Appalachian Basin

Newsweek Promotes Myths about Fracking and Public Health

Newsweek published an article last week by Zoe Schlanger that, on the surface, seemed to be about a pooling case in Pennsylvania. The article does in fact talk quite a bit about pooling, but it also makes assumptions about natural gas development as a whole based on faulty studies. That’s also where the problem comes in, as at times it reads like something straight off an activist website, rather than a respected media outlet.

Here is a list of some of the more egregious claims, followed by the facts.

CLAIM: “Many of the laws were enacted between 1930 and 1970 for conventional oil and gas drilling, long before fracking existed in most states

FACT: The industry has continuously tried to help the public distinguish between differing portions of the natural gas development process, because hydraulic fracturing is just one part of the greater whole. The problem with using a blanket term like “fracking” is, when trying to discuss decades’ old laws or technological aspects of the process, using a term as a standalone descriptor can make your statements technically false. That’s just what occurred with the above statement.

It is a fact that hydraulic fracturing has been used commercially in oil and gas development since the 1940s, meaning most of these laws were developed alongside the major implantation of this technology in the development process. And those wells were nearly all conventional during that time period. According to the Department of Energy:

“Hydraulic fracturing is a known technology and has been used for at least 60 years. It has helped produce more than 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 7 billion barrels of oil.”

CLAIM: “In addition to the cost savings, the gas industry argues that drilling fewer wells mean less land is disturbed and less waste is produced.”

FACT: This “argument” isn’t in fact an argument at all—it’s a fact that if there are fewer wells, less land is disturbed. That’s why even Sally Jewell, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, recently said: “By using directional drilling and fracking, we have an opportunity to have a softer footprint on the land.”

To take that one step further, by using horizontal drilling as a means of placing multiple wells on a single well pad, land disturbance is significantly reduced – sometimes by more than 20 wells compared with conventional methods, as the following image from Range Resources demonstrates.

CLAIM: “But the health issues [related to fracking] are the most frightening.”

FACT: Unfortunately, the opinion of the author does not align with what has been said by regulators and   studies across the country.

  • The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has conducted monitoring of air quality surrounding natural gas wells in the Marcellus. The study concluded that, “when looking at the individual operations, the emissions do not seem to create ambient air pollution conditions where acute adverse health impact are expected.”
  • The EpidStat Institute and David Garabrandt PLLC conducted a peer-reviewed study in July 2013 that looked at rates of childhood cancer in areas surrounding natural gas wells in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The study found that there were no elevated rates of cancer amongst children in the area. Energy In Depth had the opportunity to interview Garabrandt when he came to Lackawanna College for a presentation last year, and he further explained the study in the following video.

  • The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has conducted extensive air monitoring for the Barnett Shale in North Texas.  Following their several month, state-of-the-art, 24-hour air monitoring, TCEQ found “no levels of concern for any chemicals” and concluded “no immediate health concerns from air quality in the area.”
  • The Colorado Department of Public Health tested air quality at a well site in 2012 and found:  “The monitored concentrations of benzene, one of the major risk driving chemicals, are well within acceptable limits to protect public health, as determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The concentrations of various compounds are comparatively low and are not likely to raise significant health issues of concern.”

CLAIM: [Following claims about health issues] Documents obtained by Newsweek show that instances of water [methane] contamination have already occurred in the area, near Hilcorp wells.”

FACT: According to Penn State University, “Methane gas alone is not toxic and does not cause health problems in drinking water.”

In a state like Pennsylvania, methane is a common problem in underground aquifers.  In a peer reviewed study by Groundwater, the journal of the National Groundwater Association, researchers found “methane is ubiquitous in groundwater” in many areas of Pennsylvania, and it is unrelated to shale development.

In fact, depending on the levels, methane can typically be vented out of a water well, and in many cases in Pennsylvania it does not accumulate to a level that this even needs to occur—even in places with no natural gas development.

CLAIM: Methane contamination of drinking water near shale fracking sites is common. A 2011 study conducted in Pennsylvania and New York found that the concentration of methane in drinking water was higher the closer the water well was to an active shale gas well. The methane concentrations observed by the study were high enough to pose a “potential explosion hazard.”

FACT: The author is referring to an oft-debunked 2011 Duke University study that looked at methane in Pennsylvania drinking water supplies.  What is interesting is what the study actually found:

“Methane concentrations were detected generally in 51 of 60 drinking-water wells (85%) across the region, regardless of gas industry operations … “ (Osborn, et al., Duke Univ., May 9, 2011)

Duke’s Robert Jackson also conceded that the study did not have any baseline data, and he expected the criticism, which certainly isn’t without merit.  When the U.S. Geological Survey attempted to get baseline data in Sullivan County, they found 30 percent of the samples contained detectable levels of methane, and ten percent had levels above one milligram per liter (mg/L).

CLAIM: Another study, from 2012, found people who live within a half-mile of a fracking well were at greater risk for health effects associated with air pollution.”

FACT: The study described is a 2012 study from the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH), which not only EID debunked, but so did the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and Garfield County’s environmental health chief Jim Rada. EID laid out the issues with this particular study, which were pretty extensive.  The CSPH is a modeling study which is only useful if the inputs are correct.  After a closer look, this just isn’t the case.

  • The study collected volatile organic compounds (VOCs) levels for the duration of their study.  During the study in 2009 Colorado implemented new emissions standards which reduced VOCs by as much as 95 percent through the use of low- or no-bleed pneumatic devices.  This would make the data collected out of date even before the study was released.
  • The study assumed it took five years to fully develop a well pad, which actually inflated time to drill and complete a well (and thus any nearby “exposure”) by as much as 900 percent.  According to the Marcellus Center at Penn State University: “The total time to drill each well is about a three to six weeks depending on the depth and length of the horizontal well, so if there are four wells on a well pad, you could expect the big rig to be there for about three to six months.”
  • The study also neglected to take into account for the proximity to an interstate highway. All five well pads used to gather air quality data were approximately one mile from Interstate-70. As stated by the EPA, most of the nation’s benzene emissions come from mobile sources. People who live or work near major roads, or spend a large amount of time in vehicles, are likely to have higher exposures and higher risks. People living in homes with attached garages are also likely to be exposed to benzene levels that are higher than average.”
  • Dr. McKenzie conceded there was no baseline data on which to base her study’s assumptions. “We didn’t have a lot of good background in Colorado to compare it to.  This is a very a rural area and so there just wasn’t any baseline to compare it to.”
  • After all of those bad inputs, the CSPH study still showed that cancer rates near well were not above the national average.  The study assumed the cancer rate for residents < ½ mile from wells was 10 in a million.  According to an EPA report: “NATA estimates that all 285 million people in the U.S. have an increased cancer risk of greater than 10 in one million.”

CLAIM: One study found an association in rural Colorado between birth defects and mothers who lived within 10 miles of heavily fracked areas while pregnant.”

FACT: The study she cites alleges an increase in birth defects in children whose mothers lived near gas wells while pregnant in rural Colorado. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment disagreed with this study’s findings:

Chief Medical Officer Larry Wolk, appointed in August by Gov. John Hickenlooper, cautioned in a lengthy statement that “people should not rush to judgment.”

The state official criticized the study’s design and highlighted its limitations. Inactive wells weren’t distinguished from active wells, Wolk noted, while findings on neural tube defects didn’t account for factors like prenatal health care, drinking or smoking. On top of that, the study only made use of the mothers’ addresses at the time of their babies’ birth, and didn’t account for women who might have moved after the first trimester, when most birth defects occur.

“As Chief Medical Officer, I would tell pregnant women and mothers who live, or who at-the-time-of-their-pregnancy lived, in proximity to a gas well not to rely on this study as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect,” said Wolk. “Many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored in this study.”

Just last month, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), again debunked this study with its own analysis. EID wrote about that occurrence, and you can read the press release from CDPHE here, in which the Chief Medical Officer said this (emphasis added):

“There is no state or federal registry of pre-birth anomalies that would show whether the cases referred to the department are greater or less than the number of cases occurring in the general population. While some may have expected the investigation would identify one or two risk factors that link these cases, no such link was found. It is natural to look at even a single birth anomaly and ask why. But sadly, birth anomalies do occur.”

It is indeed unfortunate that Newsweek chose to repeat common and controversial anti-fracking talking points.  In doing so, the publication missed an opportunity to inform itsreaders of the facts surrounding oil and gas development here in Pennsylvania and across the country. Shale gas production – especially in the Marcellus – does not require a choice between public health and the economy; it’s a rare “win-win” in terms of economic benefits and environmental protection.

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