Sierra Club Gets an F in “Fracking 101”
The Sierra Club, founded in San Francisco in 1892 by legendary conservationist John Muir, was once a clarion voice for the preservation of public lands and environmental stewardship. To note that the group has grown increasingly distant from its roots is an understatement. Its decline, which we have covered previously, unfortunately moves on apace with the release of its latest video: “Fracking 101.”
Following in the “ban fracking” activist tradition of believing that actors (and whatever Yoko Ono is) somehow confer scientific legitimacy to anti-scientific polemics, the video features a voice-over by Edward James Olmos, who we will assume was unaware that the scripted words he was paid to read are the opposite of the truth.
Introducing the animated video in the Huffington Post, current Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune wrote:
“…fracking and other dirty fuel development is bad for public health, bad for the climate, and bad for the economy.”
While this is likely all you need to know about the seriousness of today’s Sierra Club, let’s examine the claims made in the video.
CLAIM: “As global reserves of fossil fuels dwindle, the oil and gas industry has turned to fracking – a more dangerous and expensive extraction method that threatens our climate.”
FACT: At this point, it is embarrassing that the Sierra Club continues to dig its heels into the objectively untrue claim that hydraulic fracturing contributes to higher CO2 emissions.
As has been confirmed by the International Energy Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and countless academics, CO2 levels have been dramatically reduced since the beginning of the shale revolution because of the increased use of natural gas in the nation’s power plants.
No serious scientist denies that natural gas emits approximately 50 percent fewer carbon emissions than coal during combustion, which is why the Sierra Club itself used to support the transition to natural gas, to say nothing of the many other environmental groups that still support shale gas.
As EPA Administrator Giny McCarthy recently said:
“Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change.”
“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.”
University of California, Berkeley physicist Richard Muller has made the same point just as plainly:
“[B]oth global warming and air pollution can be mitigated by the development and utilization of shale gas… Environmentalists who oppose the development of shale gas and fracking are making a tragic mistake.” (emphasis added)
In fact, Carl Pope, one of Mr. Brune’s predecessors as executive director of the Sierra Club, recognizes that we cannot transition to 100 percent renewable energy overnight:
“Natural gas is an excellent example of a fuel that can be produced in quite a clean way, and shouldn’t be wasted.”
One can only speculate why the Sierra Club has adopted the position of the environmental fringe with its “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign, but there is no doubt that the “ban fracking” hysteria of recent years has certainly generated its share of media attention, which of course brings with it additional fundraising and list-building opportunities.
Finally, contrary to the video’s message, known oil and natural gas reserves are increasing – not decreasing – as technology and innovation improve. As the U.S. EIA recently observed:
“U.S. proved reserves of crude oil and lease condensate increased for the fifth year in a row in 2013, and exceeded 36 billion barrels for the first time since 1975.”
CLAIM: “This toxic cocktail [of fracturing fluid] requires millions of gallons of freshwater mixed with some of over 600 chemicals including: known carcinogens lead, formaldehyde and even more that the fossil fuel industry won’t disclose.”
FACT: As the Sierra Club knows, there is a national database, FracFocus.org, which provides information about chemicals used in specific wells. It is available for anyone to search. Numerous sources also provide an overview of the kinds of chemicals used in the fracking process and the purpose they serve, in addition to what’s available on FracFocus.
In addition, states have been strengthening their disclosure requirements, though many companies were already disclosing the chemicals voluntarily. Anti-fracking activists have either supported or opposed these regulations – even when they were essentially identical – based on political opportunism, suggesting that their interest in “disclosure” is motivated by something different than the actual disclosure of additives.
While activists try to scare the public about “millions of gallons” of water, the amount of water actually used in hydraulic fracturing is a fraction of a percent of total water consumption. In fact, data clearly show that shale development accounts for only 0.3 percent of total freshwater consumption in the United States.
If you read that a typical hydraulic fracturing job in the eastern U.S. could use four million gallons of water, it may sound alarming, which is what groups like the Sierra Club want (did you notice the eerie tone in their video?). Consider, however, that New York City consumes four million gallons of water every six minutes. Four millions gallons is 1.3 percent of the amount of water used every day in car washes. Four million gallons is also the amount of water that just one golf course uses during one summer month.
However, in the Sierra Club’s home state of California, an average fracking job requires 130,000 gallons of water (about one-fifth of an Olympic-sized pool). This is not necessarily a critical distinction because the water is treated and recycled (and, in California, water is often clean enough to be sold to agriculture for irrigation, helping to mitigate drought).
Regardless of which region you examine, it should be clear that the Sierra Club was going for shock value rather than an objective look at the facts.
CLAIM: “Under high pressure, the rock fractures, sending the methane gas up the well. Most of the fracking fluid stays underground. The fluid that comes back up is either dumped into rivers, left in open pits that contaminate the air or hauled away by big rigs.”
FACT: The claim that fracturing fluid or produced water is carelessly “dumped into rivers” is a scare tactic, plain and simple. Strict federal and state environmental laws and regulations – for example, comprehensive rules in Colorado, Texas, California and elsewhere — exist to mitigate any accidental (or, worse, intentional) water contamination. But the Environmental Health and Safety departments of oil and gas companies – not to mention federal and state regulators – exist to ensure that these kinds of accidents don’t happen.
While some fracturing fluid may “stay underground” – far below the surface, where oil, gas and water have been trapped for literally millions of years – much of it comes back to the surface with oil or gas. Generally, it is then treated and reinjected back into the formation – cleaner than when it came out – to stabilize pressure; recycled (often in a closed-loop system) and used in enhanced oil recovery; or injected into Class II disposal wells, which must meet strong federal guidelines set by the U.S. EPA.
That’s a far less frightening picture than what Edward James Olmos presented, but it also has the benefit of being far more accurate.
CLAIM: “Those fluids and gases can then seep into aquifers that provide irrigation for farming and turns drinking water into a toxic mix.”
FACT: It really is amazing that an organization as once respected as the Sierra Club would pit itself against the scientific consensus of countless state and federal regulators and academic experts.
Regulatory authorities, after countless investigations, have stated repeatedly that hydraulic fracturing has never contaminated an aquifer. Many academic experts, like Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback, point out that the possibility of such an occurrence is incredibly remote given geologic realities; namely, the fact that hydraulic fracturing occurs about a mile below the water table.
Keeping in the dishonest tradition of Sierra Club’s anti-fracking advocacy, the group’s “Fracking 101” video bizarrely shows fracturing fluids moving downward into aquifers. How, exactly, that could happen when drinking water sources are located thousands of feet above where fracturing takes place must have been edited out of Mr. Olmos’s script.
Nonetheless, numerous scientific studies have confirmed that fracking does not pose a credible risk to groundwater. A recent peer-reviewed report examined two ways for hydraulic fracturing fluid to potentially impact human health: “upward migration” of fluid through shale and other rock formations into an aquifer, and “surface incidents” like spills or other fluid releases. As the report concluded:
“[I]t is implausible that the fluids pumped into the target formation would migrate from the target formation through overlying bedrock to reach shallow aquifers…. there is no scientific basis for significant upward migration of HF fluid or brine from tight target formations in sedimentary basins.”
As for surface releases, the risks were also considered very low:
“Human health risks associated with potential surface spills of fluids containing HF constituents are expected to be insignificant with respect to both impacts to USDWs [underground sources of drinking water] and impacts to surface waters due to dilution mechanisms which are expected to reduce concentrations in potable aquifers and surface waters to levels below health-based drinking water concentrations in the event of surface spills.” (emphasis added)
And let’s not forget that, in a U.S. Senate hearing in May of last year, when pressed for a single specific example of water contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing, a representative of the Sierra Club was unable to provide one.
CLAIM: “The industry conceals the exact amount of methane that escapes during fracking.”
FACT: Methane emissions are an important issue, given that methane is a potent greenhouse gas. It’s also the primary constituent of natural gas, giving the industry an economic as well as an environmental incentive to prevent leakage. The good news is that, according to the EPA, methane leakage rates from natural gas systems are down 16.9 percent since 1990, and leakage rates easily low enough for natural gas to maintain its environmental benefits.
The picture got clearer on Tuesday of this week when a new study (part two here) by the University of Texas in collaboration with the Environmental Defense Fund found that methane leakage rates were 0.38 percent of production, fully 10 percent lower than what the same researchers found in a similar study in 2013. Those emissions data largely corroborate what EPA has reported based upon the information provided to them by the industry, making Sierra Club’s claim about “concealing data” demonstrably untrue.
In addition, the UT/EDF study found that a small number of sites accounted for most of the emissions, meaning that current industry practices are quite effective at managing methane leakage.
Of course, the industry would like the leakage rate to be even lower, and it is working toward that goal. That’s one reason why several energy companies have partnered with EDF for its ongoing study of methane emissions. But for the Sierra Club to mislead the public about the fact that methane leakage has been sharply reduced since the dawn of the shale revolution, is irresponsible at best or intentionally dishonest at worst.
CLAIM: “We can power America with 100 percent clean energy like wind and solar.”
FACT: No, we can’t – at least not yet. When the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, Americans will still need electricity and transportation fuels. There are more than 30 million cars on the road in California alone, where 96 percent of the state’s transportation is petroleum-based. The EIA estimates that by 2040, 80 percent of our energy will still be fossil-fuel based. In addition, renewables will need natural gas in order for them to grow into a more significant part of our energy mix.
Some environmentalists, like Carl Pope, understand this. Others, like the current leadership of the Sierra Club, are more interested in scoring political points than they are in working with policymakers to develop common sense solutions to genuine environmental concerns.
The Sierra Club’s stated mission is:
To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.
These are all noble aims. It is a shame that the group has veered so far from its focus on responsibility and education that it has become a crusade of misinformation, obfuscation and outright anti-scientific advocacy. Though its opposition to clean-burning natural gas in particular, the Club is apparently more focused on frustrating the work of industry and government regulators than on protecting our shared environment.
Whether it is trying to deny basic science on hydraulic fracturing; spamming a Colorado task force with activist emails; alienating liberal Democrats with its anti-science approach; or conflating fracking with an entirely different activity, the Sierra Club has taken ideological opposition to oil and natural gas to a new and unprecedented level.