New Report on Fracking and ‘Biotic Impacts’ Has Gaps of Its Own
This week, a number of news outlets highlighted a report published late last month in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, entitled “Biotic impacts of energy development from shale: research priorities and knowledge gaps,” which claims that “few studies directly quantify he impacts of shale development on plants and wildlife,” so more study is needed. Yet, even though the researchers claim they can’t quantify the impacts because there aren’t enough studies, it nonetheless asserts that fracking “poses substantial and unexplored risks to living creatures.”
The study itself reads like the kind of report we see regularly from anti-fracking groups – full of the same tired claims that have been debunked for years. However, the anti-fracking stance of the report isn’t very surprising when you consider that the lead author of the report, Sara Souther, has made her feelings about hydraulic fracturing pretty well known. Here is a sampling of the comments she’s made about fracking on Twitter:
Ug. Not another fracking obstacle for clean energy! http://t.co/PUA5IPP6
— Sara Souther (@SaraSouther) February 15, 2013
— Sara Souther (@SaraSouther) August 1, 2014
Hydraulic fracturing got you down? Check out this letter recently sent to the EPA, DOE, and DOI: http://t.co/fNsJkZblK8
— Sara Souther (@SaraSouther) March 4, 201
This last tweet references a letter sent in February 2013 to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior, which was written by Souther and her fellow researchers (the letter previews the study they just released). Souther sat down for an interview regarding the letter, and she described her fight against fracking this way:
“My involvement with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) began years ago. I was finishing my Ph.D in Morgantown, WV when I learned about construction of a frack pad a few hundred feet upstream from the intake of the city’s municipal water supply. I, along with a number of other residents, poured into public meetings to halt well pad construction. In response to the public outcry, the Morgantown City Council banned fracking within a one-mile buffer zone of town, only to have the ruling overturned by a circuit court judge just two months later. (emphasis added)
That a scientist who also happens to be an anti-fracking activist is the lead author of a study finding theoretical harm from fracking is not surprising. With that said, let’s have a look at some of the report’s main claims:
Claim #1: “[S]hale development differs from other forms of fossil-fuel extraction in multiple ways, including geographic footprint and an extremely high water demand.” (p. 330)
FACT: This is simply not true. Natural gas actually has the lowest water footprint of any fossil fuel, a fact that numerous reports have concluded. According to a report by the Harvard Kennedy School, “Natural gas has the lowest water consumption” of the fuels the researchers studied, which included coal, oil, corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol. As the Harvard researchers further explained,
“The recent shale gas transformation of the U.S. natural gas industry has also focused attention on the water-energy nexus, although the water consumption for the production of shale gas appears to be lower (0.6 to 1.8 gal/MMBtu) than that for other fossil fuels (1 to 8 gal/MMBtu for coal mining and washing, and 1 to 62 gal/MMBtu for U.S. onshore oil production). The increased role of shale gas in the U.S. energy sector could result in reduced water consumption (Chart ES-1).” (p. 6).
A report by researchers at the University of Texas bolsters these findings, concluding that hydraulic fracturing is actually helping to shield Texas from drought because it’s allowing the state to move away from energy resources that are much more water intensive. From that report:
“Natural gas, now ∼50% of power generation in Texas, enhances drought resilience by increasing the flexibility of power plant generators, including gas combustion turbines to complement increasing wind generation and combined cycle generators with ∼30% of cooling water requirements of traditional steam turbine plants. These reductions in water use are projected to continue to 2030 with increased use of natural gas and renewables.” (p. 1)
Further, the water use footprint of natural gas production is trumped by a number of industries, including agriculture, car washes and even golf courses. In some of the top oil and gas producing states – such as Pennsylvania, Texas, and Colorado – shale development accounts for less than one percent of total water use. A new study by the Western Energy Alliance and Golder Associates Inc. also found a water use footprint for natural gas to be well under one percent in New Mexico, Wyoming and other western states.
As for the geographic footprint, there’s a reason Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell recently said, “By using directional drilling and fracking, we have an opportunity to have a softer footprint on the land.” That’s because, thanks to these technologies, we are able to produce much more oil and natural gas from a single well pad, which is greatly reducing the land footprint of development. But more on that later.
Claim #2: “Although not a biotic impact on its own, the lack of disclosure regarding many fracturing chemicals can hamper the ability of researchers to understand, predict, and mitigate adverse environmental effects.” (p. 333)
FACT: Producers disclose what’s in their fracking fluid through FracFocus, a searchable nationwide database, which has been praised by the Obama Administration for providing “transparency to the American people.” The database currently has individual records for more than 77,000 wells across the country.
As we’ve noted many times, more than 99 percent of the fluid used in fracking is made up of water and sand; only a tiny fraction is made up of chemicals, most of which are in products that Americans use every day. One of the largest additives by volume is guar, which is an ingredient in ice cream and toothpaste. Here are some more examples of what producers may include in their frac fluid:
- Gelling agents: gaur gum (used in cosmetics, baked goods, ice cream, toothpastes, sauces and salad dressings)
- Cross linkers: borate salts (used in laundry detergents, hands soaps and cosmetics).
- Breakers: sodium cloride or ammonium persulfate (used in hair colorings, disinfectants, and in the manufacture of common household plastics)
- Acids: hydrochloric acid (used in swimming pool chemicals and cleaners)
- Biocides: glutaraldehyde (used in disinfectants; sterilizer for medical and dental equipment)
- Friction reducers: polyacrylamide or mineral oil (used in cosmetics including hair, make-up, nail and skin products)
- Corrosion inhibitors: (used in pharmaceuticals, acrylic fibers and plastics)
- Surfactants: isopropanol (used in glass cleaners, multi-surface cleansers, antiperspirants, deodorants and hair colors)
- Clay stabilizers: choline chloride (used in Low-sodium table salt substitutes, medicines and IV fluids)
- pH adjusting agents: sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide (used in laundry detergents, soap, water softeners and dishwasher detergents)
- Iron controls: citric acid (used in food additives; food and beverages; lemon juice)
- Non-emulsifier: isopropanol or ethylene glycol (used in glass cleaner, antiperspirant, and hair color)
- Scale inhibitor: sodium acrylate (used in household cleansers, de-icers, paints and caulks)
- Oxygen scavenger: ammonium bisulfite (used in cosmetics, food and beverage processing, water treatment)
Claim #3: “We examined the frequency and nature of violations in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (PADEP’s) oil and gas management compliance-reporting database……Spills were detected at 37% of wells found in violation and were generally small (median = 265 L; range = 4–43 000L), although there were nine spills of over 3500 L. Spills typically occurred on the well pad, with nearly 20% of reports documenting contamination of land or surface water…Many reports were ambiguous, and companies routinely violated Pennsylvania’s reporting requirement (only 59% of the documented spills were reported by the drilling company.” (p. 332; emphasis added)
FACT: While the researchers characterized these findings as gloom and doom to the press, when you actually look at the data, it’s a very different story.
The report finds the spills reported were “generally small” with a median of 265 liters – or 70 gallons. Further, only a fraction of those incidents with “generally small” amounts ever impacted the environment. Importantly, producers are required by Pennsylvania’s Act 13 and the Oil and Gas Spill Policy to include plastic liners (secondary containment) beneath the pad’s surface to make sure that if a spill does occur, it is contained and does not flow off the pad. Producers must also place secondary containment around anything that could house hydrocarbons. While producers strive to have zero spills and there’s always room for improvement, such low numbers do indicate that the risk of spills is being effectively managed.
Pennsylvania producers are also required by law to report any spill of five gallons or more within 24 hours. While some spills were identified first by regulators, that’s actually a testament to the fact that the Pennsylvania DEP is doing its job. It’s also very important to make the distinction between a “spill,” in which the fluid is contained on the pad and does not impact the environment, and a “release,” which could potentially impact the soil or water. Importantly, many of the “spills” that were found by regulators were still contained in the secondary containment and not released into the environment. To the Souther report’s credit, it does admit that the “[s]pills typically occurred on the well pad.”
Claim #4: “Shale operations emit nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOC) and particulate matter, each of which is harmful to biota” (p. 336).
FACT: Yes, development does produce some emissions. But the important question in this debate is not “Are there emissions?” but rather “Are the operations protective of public health and the environment?” Environmental agencies across the county —in Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia – have installed air monitors near well pads and found no reason for concern on air emissions. Therefore, it’s not surprising that several counties in North Dakota, which are leading in Bakken production, received “A” grades for air quality form the American Lung Association.
Even more importantly, it’s thanks to the increased use natural gas that air pollution is being dramatically reduced across the United States. Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller published a report concluding that “both global warming and air pollution can be mitigated by the development and utilization of shale gas.” Therefore, Muller states, “Environmentalists who oppose the development of shale gas and fracking are making a tragic mistake.” Muller’s report focused heavily on particulate matter, and how shale gas can help slash that specific type of air pollution, locally and worldwide.
Muller’s observations can be seen clearly in shale developing states. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently released its latest emissions inventory and found that the state had a stunning reduction in air emissions due to the increase in hydraulic fracturing and the use of natural gas. These reductions represent “between $14 billion and $37 billion of annual public health benefit,” according to the DEP.
Finally, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the increased use of natural gas has helped slash emissions of NOx and SO2 by more than 40 percent.
Claim #5: “Shale development will affect biota indirectly but substantially, through climate change. These impacts occur primarily through the routine venting of CH4 during well fracturing, but also from the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases during site development, fracturing and waste disposal (Howarth et al. 2011b, 2012; Petron et al. 2012).” (p. 336)
FACT: The Souther report cites the infamous Ingraffea/Howarth report extensively as if it were fact, even though their claims on methane leakage have been thoroughly debunked by numerous scientists. In fact, even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found in its latest assessment that emissions from well pads are nowhere near what Howarth et al. claimed. According to the IPCC:
“While some studies estimate that around 5% of the produced gas escapes in the supply chain, other analyses estimate emissions as low as 1% (Stephenson et al., 2011; Howarth et al.,2011; Cathles et al., 2012). Central emission estimates of recent analyses are 2%─3% (+/‐1%) of the gas produced, where the emissions from conventional and unconventional gas are comparable.” (p. 19)
More importantly, the IPCC credits shale development for the dramatic decline in carbon emissions in the United States. Again from the IPCC:
“[The] rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply… is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.” (Ch. 7, p. 18; emphasis added)
As for methane, the EPA found significant reductions in methane emissions during natural gas production in its latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory and gave shale development the credit for the U.S. having the lowest greenhouse gas emissions in twenty years. From the Inventory:
“In 2012, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were 6,501.5 Tg or million metric tons CO2 Eq. Total U.S. emissions have increased by 4.4 percent from 1990 to 2012, and emissions decreased from 2011 to 2012 by 3.3 percent (225.0 6 Tg CO2 Eq.). The decrease from 2011 to 2012 was due to a decrease in the carbon intensity of fuels consumed to generate electricity […] with increased natural gas consumption.” (2-1; emphasis added)
A landmark study using direct measurements of 190 wells by the University of Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund found very low methane leakage rates, which were in line with EPA’s estimates. Reports by the Department of Energy, MIT, and the University of Maryland (just to name a few) have come to similar conclusions.
So it’s no wonder that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz recently said natural gas “has been a tremendous contributor to our reduced CO2 emissions.” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said, “Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change and support a robust clean energy market at home.”
Claim #6: “Construction of wells and associated infrastructure (eg access roads, pipelines) disrupts habitat. On average 1,5-3.1 ha of vegetation are cleared during the development of a single well (Entrekin et al. 2011). Although this footprint is relatively small, the vast number of shale wells equates to considerable habitat loss.” (p. 335)
FACT: After suggesting earlier in the report that the “geological footprint” of shale gas is cause for alarm, the Souther study then contradicts itself by saying that the footprint is “relatively small.” The latter claim is much more accurate.
To be clear, any type of energy development, whether fossil fuels or renewables, is going to have some kind of ecological footprint. Wind turbines and solar panels require vast amounts of land and have also been responsible for thousands of bird deaths. These are not impossible barriers to overcome, but they do highlight that the Souther report seems very concerned about habitat disruption for shale production, without acknowledging that all development requires trade-offs and protective measures.
As for the actual footprint on the land, Interior Secretary Jewell’s comment – that “[b]y using directional drilling and fracking, we have an opportunity to have a softer footprint on the land” – has been echoed by the Obama administration, research organizations and even environmental groups.
The Department of Energy also highlighted the fact that “Advanced horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies increasingly allow energy companies to access far more natural gas with fewer wells and disturbed acres.”
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently found that the “productivity of oil and natural gas wells is steadily increasing in many basins across the United States because of the increasing precision and efficiency of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in oil and natural gas extraction.” That means there have been significant “increases in oil and natural gas production per rig over the past few years,” meaning we’re doing producing more on less land.
Even the aggressive anti-fracking group Earthworks has admitted that hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has allowed for producers to have a softer footprint, saying,
“…companies can drill a number of wells in different directions from one well pad (multilateral wells), which can decrease overall surface disturbance by reducing the number of well pads required to drain an oil or gas field.”
One excellent example of how producers are reducing their footprint was highlighted in a piece by the Denver Business Journal, which explained what one company in Colorado, Anadarko, has been able to achieve. The company’s conservation efforts include:
• Drilling multiple wells on a single well pad, reducing the land impact needed to drill oil and gas wells.
• Drilling horizontal wells that can stretch up to two miles underground, decreasing the number of wells needed to produce the same amount of oil.
• Using closed loop, or “pitless,” drilling operations to eliminate waste pits.
• Reducing the amount of truck traffic by concentrating the hydraulic fracturing operations into a single location, and also increasing the use of pipelines.
• Using “field gas,” or natural gas produced at the well, for compression operations.
• Recycling water used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing where possible.
These efforts are being replicated across the country, which is a win-win for the economy and environment.
The Souther report claims there are “knowledge gaps” in the science of hydraulic fracturing, but in reality the biggest “knowledge gaps” just might be those in the Souther report itself. The study goes to great lengths to highlight reports that are critical of shale development, while completely ignoring the ocean of evidence that hydraulic fracturing is ecologically sound – and that natural gas has been a boon to the environment. Given her very public proclamations about shale development, though, Ms. Souther’s conclusions are unfortunately not surprising.