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Mother Jones Gets it Exactly Backwards on Fracking

Without the science on their side, anti-fracking activists have had to invent alternative realities to justify their claims.

A case in point is a recent Mother Jones piece by Chris Mooney, which argues that the “scientific case against fracking keeps getting stronger.”  Of course, exactly the opposite is true: the safety of hydraulic fracturing and the environmental benefits of natural gas are widely understood and anti-fracking activists are becoming increasingly more marginalized, even (as the National Journal recently pointed out) within the Democratic Party.

Against that backdrop, Mooney makes his case relying on the research of well-known anti-fracking activist Anthony Ingraffea, whose work over the years has been debunked by numerous scientists.

Let’s have a look at Mooney’s claims followed by the facts:

Claim #1: Three or four years ago The chief environmental concern about fracking at that time involved the contamination of drinking water through the fracking processblasting water, sand, and chemicals underground in vast quantities and at extreme pressures to force open shale layers deep beneath the Earth, and release natural gas. But the science was still pretty ambiguous, and a great deal turned on how “fracking” was defined.

FACT: Anti-fracking activists know exactly what fracking is.  They have sought to change the definition to include anything that happens in the life of a well even if it has no bearing on the process itself. Even Josh Fox, the director of the thoroughly debunked “Gasland” films, has admitted that he had to invent his own definition of fracking in order to claim that the process has caused harm.

Fracking technology has been used more than 1.2 million times in the United States and federal and state regulators, in addition to scientists and academic inside and outside the industry, have confirmed that it is a fundamentally safe process with manageable risks.

Studies continue to prove that the environmental impacts claimed by activists have not materialized, and more studies are being conducted all the time. (Here is a list of studies completed in only the last few years.)

Recently, for example, scientists commissioned by the County of Los Angeles oversaw two hydraulic fracturing jobs in the Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban oil field in the United States. They monitored and tested the results across more than a dozen potential environmental impacts, and found no reasons for concern.

Claim #2: “Ingraffea isn’t the likeliest scientific foe of fracking. His past research has been funded by corporations and industry interests including Schlumberger, the Gas Research Institute, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman.

FACT: Ingraffea is not exactly a disinterested researcher. He played a starring role in the Galsand films and has teamed up on numerous occasions with anti-fracking activists Josh Fox, Mark Ruffalo and Yoko Ono, just to name a few.

Ingraffea’s research has also been financially supported by anti-fracking foundations for years.  His group, Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, is funded (and was essentially created) by the Park Foundation, whose sole mission is to stop shale development.  While Ingraffea complained publicly that a study by the University of Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund (which exposed Ingraffea’s research as deeply flawed), received some funding from industry, he doesn’t seem too concerned about the sources of his own funding.

Claim #3: “As for the fracking process itself? That, too, can cause earthquakes, Ingraffea says, although earthquakes related to fracking (as opposed to injection wells) have been smaller (‘so far,’ as Ingraffea puts it). When you think about what we’re doing to the Earth, maybe that’s not so surprising. Fracking water, after all, is blasted underground at ‘pressures approaching what you would get if you put, say, 10 SUVs on your fingertip,’ says Ingraffea.”

FACT: Scientists and regulators have been clear that fracking poses an exceedingly low risk of inducing earthquakes of sufficient strength for humans to feel on the surface. This is a well-documented fact. The reason for this was clearly spelled out by Stanford University geophysicist Mark Zoback when he told the United States Senate:

“It is important to note that the extremely small microseismic events occur during hydraulic fracturing operations. These microseismic events affect a very small volume of rock and release, on average, about the same amount of energy as a gallon of milk falling off a kitchen counter.”

Mooney notes initially that earthquakes have, in fact, been associated with produced water disposal (which they call “wastewater” disposal, even though it is cleaner going in than when it came out).  This is a common method for disposing of water used across many industries and not part of the fracking process. It has been known that the injection process has caused small seismic events since at least the 1960s. In any case, produced water disposal is not “fracking” any more than the disposal of biomedical waste is “surgery” or “laboratory research.”

Claim #4:But there’s a potentially even graver issuefugitive methane emissions from shale gas operations. This is the topic on which Ingraffea made his name in the fracking debate, and it’s probably the most momentous one of all. In 2011, Ingraffea and two other Cornell researchers published a highly discussed scientific study in the journal Climatic Change, arguing that between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of methane gas from shale drilling operations actually escapes into the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming.

FACT: To be sure, methane leakage is an important issue. The energy industry has every financial – and environmental – incentive to ensure that methane leakage rates are as low as possible. Methane is valuable, after all, as the primary constituent of natural gas, so preventing leaks is a goal everyone shares.

Ingraffea’s work on methane emissions has been widely discredited by scientists and experts.  Perhaps the most crushing blow comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  As the IPCC’s latest climate assessment explains, even “[t]aking into account revised estimates for fugitive emissions, recent lifecycle assessment indicate that specific GHG emission are reduced by one half” as more power plants are powered by natural gas.  In other words, the IPCC is clear that even taking into account methane emissions natural gas retains its environmental benefits.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently released its Greenhouse Gas Inventory, which found a dramatic decrease in methane emissions from natural gas production. EPA attributed these reductions to “voluntary reductions” by oil and gas producers. Further, the University of Texas and the Environment Defense Fund completed a study last year, which evaluated direct measurements from 190 wells and found very low methane leakage rates.

A long list of universities and institutions that have savaged Ingraffea’s methane claims can be found here.  They include:

  • Cornell University
  • Clean Air Task Force
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • National Energy Technology Laboratory
  • Worldwatch Institute
  • Council on Foreign Relations
  • Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

As for greenhouse gas emissions in general, it’s largely thanks to natural gas that emissions in the United States are at a 20-year low.  The IPCC found that “the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies” is “an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.”  The EPA, the International Energy Agency (IEA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) came to the same conclusion.

Earlier this month, Ingraffea’s Cornell colleague, Lawrence M. Cathles III, a professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, wrote to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urging him to end the state’s moratorium on fracking due to the environmental benefits of natural gas.  As he said, “substituting natural gas greatly reduces warming because so much less carbon dioxide, the long-lived greenhouse gas, is put into the atmosphere.”

Conclusion: Ideology over science, in anti-fracking scholarship and journalism

As part of his conclusion, Mooney writes the following paragraph:

“With mounting scientific evidence behind him, then, Ingraffea makes a pretty strong case today that natural gas is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The methane issue may not be settled fully, but it is undoubtedly grave—and certainly not something that we can afford to be wrong about. To still support President Obama’s “all of the above” approach to energy (which favors renewables, but also natural gas), you have to assume we can mitigate the methane leakage problem somehow.”

In reality, exactly the opposite is true: the “mounting scientific evidence” is against anti-fracking activists like Ingraffea, whose belief that fracking is harmful is being dismantled by scientific evidence.

Of course, it’s good to have a robust debate about safe, responsible and climate-friendly energy development, and good scholarship – and good journalism covering that scholarship – has an important role to play in the process. The debate is not well served, however, when academics or journalists simply fail to address the evidence that contradicts their point of view. That is advocacy, not science or science journalism.

The science on hydraulic fracturing overwhelmingly shows that it is a safe and climate-friendly process – indeed, natural gas development is the reason that the United States leads the world in CO2 emission reductions.  That is something a publication with Mother Jones priorities should celebrate.

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