California

Tortured Logic and False Claims Show Activists Are Getting Desperate

Fringe environmental groups are growing increasingly desperate in their attempts to convince policymakers and the public that hydraulic fracturing should be banned in California.

The latest proof of their desperation is a letter from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an Arizona-based group that the Tucson Citizen dubbed “a multi-million dollar environmental litigation factory,” to the San Benito County Board of Supervisors. The tortured logic and outright falsehoods used to support the CBD’s ideological objective – the elimination of all domestic oil and gas development – is truly breathtaking and an insult to the intelligence of San Benito County’s elected officials and the people they represent.

Now, I don’t envy the CBD. It must be difficult to try convincing people to ban a technology that has been safely used for more than 60 years and is creating good jobs, invigorating the economy and generating billions of much-needed tax revenues in states across the country.  But important debates – such as how we can responsibly develop of California’s natural resources – should be conducted in good faith and should be informed by facts and peer-reviewed science, not by ideologically motivated misinformation campaigns.

Californians deserve to know when they’re being misled, so let’s go through the CBD’s letter claim by claim and look at the facts.

CBD: “Because the risk of many of these harms from fracking cannot be eliminated, a complete prohibition on the practice is the best way to protect health and the environment. Nevertheless, should the County choose to enact regulations short of a complete prohibition, this could still provide a number of benefits by identifying and preventing potential harms before they occur.”

This is the kind of tortured logic that only makes sense to ideologues. In one breath, the CBD claims that hydraulic fracturing is too dangerous to be regulated and thus should be banned, and then in the next breath, it admits that it can be regulated and suggests how those regulations should be written.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before. Environmental groups in California endorsed and actually helped write hydraulic fracturing regulations in Colorado. When the California Division of Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) proposed almost identical regulations recently, the same environmental groups acted as if they’d never heard of Colorado, and immediate denounced the California regulations as inadequate.

CBD: “[Hydraulic fracturing] is a dangerous method of stimulating the production of oil or gas from a well.”

That’s simply not true. The safety of hydraulic fracturing has been confirmed time and again. Let’s look at two recent examples from experts from the Obama Administration:

According to President Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar:

  • “There’s a lot of hysteria that takes place now with respect to hydraulic fracking, and you see that happening in many of the states. … My point of view, based on my own study of hydraulic fracking, is that it can be done safely and has been done safely hundreds of thousands of times.” (Feb. 15, 2012)

And President Obama’s top energy and climate adviser Heather Zichal has said the following about using hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas from deep shale formations:

  • “We know that natural gas can safely be developed, and to the credit of the industry there are many companies that are leaning into this challenge and promoting best practices for safer and more efficient production. That’s not always widely noticed or appreciated, but it’s a fact.” (May 15, 2012)

No matter how many times the CBD and its allies claim otherwise, the record on hydraulic fracturing is as extensive as it is clear: it is a safe, proven and well understood technology that’s been used more than 1.2 million times in the United States, including California, since the 1940s.

The combination of this technology with horizontal drilling, which has been widely used since the 1980s, has spurred a renaissance in domestic energy production that supports more than 1.7 million jobs nationwide.

This is also an environmental success story. More homegrown energy means less dependence on foreign oil from regimes with much less stringent environmental standards than California. In addition, the renaissance in natural gas shales in other parts of the country has opened new possibilities for the expansion of the use of CNG vehicles, such as the type that are essential to helping improve air quality throughout California.

CBD: “The United States Environmental Protection Agency recently confirmed its findings that fracking contaminated groundwater in Pavillion, Wyoming.”

That would be news to the EPA. Here’s what the agency said last month about the status of its draft Pavillion report, which was released for public comment in December 2011:

  • “This draft research report is not final as described in EPA’s Information Quality Guidelines, and does not represent and should not be construed to represent Agency policy or views.” (Jan. 11, 2013)

In fact, in the months following the release of the December 2011 draft Pavillion report, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the following:

  • “In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” (April 30, 2012)

And just before the draft Pavillion report was released, Jackson said:

  • “We have absolutely no indication right now that drinking water is at risk.” (November 21, 2011)

Drinking water isn’t at risk because the draft findings of the EPA’s Pavillion report are based on samples from two monitoring wells that the agency drilled hundreds of feet deeper than the domestic water wells used in the area. Based on test results from those monitoring wells, the EPA theorized a possible link between nearby natural gas development and some of the substances detected. But EPA officials have stressed this is only a preliminary finding that has not been subjected to peer review.

Even before peer review, however, the EPA’s theory has been discredited by criticism from other federal agencies – including the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey – as well as the State of Wyoming and oil and gas industry experts. Upon closer scrutiny of the EPA’s Pavillion tests it was revealed that the agency drilled its monitoring wells too deep and into a natural hydrocarbon reservoir. By failing to follow special procedures for drilling monitoring wells, the EPA tainted its results even further by introducing foreign substances into the very groundwater it was trying to sample.

According to the BLM:

  • “Bias in the samples obtained from these wells may exist. Possible causes include transfer of shallow contamination into deeper zones through the drilling process, or contamination of samples through the introduction of contamination during the drilling and well installation process (e.g., bentonite muds, additives such as soda ash, pipe-dope, and make-up water). In addition, the development of these monitor wells appears to be deficient for sampling purposes and groundwater samples from the wells should not be fully trusted until development activities indicate that the wells are yielding formation water untainted by any effects introduced by the drilling, well completion, and sampling process.” (March 1, 2012)

You can view more research on the Pavillion case here and here.

CBD: “A study from the Colorado School of Public Health found that air pollution from fracking contribute [sic] to serious health problems in people living near fracked wells.”

The CBD is either misrepresenting the conclusions of this paper, or doesn’t know what it actually said. In reality, the paper in question found no actual health impacts, but instead tried to predict health impacts that might be experienced in the future.

The CBD also neglected to mention that the paper’s methodology was criticized by state health officials and was disavowed by local health officials. Among the its many flaws, the paper exaggerated the emissions from drilling and completing natural gas wells by 10 times, and mistakenly assumed tailpipe emissions from thousands of cars on nearby Interstate-70 were actually coming from those wells. The study also found that people living near gas wells have no greater cancer risk than the general population – 10 in one million.

CBD: “Researchers from Cornell University have found that fracking operations release so much methane to the atmosphere that natural gas from fracking could actually be worse for the climate than coal.”

Natural gas is not worse for the climate than coal, and the CBD almost certainly knows it.

The study cited by the CBD has been thoroughly debunked, and it was funded by a group that opposes hydraulic fracturing. The CBD must be aware of the widespread criticism this study from Cornell professors Tony Ingraffea and Bob Howarth has received. Again, though, for the CBD, ideology trumps science.

Those criticizing the study’s many flaws include:

  • Lawrence Cathles, Cornell University (this must have been particularly embarrassing for the authors)
  • Paula Jaramillo, Carnegie Mellon University (work funded by the Sierra Club)
  • Frances O’Sullivan and Sergey Paltsev, M.I.T.
  • U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory
  • Worldwatch Institute
  • Michael Levi, Council on Foreign Relations
  • John Hanger, former Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
  • Dot Earth
  • Dave McCabe, Clean Air Task Force

The fact is that, according to the International Energy Agency, the U.S. is leading the world in cutting carbon dioxide emissions largely because of increased production and use of shale gas. The environmental community used to support natural gas production because they knew that, when used to generate electricity, natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal.

Again, the CBD knows this. The problem they face is that excellent news for the environment is bad news for the activist business model. It is important for professional activists to have something to campaign against regardless of actual environmental outcomes.

The Ingraffea/Howarth study provided a convenient excuse for environmental activists who claimed to be concerned about climate change, and were once for natural gas, to suddenly change course and campaign against natural gas. But simply repeating the “gas is worse for the climate than coal” talking point over and over again doesn’t make it true.

CBD: “The County has full authority to regulate fracking.”

On this claim I could simply cite two excerpts from the opinion of the California Attorney General’s office, which has been in effect since 1976:

“Where there is state regulation of oil, gas and geothermal resources well drilling and production activities for the purpose of conserving and protecting those resources, such state regulation has preempted certain phases of such activity. Particularly, where the state regulation approves of or specifies plans of operation, methods, materials, procedures, or equipment to be used by the well operator or where activities are to be carried out under the direction of the Supervisor, there is no room for local regulation. It appears from our review that for the most part such activities are confined to down-hole or subsurface operations. With regard to state regulation for other  purposes, such as land use control and environmental protection, the state has not fully occupied the field; and more stringent, supplemental regulation by cities and counties is valid to the extent that it does not conflict with, interfere with, or frustrate the state’s regulation for purposes of conservation and protection of the resources.”

“Counties and cities may regulate the drilling, operation, maintenance and abandonment of oil, gas and geothermal wells with respect to phases of such activities not covered by state statute or regulation so long as that regulation does not conflict with state regulation concerning other phases of such activities.”

As the California Independent Petroleum Association has pointed out, hydraulic fracturing “doesn’t happen in isolation, it happens inside oil and gas wells, and the construction of those wells is strictly regulated” by the State of California. So, based on the attorney general’s assessment of the relevant laws, it is not appropriate for the CBD to ask San Benito County to carry out the environmental group’s clear objective – to interfere with and frustrate the state’s regulation oil and gas development and ban the lawful use of a safe and proven technology used to enhance the productivity of oil and gas wells.

Conclusion

There is an important discussion happening in California about our energy future. Most Californians know that we can continue to lead the nation in our stewardship of the environment and remain one of the largest energy producing states. Indeed, with the responsible development of our natural resources California could experience the kind of renaissance – in jobs, economic growth, and state revenue – that states elsewhere in the country are enjoying thanks to technologies like hydraulic fracturing that allow them to develop their shale plays.

During this discussion, reasonable people will disagree about specifics, but it is critical for the discussion that people on all sides of the debate keep it honest and scientifically grounded, so that people can make up their minds based on the facts. It might be inconvenient for the CBD and professional activist groups when the environmental news is good, but that doesn’t give them license to make up their own facts.

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