more than 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas each year, the unfortunate (and inevitable) reality of the situation is that the occasional incident will occur. And since a good number of these wells depend on fracturing to be viable, it’s also inevitable that those who oppose the use of hydraulic fracturing on ideological grounds (as opposed to scientific ones) will continue to blame the heavily regulated, 60-year-old technology for just about everything that may go wrong under the sun.

In a lot of ways, hydraulic fracturing has become the victim of its own success. Almost universally regarded as the sine-qua-non of energy production in America today, hydraulic fracturing – coupled with horizontal drilling technology — allows operators today to produce more than 10 times the amount of energy by drilling fewer than 1/10th the number of wells.

That this is great news for the environment is so self-evident as to require no further explanation. But reduction of footprint aside, it also allows us to tap an abundance of resources that simply could not be accessed without it. And that’s the thing: NRDC would prefer these resources be kept in the ground – and at least has the courage to say so. But it knows the way to do that isn’t to attack the jobs, revenue or people associated with bringing this extraordinary resource to the surface. It knows it can’t attack the carpenter. So it’s decided to attack his tools instead.

Observe that NRDC doesn’t issue press releases on well construction or cementing standards – two things considered orders of magnitude more relevant and important to the protection of drinking water than the execution of (or the solutions used in) the post-drilling process of fracture stimulation. But it’s not as easy to demagogue those things, they’ve found. “Hydraulic fracturing” is the thing with the scary-sounding name. And what’s this about it being invented by Halliburton?

In reality, the current campaign against hydraulic fracturing is tailor-made for the media and online environment in which we find ourselves today: heavy on hyperbole, light on facts, no time for explanation, no interest in the prosaic, no capacity for the technical. But here’s the good news: We’ve got the Internet too. And here below, we’ve decided to start our own running blog just like NRDC. The only difference? On theirs you’ll find rumor on top of speculation on top of conjecture on top of supposition on top of outright fantasy. On ours you’ll find facts. Updated regularly.

The NRDC blog currently lists 18 incidents that it believes are associated with hydraulic fracturing. We don’t address all 18 below in this particular issue alert – but don’t worry, we’ll get to them all eventually. You can bookmark this page to keep up with our progress.

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Pennsylvania: “In 2009, the Smitsky family in Hickory reported contamination of their drinking water after hydraulic fracturing of nearby natural gas wells owned by Range Resources. Their water became cloudy and foul-smelling. Testing found acrylonitrile, a chemical that may be used in hydraulic fracturing. The EPA is now investigating this incident.”

Reality: A review of the MSDS information on-file with the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reveals that no acrylonitrile was used in the process of fracturing this well. According to reports, Ms. Smitsky expressed her concerns with the well a full five years after the drilling procedure had been completed.

Questions also remain about the quality of the well’s water prior to the operations taking place. According to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, an agency of the PA General Assembly, “approximately 41 percent of the [private water] wells tested [in PA] failed to meet at least one of the health-based drinking water standards.” Although a final report from DEP has yet to be released, initial drafts from the agency suggest that the company’s activities were performed safely with no impacts to groundwater.

Arkansas: “In 2008, Ms. Parish of Bee Branch reported contamination of drinking water during hydraulic fracturing of a nearby natural gas well owned by Southwestern. Her water smelled bad, turned yellow, and filled with silt.”

Reality: “Tests on complainants’ water found no traces of the chemicals used in the drilling fluids, officials said. Dick Cassat, chief lab supervisor at the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, said that water he’s tested after residents complained about nearby gas drilling was simply higher in iron and manganese, two naturally occurring substances in Arkansas groundwater sources.” (7/09)

Colorado: “In 2001, two families in Silt reported a water well blow-out and contamination of their drinking water during hydraulic fracturing of four nearby natural gas wells owned by Ballard Petroleum, now Encana Corporation. Their drinking water turned gray, had strong smells, bubbled, and lost pressure. One family reported health symptoms they believe are linked to the groundwater contamination.”

Reality: “The Amos/Walker water well has been sampled numerous times since [the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission] staff received the initial complaints in 2001. Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (BTEX), frac fluid constituents, or other oil and gas related contaminants have never been detected in any of the water samples collected from the Amos/Walker water well to date.” (7/05)

Wyoming: “Families in the small town of Pavillion have been reporting contamination of their drinking water for at least ten years. Hydraulic fracturing has been used in the many wells in the area owned by Encana. … Individuals report medical symptoms they believe are related to water contamination. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating and has found contamination in 11 water wells, including toxic chemicals that may be from hydraulic fracturing fluids. Further tests are needed to determine the source of contamination.”

Reality: “Lind said the [Powder River Basin Resource Council], unlike some nationally based environmental groups, does not allege that fracking fluids are the cause of groundwater contamination anywhere in Wyoming. … [T]he Wyoming-based group is not trying to draw a link between fracking and incidents of groundwater contamination in the small town of a Pavilion, Wyoming … ‘We don’t want to accuse them of something they cannot prove. We’re their neighbors,’ he said.” (Platts’ Gas Daily, 4/20/10; subs. req’d)

New Mexico: “A 2004 investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found two residents who reported that the quality of their water was affected by hydraulic fracturing.”

Reality: Interestingly, the source of this “2004 investigation” is none other than the 2004 EPA report on hydraulic fracturing – the one that found “no evidence” indicating a link between the use of hydraulic fracturing and the contamination of underground sources of drinking water.

As part of the agency’s due diligence in compiling that report, EPA stated in its concluding chapters that some residents with whom it had communicated postulated that hydraulic fracturing may have been the cause of problems with their wells. Although EPA included that testimony as part of its study, as per its charge, it concluded that “no confirmed cases” of water contamination related to hydraulic fracturing could be found.

Ohio: “In 2007, there was an explosion of a water well and contamination of at least 22 other drinking water wells in Bainbridge Township after hydraulic fracturing of a nearby natural gas well owned by Ohio Valley Energy Systems. More than two years later, over forty families are still without clean drinking water and are waiting to be connected to a town water system.”

Reality: On December 15, 2007, an explosion occurred in the basement of a home in Bainbridge, Ohio. Neither the house nor its furnishings suffered any kind of fire or smoke damage.

Subsequent to the event, the Ohio Division of Mineral Resources Management (DMRM) conducted an extensive, year-long investigation of the incident – at the end, publishing a report summarizing its findings and describing what it believed caused the incident. DMRM concluded the explosion was not caused by hydraulic fracturing. Moreover: “DMRM has concluded that it is highly unlikely that fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing process, or flow back fluids escaped from the borehole or entered into local aquifers.”

More to come.

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