There is a lot of talk about hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in Florida these days, even though this method of completing oil and gas wells – routine in many parts of the country for more than 60 years – is not currently being used in the Sunshine State. This is a result of anti-industry activists spreading misinformation to the public.
Florida does have a robust oil and gas industry — according to the latest study it has generated roughly $23 billion across the state and provided around 300,000 jobs — but due to the geology of the state, most wells use a form of acid treatment rather than fracking to improve well productivity. Perhaps it’s this lack of knowledge about the actual fracking process that has led groups like Floridians Against Fracking (FAF) to be confused, though it is possible that they are intentionally spreading this misinformation in an attempt to scare Floridians, knowing that the scientific consensus does not support their claims.
Whatever the rationale, groups like FAF are making many of the same debunked claims that crop up often amongst extremist “ban fracking” groups across the country. Let’s take a look at FAF’s easily refuted claims.
CLAIM: Fracking contaminates groundwater.
FAF: “The fracking process uses chemicals which leach into and contaminate the nearby groundwater.”
FACT: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized its comprehensive five-year study of the potential impacts from fracking on groundwater in December, concluding that hydraulic fracturing has not been found to cause widespread, systemic impacts on groundwater. In the final report, the agency found that the number of identified cases of drinking water contamination is small compared to the total number of hydraulically fractured wells. In fact, EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Thomas Burke recently told CBS This Morning that “the overall incidence of impacts is low.”
This is because, as E&E News recently reported:
“There are few, if any, examples of the specific practice of hydraulic fracturing fluid rising through rock to contaminate groundwater.”
As for FAF’s specific concern of chemicals “leaching” into groundwater, presumably via surface spills, the oil and gas industry is currently regulated by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the industry already takes measures to ensure that if an accident does occur, impacts are mitigated and kept to a minimum. In other words, if fracking were to occur in the state, the industry and DEP are prepared to protect drinking water sources from the small possibility that a spill could occur.
And EPA isn’t the only entity to clarify that fracking is not causing widespread impacts to groundwater, as EID’s latest video shows, numerous reputable studies have reached the same conclusion.
CLAIM: Fracking negatively impacts air quality.
FAF: “Fracking causes the formation of ground-level ozone, which contributes to the creation of smog. Exposure to smog formed from ground-level ozone is linked to cancer, diabetes, premature birth, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive deficits in children.”
FACT: To date, studies that have tried to prove that fracking is causing an increase in ground-level ozone, and thus smog, have relied on modeling scenarios rather than actual air sampling to reach inconclusive findings. And these findings don’t actually align with real data collected in or around oil and gas activities. For example, here’s a graph showing 8-hour ozone levels in the Dallas-Fort Worth area between 1999 and 2009, along with the substantial increase in natural gas production.
As this chart and recent EPA data illustrates, the reality is that oil and gas development is not a major contributor to the formation of ground-level ozone; instead, it has actually led to significant improvements to air quality in the United States.
For instance, EPA data shows nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions — a precursor to ground-level ozone — declined 38 percent from 2005 to 2013. The fact that natural gas emits about one-fifth the NOX as coal and the fact that natural gas is now the top source of electricity generation in the U.S. explain this decline.
Natural gas development has also led to a dramatic decrease in sulfur dioxide emissions. EPA data shows that between 2005 and 2013, sulfur dioxide levels in the United States decreased by 68 percent while, you guessed it, natural gas production skyrocketed. That is because natural gas emits virtually no SO2.
EPA and EIA data also show that fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) decreased by 60 percent between 2005 and 2013. In the same time period, U.S. natural gas production increased by 35 percent and natural gas-fired electricity generation increased by 50 percent.
PM 2.5 forms in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are both in rapid decline due to increased natural gas use.
“[S]hale gas is a wonderful gift that has arrived just in time. It can not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also reduce a deadly pollution known as PM2.5 that is currently killing over three million people each year, primarily in the developing world.”
This trend is also seen in emission levels of other harmful pollutants such as mercury and nitrogen dioxide. States with significant shale production operations, such as Pennsylvania, have experienced these results first hand. Since the steady increase in the amount of hydraulic fracturing, air quality has drastically improved, saving the public billions of dollars annually in health benefits. The shale revolution in the United States has been a blessing for our economy but, more importantly, has had tremendously positive effects on the quality of our country’s air.
CLAIM: Fracking impacts public health.
FAF: “Nearly ½ of chemicals used in fracking affect the nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems” and “75% of the chemicals used in fracking cause skin and eye irritation as well as gastrointestinal and respiratory distress.”
FACT: In order for fracking to be a threat to public health it would have to be contaminating groundwater or increasing pollutant levels in the air — neither of which is occurring, as has already been discussed. In recent years there have been several studies that try (and fail) to link fracking to all sorts of illnesses from asthma, to birth defects, to cancer and everything in between.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health in British Columbia, Canada, released phase two of its Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) of oil and gas activities in the area in 2015, which found that the risk of impacts to public health are low. As the assessment concluded:
“The overall findings of the detailed HHRA of oil and gas activity in NE BC suggest that, while there is some possibility for elevated COPC [chemicals of potential concern] concentrations to occur at some locations, the probability that adverse health impacts would occur in association with these exposures is considered to be low.” (page ii)
In Colorado, a state with a robust oil and gas industry, Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) executive director and chief medical officer Dr. Larry Wolk said there is no evidence that current setbacks would have a negative public health effect last year when the state was debating setbacks for oil and gas development due to potential health risks. As he put it:
“I think people often invoke public health or health concerns when we don’t necessarily have evidence that there is a valid health issue. There are certainly other issues that are valid as to why people don’t want these things near them: They don’t like the noise, they don’t like the smell, they don’t like the traffic, they don’t like the appearance. I’m not invalidating those, at all — I certainly wouldn’t like to live in a neighborhood near those, either — but I can’t, in my role, allow that to be a substitute for saying that this is bad for public health. We don’t have any demonstrative evidence that increasing the setbacks from oil and gas development would be any more protective of the public’s health than where the current setbacks are, because we don’t have any evidence that there is a public health impact as a result of the current setbacks.” (Emphasis added)
In fact, Dr. Wolk went on to discuss CDPHE data showing that areas where a majority of fracking is taking place are not registering higher levels of negative health conditions, and in some instances are lower than those reported where little or no fracking occurs. As the Colorado Independent reports:
“What the data shows is that from a registry standpoint — we maintain registries based on a number of health conditions, whether it’s cancer, birth defects, etc.— that the rates of these different health concerns or issues in some of these oil and gas-rich communities were no different from those that were not in oil and gas-rich communities.” (Emphasis added)
Dr. Wolk also pointed out that CDPHE data show that pollution in the region was down, while cases of asthma remained flat and instances of lung cancer have declined over the last 10 years. And this happened during a rapid acceleration in oil and natural gas production along Colorado’s Front Range.
Scientists continue to conclude that hydraulic fracturing is a fundamentally safe and highly regulated process that has brought the United States closer to energy independence, improved state and local economies, and reduced harmful pollution. Data from regulatory agencies in the United States show that fracking does not contaminate groundwater, has contributed immensely to the improvement of our nation’s air quality, and is not harming communities where the process is taking place. Will fracking ever come to Florida? Not unless technology improves (which it might) or geology changes (which it won’t). But spreading misinformation in an attempt to ban a practice that has been proven to provide a multitude of benefits for citizens is irresponsible and wrong, and it mischaracterizes the reality of Florida’s oil and gas industry. Unfortunately, such misinformation campaigns have been a part of the fracking debate elsewhere in the country.
More information about the realities of oil and gas development in Florida can be found here.