Sierra Club Continues to Deny the Science on Hydraulic Fracturing

Last week, the Sierra Club released a report that contains the same denial of the science they’ve been perpetrating for years: it argues that to fight climate change we need to “not allow any new oil and gas leases that require fracking.”  Interestingly, just days after its publication, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the summary of its latest report, which says it is “quite clear” that fracking is “very consistent with low-carbon development” and could “significantly” reduce emissions.  As the Telegraph (U.K.) puts it, this “unexpected endorsement from 235 eminent United Nations scientists and economists will be a welcome boost to David Cameron, who is a keen advocate of the new technology.”  It is also a major blow to the Sierra Club’s argument on climate change, one of its most frequent and widely cited talking points.

We’ve already debunked the Sierra Club’s claims time and time again, but if they keep making them, we’ll happily keep providing the facts.

CLAIM #1: “Fracking is the driving force for a dirty energy boom that is releasing billions of tons of new climate-disrupting carbon pollution into the air. In the past six years, fracking for natural gas has increased eightfold.” (p. 15)

FACT: Why are greenhouse gas emissions at their lowest level in twenty years? It’s thanks to natural gas, which the Sierra Club opposes.  According to the International Energy Agency,

“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.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has also said natural gas is one of the main reasons CO2 emissions from U.S. power plants “were 23 percent lower in 2012 than they would have been” otherwise.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory also found a significant decrease in CO2 emissions due to natural gas:

“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)

While the Sierra Club touts President Obama’s Climate Action Plan it fails to mention that one of the cornerstones of the plan is natural gas.  As the Obama administration explains:

“In fact, last year, carbon emissions from the energy sector fell to the lowest level in two decades. At the same time, while there is more work to do, we are more energy secure than at any time in recent history. In 2012, America’s net oil imports fell to the lowest level in 20 years and we have become the world’s leading producer of natural gas – the cleanest-burning fossil fuel.” (p. 4)

Perhaps EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy put it best, saying, “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.”

Natural gas production has significantly ramped up over the past couple of years.  In that same time frame CO2 emissions have been dramatically reduced.  Yet, the Sierra Club, which claims that their goal is to stop climate change, wants to ban the very fuel that’s responsible for those CO2 reductions.

CLAIM #2: “Fracking pollutes the air. Associated heavy truck traffic, diesel generators, gas venting, gas flaring, and leakage of toxic volatile air pollutants are pushing locales into dangerous air quality crises.  Oil and gas field sin the Barnett Shale area of Texas produced more smog during the summer of 2009 than all the motor vehicles in Dallas Fort Worth.  In rural Sublette County in Wyoming, over 27,000 gas wells are responsible for higher levels of smog than Houston and Los Angeles, and the American Lung Association gave the county an “F” for air quality” (p. 15). 

FACT: As EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy stated recently, “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.”  That is certainly reflected in data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which found that increased use of natural gas has actually prevented the release of 500 million tons of air pollutants.

In this passage, the Sierra Club is actually quoting a 2009 report authored by its own Beyond Coal campaign director, Al Armendariz.  Just as a refresher, Armendariz – who before joining the Sierra Club was the Region 6 director of the EPA – made himself famous for proclaiming that EPA’s “general philosophy” was to “crucify” and “make examples” out of oil and gas producers.

In Armendariz’s report on ozone, he alleged that emissions of ozone precursors from oil and gas operations in the Barnett Shale were more than twice those emanating from cars and trucks.  But Armendariz’s study relied on a modeling exercise that extrapolated an outlier of data into a broader trend.  The Texas Commission of Environmental Quality subsequently gathered data from state-of-the art air quality monitors in the region. TCEQ found that emissions from mobile sources are a much larger contributor to smog, and oil and gas operations have a minimal impact.  The Barnett Shale Energy Education Council commented on the study, explaining,

“If [Armendariz’s] study’s conclusions were correct, then the Dallas-Fort Worth region would have seen a dramatic rise in ozone levels over the past several years during the time that the number of gas wells has grown … [This chart], using ozone data from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, shows that the opposite is true.”

TCEQ data similarly show a decline in ozone in the Dallas-Fort Worth area as Barnett Shale development grew rapidly between 1999 and 2009.

State regulatory agencies in Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia have all studied emissions from well pads and concluded that there is no threat to public health.  In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently released its latest emissions inventory, which found that, thanks to shale development, Pennsylvania experienced a significant reduction in air emissions; these reductions represent “between $14 billion and $37 billion of annual public health benefit.”

As for the Sierra Club’s mention of the American Lung Association – it gave “A” grades for air quality to several North Dakota counties that are among the largest producers of Bakken Shale oil.

If there were a direct link between “fracking” and smog, the Sierra Club clearly hasn’t found it.

CLAIM #3: “Fracking poisons water. Fracking requires that millions of gallons of water, mixed with toxic chemicals, be pumped underground. Fracking can cause this injected fluid, as well as hazardous chemicals naturally occurring underground, to contaminate aquifers that provide fresh drinking water for millions of Americans.” (p. 15)

FACT: This claim has been so thoroughly debunked it’s amazing that activists are still using it.

Reports by the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Ground Water Protection Council, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found no credible threat to groundwater from hydraulic fracturing. Two recent peer-reviewed studies concluded that groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing is “not physically plausible.”  State regulators across the country have come to the same conclusion.

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz recently said: “I still have not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater.” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and numerous officials from the EPA have made similar comments.

CLAIM #4: “These underground injection sites—like fracking itself—are increasingly linked to earthquakes in Texas, Arkansas, Ohio, and Oklahoma” (p. 15)

FACT: The risk of seismic activity from hydraulic fracturing is exceedingly low.  In a recent University of Texas research paper, author Cliff Frohlich explained, “Although there is a considerable amount of hydraulic fracturing activity in the Eagle Ford, we don’t see a strong signal associated with that and earthquakes.”

The National Research Council – part of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences – has concluded: “The process of hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events.”

A recent study prepared for Los Angeles County examined hydraulic fracturing and seismicity and, as the Los Angeles Times put it in its headline, “Inglewood Oil Field fracking study finds no harm from the method.”

Further, Mark Zoback, professor of geophysics at Stanford and a former advisor for the Obama administration’s Department of Energy, said that any seismic activity associated with hydraulic fracturing is exceedingly low. “The energy released by one of these tiny microseismic events is equivalent to the energy of a gallon of milk hitting the floor after falling off a kitchen counter,” Zoback explained.

While some scientists believe that seismic events could be linked to injection wells, the National Research Council has found that “The majority of waste water disposal wells do not pose a hazard for induced seismicity,” although small risk is still “risk.”

Cliff Frohlich also explained “I don’t think people should be hugely concerned because of the huge amount of production and injection we’ve had in Texas. If it were a big problem, Texas would be famous for all its earthquakes.”  He added that “this is a phenomenon that we need to understand, but it’s not appropriate to say it’s vastly dangerous.”

CLAIM #5: “Fracking destroys pristine wild lands. Fracking technology is driving a wave of new proposals to drill thousands of new oil and gas wells on public and private lands.” (p. 15). 

FACT: Hydraulic fracturing has safely occurred in wild lands and coexisted with sensitive habitats for decades.  Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, whose jobs is to protect endangered species and natural resources as the head of the U.S. Department of the Interior, said recently, “fracking has been done safely for decades.”

Jewell has also said that “by using directional drilling and fracking, we have an opportunity to have a softer footprint on the land.”

Denying the Science

Of course, it’s long been clear that the Sierra Club’s efforts are not based on science – they are pointed towards their one overarching goal of banning oil and natural gas development in America.  As their report explains:

“President Obama can take pragmatic actions to keep dirty fuels in the ground and put our country on a new path to a clean-energy future. Over the remainder of his time in office, he has an opportunity to: require all federal resource management agencies to fully disclose potential carbon pollution; not allow any oil shale and tar sands extraction; reform coal mining on federal lands; put oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean off limits; not issue any new oil and gas leases that require fracking until impacts on water, air and climate are averted and; stop massive plans to export coal and liquified gas to other countries” (p. 4; emphasis added).

Carbon dioxide emissions are at their lowest level in twenty years thanks to the increased use of natural gas.   Meanwhile, the country is experiencing an energy boom that is strengthening our economy, creating thousands of jobs, enhancing our energy security, and – importantly – improving our environment.

Perhaps the Sierra Club is simply jealous of the economic and environmental enhancements that “fracking” has helped spur.


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