(Re)Counting the Ways Environment America’s Recycled Fracking Report is Ridiculous
This week, Environment America (EA) recycled its thoroughly debunked 2013 “fracking by the numbers” report, which includes the same tired claims activists have been trying (and failing) to push to the public. Packaged as “data to show fracking’s widespread harm,” the “new” misinformation in the report is also intended to stoke fears that will rally support for EA’s extremist call to ban fracking nationwide:
“To address the environmental and public health threats from fracking across the nation, states should prohibit fracking. No plausible system of regulation appears likely to address the scale and severity of fracking’s impacts.”
There is no shortage of actual new data to refute the report’s recycled talking points. Here is a look at the most egregious EA claims followed by the facts.
Environment America Claim: “A recent analysis by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health identified 157 chemicals used in fracking that are toxic; the toxicity of 781 other fracking chemicals examined by the researchers is unknown.”
REALITY: This scare tactic is premised entirely on the false notion that these chemicals are present in toxic concentrations in fracking fluid. They simply are not.
Chemical additives comprise just .49 percent fracking fluid solution, which are typically 95 percent water and sand. The most prominent chemical additive in fracking fluid – by both weight and volume – is a substance known as “guar,” which is an emulsifying agent more typically found in ice cream.
Granted, some ingredients used in fracking could affect your health, but only if you were exposed to them in high enough quantities. That is why it’s essential to understand concentration of these elements is far below levels necessary to pose a threat.
According to Illinois based environmental engineer Gerald Quindry, for a chemical to be of a concern due to toxicity, there are four requirements that must be met: 1) the chemical has to be present, 2) the chemical has to be toxic in the form it is present, 3) the concentration has to be high enough to cause harm, 4) there has to be an exposure pathway to humans or environmental receptors.
The latter two requirements are simply not met by fracking fluids, which illustrates why the EPA and Ground Water Protection Council have both released extensive studies declaring fracking fluids non-threatening.
The report highlights a few chemicals in particular, using hyperbolic language to advance its “toxic” narrative:
“5 billion pounds of hydrochloric acid, a caustic acid; 1.2 billion pounds of petroleum distillates, which can irritate the throat, lungs and eyes; cause dizziness and nausea; and can include toxic and cancer-causing agents; and 445 million pounds of methanol, which is suspected of causing birth defects.”
Hydrochloric acid (also known as muriatic acid) is used in swimming pools. Methanol is used in soap and deodorant. The 1.2 billion pounds of petroleum distillates EA refers to is apparently a reference to kerosene, which has never widely been used in fracking and is being phased out of use in fracking fluid, if it hasn’t already been phased out completely.
Furthermore, the report repeats the oft-cited activist claim that hundreds (even thousands) of chemicals are used in the typical fracking solution.
But according to a comprehensive recent EPA report, the average number of additives used in frack job is 14. While the EPA found nearly 700 unique ingredients reported across the country for additives, base fluids, and proppants, the “median number of additive ingredients per disclosure for the entire dataset was 14.” In other words, each frack job uses approximately 14 chemicals, not 700.
Environment America Claim: “The exact identities of many other chemicals are unknown because they are kept secret as proprietary information.”
REALITY: First of all, the U.S (EPA) is provided all pertinent information by chemical manufacturers, this according to another misleading activist fracking fluid report released by the Partnership for Policy Integrity: “The information is shared with EPA, however,” the report states. So it stands to reason that if the EPA felt a chemical was dangerous, it would stop its use.
Chemical information is also provided to health and emergency officials. The study chooses to ignore the fact that the federal Community Right-to-Know Act requires operators and chemical manufacturers to submit and regularly update detailed Material Safety Data Sheets and provide them to first-responders and other emergency personnel in case of an on-site accident. In the rare cases where contamination occurs, these comprehensive MSDS sheets are provided to the necessary parties.
State regulators are also made aware of chemicals used in fracking fluid and have access to all the information they need regarding their safe use.
Furthermore, every state with significant oil and gas production requires mandatory disclosure of fracking chemicals to the nationwide, searchable database FracFocus. Though companies do use confidential business provision (CBI) chemical disclosures to protect their intellectual property on FracFocus, the practice is nowhere near as widespread as activists let on, and a vast majority of chemicals have been non-hazardous, as a recent EPA report confirms:
“although these ingredients are reported as proprietary, information on the general chemical class is frequently provided.”
Environment America Claim: “Fracking threatens drinking water supplies.”
REALITY: This long-exhausted activist talking point has thoroughly debunked by numerous peer-reviewed studies, most notably the EPA’s landmark five-year study which found, “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”
The following studies have reached the same conclusion – that the fracking process itself has not contaminated groundwater.
• University of Cincinnati (2016): This ongoing study has found that water quality has not been impacted by natural gas drilling, or fracking
• Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) (2016): Geologists used computer simulations to study what would happen to frack fluids when injected into the bedrock of the North German basin and found “… that the injected fluids did not move upwards into layers carrying drinking-water.”
• Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (2016): This 30-month investigation into water contamination in Pavillion concluded it is “unlikely that hydraulic fracturing fluids have risen to shallower depths intercepted by water-supply wells.” And that “Evidence does not indicate that hydraulic fracturing fluids have risen to shallow depths intersected by water-supply wells.”
• Bureau of Economic Geology, University of Texas at Austin (2016): This study of 784 freshwater wells in the Barnett, Haynesville, Eagle Ford and Delaware Basin shale plays in Texas found the presence of high dissolved methane concentrations in the wells “are likely natural” and not related to fracking.
• Drollette et al. (2015): This study found no indication of contamination from the fracking process itself. As the researchers explain, “We found no evidence for direct communication with shallow drinking water wells due to upward migration form shale horizons.”
• Jackson et al. (2015): The researchers of this study found no evidence of hydraulic fracturing contaminating water. According the report’s press release, “Using innovative techniques such as isotopic ‘tracer’ compounds that distinguish the source of chemicals in well water, Jackson has not found evidence that frack water contaminants seep upward to drinking-water aquifers from deep underground.”
• California Council on Science and Technology and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (2015): This peer-reviewed independent study concluded: “We found no documented instances of hydraulic fracturing or acid stimulations directly causing groundwater contamination in California.”
• Siegel et al., Environmental Science and Technology (2015): This peer-reviewed study by researchers at Syracuse University looks at thousands of randomly selected baseline samples from water wells throughout Pennsylvania and concludes: “there is no significant correlation between dissolved methane concentrations in groundwater and proximity to nearby oil/gas wells.”
• U.S. Department of Energy’s National Technology Laboratory (2014): In this study, which the Associated Press called a “landmark study,” NETL researchers injected tracers into the hydraulic fracturing fluid in a well in Greene County, Pennsylvania to track for any signs of possible migration. After twelve months of monitoring, the researchers found no signs of this happening. Here’s what the report concluded: “Current findings are: 1) no evidence of gas migration from the Marcellus Shale; and 2) no evidence of brine migration from the Marcellus Shale.”
• Kresse et al., USGS Scientific Investigations Report (2013): This USGS study examined the water quality of 127 shallow domestic wells in the Fayetteville Shale and found no evidence of contamination: “This new study is important in terms of finding no significant effects on groundwater quality from shale gas development within the area of sampling.”
• Flewelling et al., Groundwater and Geophysical Research Letters (2013): Researchers at Gradient released two peer-reviewed studies finding no impacts from shale development. The first study explained that “Overall, the rapid upward migration scenarios that have been recently suggested (Rozell and Reaven 2012; Myers 2012; Warner et al. 2012) are not physically plausible.” In a second paper, Gradient’s team found, “It is not physically plausible for induced fractures to create a hydraulic connection between deep black shale and other tight formations to overlying potable aquifers, based on the limited amount of height growth at depth and the rotation of the least principal stress to the vertical direction at shallow depths.”
• Molofsky et al., Groundwater (2013): This study tested 1,701 water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania and found that “methane is ubiquitous in groundwater indicating that, on a regional scale, methane concentrations are not correlated to shale-gas extraction.”
• U.S. Govt. Accountability Office (2012): The U.S. GAO consulted regulatory officials in eight states who explained, based on their own state investigations, that “the hydraulic fracturing process has not been identified as a cause of groundwater contamination within their states.”
• Cardno Entrix (2012): This study, focusing on water wells in the Inglewood, Calif., oil field concluded, “Before-and-after monitoring of groundwater quality in monitor wells did not show impacts from high-volume hydraulic fracturing and high-rate gravel packing.”
• Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative (2010): This study concludes, “[B]ased on over sixty years of practical application and a lack of evidence to the contrary, there is nothing to indicate that when coupled with appropriate well construction; the practice of hydraulic fracturing in deep formations endangers ground water. There is also a lack of demonstrated evidence that hydraulic fracturing conducted in many shallower formations presents a substantial risk of endangerment to ground water.”
So how in the world does the report manage to dismiss 15 reputable reports saying that fracking doesn’t contaminate groundwater? By expanding the definition of fracking to include all processes of oil and gas development in a deliberate effort to tie fracking to groundwater contamination, that’s how:
“In this report, when we refer to the impacts of “fracking,” we include impacts resulting from all of the activities needed to bring a gas or oil well into production using high-volume (more than 100,000 gallons of water) hydraulic fracturing, to operate that well, and to deliver the gas or oil produced from that well to market.”
But as dishonest as this common activist tactic is, the EPA has actually found the number of cases of groundwater being impacted by development activities to be “small” when compared to the hundreds of thousands of shale wells drilled between 2006 and 2012.
“Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”(ES-6)
Environment America Claim: “Data from fracking wells in Pennsylvania from 2010 to 2012 show a 6 to 7 percent rate of well failure due to compromised structural integrity.”
REALITY: The report focuses on Pennsylvania in an attempt to drive home the false narrative that well failures are common. But a recent report compiled by the Associated Press from Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PDEP) data found that well-failure rates in Pennsylvania since 2005 are just one-third of one percent. This is consistent with several other reports that find well failure is very rare.
Environment America Claim: “Fracking requires huge volumes of water for each well – water that is often needed for other uses or to maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems.”
REALITY: The typical high volume, horizontal frack job uses approximately four million gallons of water. Though that sounds like a lot, a little perspective is order.
For comparison, four million gallons of water is about 1.3 percent of the water used in car washes every day and the average U.S. golf course (there are nearly 16,000) uses four million gallons of water in one summer month. New York City consumes four million gallons of water every six minutes. All shale gas wells drilled and completed in the U.S. in 2011 consumed approximately 135 billion gallons of water, which is the equivalent to about 0.3 percent of total U.S. freshwater consumption. A 2015 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report confirms that fracking doesn’t even account for one percent of total U.S water withdrawals.
Bottom line: Far more water is used for agriculture, irrigation, and other industrial uses than is consumed by oil and gas development.
Furthermore, technological advances are allowing fracking flowback water to be recycled in many cases. For example, more than 90 percent of fracking flowback water in Pennsylvania is recycled, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PDEP).
Environment America Claim: “Well pads, new access roads, pipelines and other infrastructure built for fracking turn forests and rural landscapes into industrial zones.”
REALITY: Horizontal drilling has dramatically reduced the land impacts of oil and gas development due to the ability to drill multiple wells from a single well pad.
Even Earthworks, which has declared a “war on fracking,” has admitted:
“The benefits of directional drilling are numerous. Using these techniques, 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.”
Environment America Claim: “Other public health threats from fracking include air pollution and earthquakes.”
REALITY: Fracking has actually helped the U.S. achieve significant reductions in historically problematic air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), prompting University of California-Berkeley physicist Richard Muller to say:
“Shale 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 PM 2.5 that is currently killing over three million people each year, primarily in the developing world.”
Fracking, of course, has helped the U.S. drastically reduce CO2 emissions. A recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) trumped how the U.S. is leading the way in reducing global energy-related CO2 emissions, which are the largest source of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. From the IEA press release accompanying the data:
“In the United States, emissions declined by 2% (in 2015), as a large switch from coal to natural gas use in electricity generation took place.”
According to the EIA, the burning of natural gas in the U.S. since 2005 has prevented 1 billion metric tons of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere. Use of renewables has prevented 600 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in the same timeframe. Similarly, The Breakthrough Institute (BTI) – an environmental group founded by individuals whom Time Magazine recognized as “heroes of the environment” – released a report in 2013 that demonstrated that natural gas has prevented 17 times more carbon dioxide emissions than wind, solar, and geothermal combined.
And a recent report by the Manhattan Institute also shows that natural gas is responsible for nearly 20 percent of total carbon dioxide emission cuts from 2007 to 2013 and that for every ton of CO2 emission reductions attributable to solar power, 13 tons can be attributed to natural gas.
A recent Washington Times story and graphic (see below) shows the undeniable contribution of natural gas in reducing greenhouse gases in the U.S., which have declined 11 percent in the past 14 years. At the same time, many other countries – including Germany, which has mandated conversion to renewables – have lagged in reduction of GHGs.
All of these facts have prompted EPA administrator Gina McCarthy to say:
“The pollution that I’m looking at is traditional pollutants as well as carbon. And natural gas has been a game changer with our ability to really move forward with pollution reductions that have been very hard to get our arms around for many decades.”
With regard to earthquakes, the USGS released a document last year to clear up the misrepresentation in headlines that too often link fracking to earthquakes rather than wastewater injection, which is a separate process that occurs as part of day-to-day production regardless of whether fracking is conducted:
“In the United States, fracking is not causing most of the induced earthquakes. Wastewater disposal is the primary cause of the recent increase in earthquakes in the central United States.”
Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback, who has done numerous studies on induced seismicity in Oklahoma, recently said, “What’s happening in Oklahoma is unrelated to hydraulic fracturing. It’s unrelated to hydraulic fracturing flowback water. It’s caused by the massive injection of produced water.”
A 2015 EID report based on data from the USGS and peer-reviewed studies, found that fewer than one percent of wastewater injection wells has been linked to induced seismicity. And a recent report by StatesFirst, an initiative of the Groundwater Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, finds that the risk of damage from an induced earthquake is low as well:
“To date, the likelihood of induced seismicity associated with a particular injection site has been very low, as has the risk of harm to people or property.”
Environment America Claim: “… a 2014 study of surface and groundwater samples from heavily-fracked Garfield County, Colorado, revealed elevated levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals linked to infertility, birth defects and cancer.”
REALITY: There was no shortage of criticism from the scientific community regarding the methods and conclusions of this study.
The Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department Public Health and Environment also issued a statement to the media listing a series of criticisms against the paper, including geological assumptions that were “not factually or scientifically valid.”
The medical publication The Clinical Advisor posted an article evaluating the endocrine study, and its conclusion is quite telling. From the last paragraph of the article:
“Study limitations included a lack of direct identification of fracking chemicals in the tested water, the researchers acknowledged. They called for more comprehensive sampling of drilling sites in Garfield County to determine whether natural gas drilling is contributing to elevated EDC activity in ground and surface water.”
Environment America Claim: “A recent analysis of 550 groundwater samples drawn from aquifers overlying the Barnett Shale formation of Texas found elevated levels of 10 different metals as well as 19 different chemical compounds associated with hydraulic fracturing, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Another study found higher concentrations of arsenic, selenium and strontium in drinking water wells in the region, perhaps the result of the disturbance fracking creates underground.”
REALITY: Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin recently released a report that the presence of high dissolved methane concentrations from 784 freshwater wells in the Barnett, Haynesville, Eagle Ford and Delaware Basin shale plays “are likely natural” and not related to fracking. This study – which included Parker County, – reaffirms the findings of the Railroad Commission of Texas, which showed through nitrogen fingerprinting that the water contamination was naturally occurring and not from fracking, proving that EPA’s unprecedented endangerment order against Range Resources was baseless.
Environment America Claim: “A 2014 Colorado study linked prenatal exposure to fracking chemicals in the air, specifically toluene, xylenes, and benzene, to higher rates of birth defects. Researchers found that the risk of giving birth to infants with congenital heart or neural tube defects increases with proximity to natural gas extraction sites.”
REALITY: The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) has completely debunked this research, stating the activists behind the study had no factual basis for their claims and were using cynical scare tactics to push their political agenda against the oil and gas industry. State public health regulators reviewed more than a dozen factors, including proximity to oil and gas wells, and according to CDPHE executive director and chief medical officer Dr. Larry Wolk:
“Our investigation looked at each reported case and concluded they are not linked to any common risk factors.”
Considering Environment America is funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation, it’s no surprise the organization isn’t above pedaling long-debunked data as “new” information designed to advance its central goal: banning fracking nationwide.
It is the Rockefellers, after all, that have admitted they gave millions of dollars to “news” organizations such as InsideClimate News (ICN) and the Columbia School of Journalism’s to publish hit pieces on ExxonMobil as part of the infamous #ExxonKnew climate campaign.
Recycling debunked fracking myths might generate some new headlines (although they didn’t get much attention this time!) a close look at the report reveals it is just a collection of the same old activist talking points that have been trumpeted for years.