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In Comments to BLM, Anti-Fracking Groups Play Both Sides

The comment period for the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) proposed rule for hydraulic fracturing on Federal and Indian lands recently ended, and the usual suspects submitted their own comments on how to “improve” the proposal. Of course, many of these groups (i.e. Sierra Club, NRDC, etc.) have called vigorously for restricting “fracking” or even banning it altogether, meaning their goal is purely to make it more difficult – if not impossible – to develop oil and natural gas on public lands. As such, the comments are the functional equivalent of the fox submitting recommendations on how to construct a hen house.

Let’s take a brief look back at what several of these groups have called for in the past:

  • Environmental Defense Center promotes its ban-fracking push with an image of green chemicals flowing into a glass of drinking water.
  • Riverkeeper has a very active “Don’t Frack with New York” campaign, which urges New Yorkers to call Governor Cuomo and tell him to ban hydraulic fracturing.
  • The Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas campaign describes fracking as “dirty” and “dangerous,” a “violent process” that is “known to contaminate drinking water, pollute the air, and cause earthquakes.”
  • The Natural Resources Defense Council sent out an urgent alert that implored its members to “SAVE OUR NATURAL HERITAGE FROM FRACKING!”  It continues, “Tell the Bureau of Land Management to put our wildest places off-limits to fracking and to adopt strong rules that will protect public lands from dangerous oil and gas drilling.”

And yet we’re to believe that these same groups are providing constructive criticism of BLM’s proposed rule and proposing legitimate fixes?

Aside from trying to play both sides and hoping the media doesn’t call them on it (which, thus far, has worked masterfully), let’s take a closer look at some of their claims and recommendations.

Well Integrity

NRDC, Sierra Club, et al: “There are … many examples of well integrity failure in U.S. oil and gas operations, some with disastrous consequences” (p. 8).

FACT: Opponents of responsible shale development have been trying to push this claim for years, saying large percentages of wells fail, making shale development an inherently risky endeavor.

As we’ve noted before, what opponents typically cite as a leak is actually Sustained Casing Pressure (SCP), which is the accumulation of pressure in a well; it does not mean that the well is leaking.  Further, the high well failure rates that opponents continually cite simply do not line up with the facts.  An August 2011 report from the Groundwater Protection Council examined more than 34,000 wells in Ohio from 1983 to 2007 and more than 187,000 in Texas between 1993 and 2008. GWPC found a failure rate of 0.03 percent in Ohio and 0.01 percent in Texas — and most of the incidents occurred well before modern technologies and new regulations came online.

Granted, any failure rate above zero leaves room for improvement, and that’s why regulations have been updated in several states. The industry has also published a series of recommendations and best practices for well construction and to maintain well integrity.  But opponents’ claims of “disastrous consequences” from large percentages of failures are simply not based on science or hard data.

Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

NRDC, Sierra Club, et al: “Well stimulation and unconventional production of federal oil and gas causes significant air pollution, which adversely affects federal lands and the broader environment. Oil and gas production enabled by well stimulation, and processes involved in well stimulation in particular, cause emissions of conventional pollutants, hazardous air pollutants, and greenhouse gases” (p. 37).

FACT: Quite the opposite, actually.  The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and most recently, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection have all concluded that there is no credible threat to air quality or public health associated with shale development.

In fact, thanks to the development and utilization of natural gas, emissions of all kinds have been eliminated from the air, which has been a boon for public health.  The environmental think tank, The Breakthrough Institute, found that natural gas and the “associated surge in fracking have dramatically reduced emissions across Pennsylvania,” while the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found that over 500 million tons of emissions have been removed from the Commonwealth’s air because of the increased use of natural gas.

Moreover, even the American Lung Association gave eight North Dakota counties — including several that are leading the state in Bakken oil production — high marks for air quality.

Not only has natural gas reduced air pollution, it is also largely responsible for slashing greenhouse gas emissions: the International Energy Agency found that the United States reduced it carbon dioxide emissions by 3.8 percent thanks to the increased production and utilization of natural gas: As IEA put it:

“The decline in energy-related CO2 emissions in the United States in recent years has been one of the bright spots in the global picture. One of the key reasons has been the increased availability of natural gas, linked to the shale gas revolution.”

Water Contamination

NRDC, Sierra Club, et al: “Water contamination is one of the most significant environmental and public health risks from oil and gas development. Oil and gas production activities are the suspected cause of groundwater contamination in many communities in which development is occurring” (p. 36).

FACT: We’ve covered this issue at length many times, but it’s worth reiterating here that when representatives from these same groups were pressed at a Senate hearing earlier this year to name a single confirmed case of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing, they could not do so.

Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Ken Kopocis (President Obama’s nominee to be Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water), former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Ground Water Protection Council, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and dozens of state regulators have found no conclusive evidence that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated groundwater.  Most recently, two peer-reviewed studies found that water contamination from hydraulic fracturing is “not physically plausible.”

FracFocus

NRDC, Sierra Club, et al: “FracFocus does not provide an adequate platform for public disclosure of information on well stimulation chemicals on public lands […] Using FracFocus would violate the executive order President Obama signed on May 9, 2013 requiring new government information to be made available to the public in open, machine-readable formats” (p. 30-31).

FACT: Actually, the Obama administration has praised FracFocus, a searchable, nation-wide database where operators disclose what’s in fracking fluid, as a tool that “provides transparency to the American people.”

Moreover, the opponents’ comments with regard to supposed “shortcomings” of FracFocus actually reference an older version. They cite, for example, the Natural Gas Subcommittee (part of the U.S. Department of Energy) as saying FracFocus has only “limited” search capabilities, and that it’s not maintained as a database. But as of June 1st of this year, FracFocus allows for a variety of searches, and even provides the ability to pull reports based on specific parameters.

The groups do briefly acknowledge the upgrades, but nonetheless complain that the reports are still in PDF format (oh, the horror!) and that it doesn’t function exactly as they want it to operate. Boiled down, the opponents’ comments amount to making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Contrary to the scary stories hydraulic fracturing opponents have pushed, more than 99 percent of the fluid used in fracking is made up of water and sand; only a small fraction is made up of chemicals, many of which are the same household materials that can be found under the kitchen sink. As with the cleaning products also found in homes, the real issue is all about safe management and handling. Federal laws, including the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, also cover shale development, contrary to the “exemption” charges that opponents frequently levy.

The Bottom Line

Interestingly (though not unsurprisingly), the Sierra Club, NRDC, and the others prefaced their comments to BLM with what they really want:

“Due to the failure of these proposed rules and existing rules to provide effective safeguards against the environmental and public health risks of oil and gas extraction, we oppose opening up new federal landscapes to drilling if the draft rules are finalized in their current form. Furthermore, because even the most stringent rules can not completely eliminate environmental and public health risks, certain environmentally sensitive areas should be completely off limits to oil and gas development regardless of what rules are in place. Categories of lands where oil and gas development is not permitted should be identified in the final rule, consistent with the BLM’s multiple use mandate. All oil and gas operations on public lands must adhere to stringent standards, which we discuss in detail below” (p. 3).

An intrepid and unbiased journalist might ask these groups a simple question: What specific areas should be off-limits, and what areas should remain open for development? Opponents never go into detail on such things, because then they’d have to admit that (a) shale development can occur safely, contrary to what they’ve been claiming for years, or (b) that they think hydraulic fracturing should be banned on all federal and Indian lands, contrary to their stated position of placing only “certain” areas off-limits.

The fact is, these groups oppose development. They claim to support “strong regulations” and “adequate protections,” but at the end of the day, they want to put an end to hydraulic fracturing and indeed all responsible shale development. Clever sound bites and shrewd political ploys can’t mask that fact.

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