What A Natural Gas Agenda Report Looks Like – Part II
We laid the foundations for analyzing the report “The Costs of Fracking” in Part I of this series. Now we’ll delve further into this 49-page paper from a group caught twice using fabricated imagery to stimulate a negative response against natural gas development.
This report is riddled with misleading information and assumptions. One of the most widely inappropriate parts of this study was the authors took information from across the country and tried to generically apply every situation to every state by releasing it under individual state organizations. This was problematic because it assumes regulations, geography, practices and other circumstances are the same across the board, when the reality is they can, and often do, vary greatly from state to state. We’ll focus on some of the bigger ones and invite you to read the whole report and cited studies within to determine for yourself what the risks and benefits associated with natural gas development are.
Wrong on “Drinking Water Contamination”
Here are some of the outlandish claims found in the report regarding water contamination:
Page 13: Fracking has polluted drinking water sources in a variety of ways.
Page 13: Recent studies have suggested that fracking may also pose a longer-term threat of groundwater contamination.
Page 14: The most significant impacts of fracking on rivers and streams used for drinking water come not from individual spills, blowouts or other accidents, but rather from the effects of fracking many wells in a given area at the same time.
This goes back to our discussion of the definition of “fracking” the authors have chosen to use to describe all natural gas development. The process of hydraulic fracturing has never contaminated groundwater. I know, I know that’s the industry’s mantra right? Well, it is because it’s a true statement. Can methane migration occur if a well is not properly cemented during the drilling phase of development? Yes. Can surface spills occur impacting water? Yes. But none of these risks occur during or as a result of the hydraulic fracturing of a well.
The industry has made great strides to prevent the potential risks associated with natural gas development impacting water wells, and continues to do so everyday. They are increasing the layers of protection for their casing, some companies using as many as seven layers of steel and cement to protect aquifers. Companies are employing closed-loop systems to mitigate the risk of surface spills by keeping all materials on a well site in closed containers. They are also using increased containment on site from plastic liners to berms and even ponds to catch anything that may run-off from heavy rain.
The use of horizontal technology to develop shale gas has actually decreased the impacts to wildlife and the landscape. One horizontal pad with multiple wells can take the place of 24 vertical well pads. Think about that: that’s 5 acres total, compared to 5 acres every well, which would encompass 120 acres.
Here’s some more nonsense from the report:
Page 13: One study used computer modeling to conclude that natural faults and fractures in the Marcellus Shale region could accelerate the movement of frackign chemicals – possibly bringing these contaminants into contact with groundwater in a matter of years.
Page 13: A recent study by researchers at Duke University found evidence for the existence of underground pathways between the deep underground formations tapped by Marcellus Shale fracking and groundwater supplies closer to the surface.
The paper the authors cite had quite a few flaws, as pointed out by one of the peer reviewers, Geologist Terry Engleder, in emails with the authors. Just because a paper has been peer reviewed, does not mean the reviewers agreed with the methods or findings, as we learned from this correspondence.
Issue #1: No discussion of time-scale
Issue #2: No discussion of exposure pathways
Issue #3: No discussion of whether the Marcellus Shale even contains enough brinewater to leak.
Issue #4: No discussion of transport or drive mechanism
So, to recap: Duke researchers say that small volumes of brinewater were detected in a few shallow water wells in northeast Pennsylvania. They believe this brinewater originated from the Marcellus, a conclusion they reached even without identifying a pathway for it to travel, a mechanism to propel it, or a time-scale that would at least narrow the possibilities of transport speed down to a couple million years. Notified of the fact that the Marcellus doesn’t actually contain much “free” brinewater, the researchers double-down and insist that it does, apparently confusing the collection of flowback and produced water on the surface for brine that’s native to the formation. Of course, and very much to their credit, the Duke researchers make it clear that the phenomena they observed are in no way connected to development activities in the region.
Page 13: In Dimock, Pennsylvania, Cabot Oil & Gas reported having spent $109,000 on methane removal systems for 14 local households…In addition, the company spent $10,000 on new or extended vent stacks.
Page 14: A permanent solution to water issues in Dimock – the extension of municipal water to the neighborhood – was estimated to cost $11.8 million.
These are interesting statements for the authors to make because they claim within the paper several times company’s are not held responsible, nor do they pay the costs associated with natural gas development. Yet, here we have them discrediting that very statement. Please note, Cabot paid the costs associated with water delivery and treatment of the Consent Order households in Dimock, Pennsylvania. This in turn becomes economic development for the community as they used local contractors for both the treatment and water deliveries, putting money into the local economy at no cost to the homeowners.
The second statement is an option that was heavily opposed by the community with residents forming the group Enough Already! (later Dimock Proud) to stop the water pipeline that would mean rural households would have to hook up to public water systems. Eleven of the 18 Consent Order households supported the pipeline, while the other seven and hundreds of other residents opposed it. If you have a private well, you know how upset people can get if they are told they will have to start paying for their water, an often free commodity in rural Pennsylvania and New York. Again all treatment, including this pipeline, were Cabot’s responsibility, not the homeowners’.
Page 14: New York City could require the installation of a filtration system due to shale gas drilling.
This is because New York City has an exemption from the Clean Water Act–gasp! Yes, the same one those opposed to natural gas development claim the industry is exempt from. In order for NYC to maintain this exemption, allowing them to continue to not install a filtration system for the water they supply to over 8 million people, those living in the watershed have to make a lot of sacrifices. This means recreational activities and other development within the watershed must meet stricter regulations than in other areas of the state.
You see, the issue with the watershed is not contamination, but turbidity. Turbidity can occur from lots of things and water wells near natural gas well sites have been reported to experience temporary turbidity after a well is drilled. It’s temporary and a non-issue in most cases, but any turbidity can put the city’s exemption status in jeopardy. It’s something the Department of Environmental Conservation will have to consider carefully in their permitting process and regulations when they allow development.
Wrong on “Health Problems”
Page 15: Chemical present in fracking wastewater have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer.
Page 16: Residents living near fracking sites have long suffered from a range of health problems including headaches, eye irritation, respiratory problems and nausea…
The report also cites the Colorado School of Public Health study and the Texas Department of Environmental Quality detected high levels of benzene that would pose immediate health threats at 2 sites in Barnett Shale and 19 sites that would pose long-term concern.
We’ve looked at the Colorado School of Public Health study as well, and found a few issues that need to be addressed to take the findings seriously.
- Out of Date Emissions Data
- Inflated Time to Drill and Complete a Well by as Much as 900%
- Inflated Small Cancer Risks Due to Lack of Context
- Assumed No One Ever Leaves Garfield County
- Failed to Account/Control for Other Variables
- Poor Distance Assumptions Increased Uncertainty
- Failed to Communicate with Local Environmental Officials
- Who’s in Charge Here? The group claimed Garfield County commissioned them to do the study, but there is no record of this.
Two health professionals in our region, Uni Blake and Sue Mickley, analyzed the Texas study and how its findings would compare in New York. This is one such incident where not only were the findings flawed as later studies showed, but also a different set of regulations and composition of the gas make all the difference in potential issues.
Following the release of the movie, moreover, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) challenged that claim, stating:
“Biological test results from a Texas Department of State Health Services investigation in Dish, Texas, indicate that residents’ exposure to certain contaminants was not greater than that of the general U.S. population.” (DSHS report, May 12, 2010).
They would go on to mention that, “DSHS paid particular attention to benzene because of its association with natural gas wells. The only residents who had higher levels of benzene in their blood were smokers. Because cigarette smoke contains benzene, finding it in smokers’ blood is not unusual.”
The findings of DSHS were only further solidified with the release of a comprehensive study by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The Commission studied air quality in Dish and Dallas-Fort Worth to determine air impacts from natural gas development. As part of this effort, in the spring of 2009 TCEQ installed automated gas chromatograph (AutoGC) monitors in two locations surrounded by natural gas operations—the Town of Dish, in Denton County, and near Eagle Mountain Lake, in Tarrant County. These monitors operate around the clock, measuring levels of more than 45 VOCs, including benzene. After two years of continual monitoring there have been no chemicals measured above levels of concern for public health. The results from the monitors are posted hourly on the TCEQ website.
The composition of the natural gas in the Marcellus Shale is expected to be dry, meaning the natural gas is not expected to be paired with liquid hydrocarbons in the shale deposit. It is expected, based on geological study, that there will be very low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOC) inherent in the shale due to this composition. Therefore BTEX compounds, an acronym that stands for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes, are not expected to be in any flowback emanating from New York natural gas wells. However, if low levels of VOCs are anticipated, and permit conditions require a closed-loop system as they currently do, then the availability of VOCs to create ozone or any other potential health impact is greatly diminished.
In conclusion, because NYSDEC permit conditions require strict setback requirements proven to isolate contaminants from water sources and require the use closed-loop systems to limit any exposure to land, water and air, and the composition of natural gas underlying does not contain high levels of VOC’s, there are limited possibilities at worst for significant public health impacts. While worries about public health impacts are often genuine, a fact-based review shows concerns over human health impacts from natural gas production in shale may be better placed elsewhere.
Page 16: Oil and gas workers are seven times more likely to die on the job than other workers. Between 2003 and 2008, 648 oil and gas workers nationwide died from on-the-job injuries.
It appears this statistic came from the New York Times and Ian Urbina, which we’ve looked at here.
But it looks as if the numbers for this claim — as well as the one about oil and gas having a fatality rate “seven times” the national average — may have come from this presentation. The numbers and date ranges are nearly identical to what appears in Mr. Urbina’s story. The only problem: the document says up front (emphasis added): “The information in this presentation has not been reviewed by NIOSH or CDC and does not represent any federal government position or policy.”
Nonetheless, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the oil and gas industry is not even ranked in the top 25 for highest rates of injuries and illnesses across all industries. In fact, the average national injury incidence rate is three times higher than the rate for oil and gas extraction. For fatalities specifically, BLS data show the fatality rate for oil and gas extraction is lower than that for aircraft pilots, chauffeurs, fishing, and farming, among many others.And, according to the Centers for Disease Control – the same source Urbina cites in his story – the highway transportation fatality rate for oil and gas extraction is lower than general truck transportation, logging, and waste management. Even limousine services have higher highway fatality rates than those for oil and gas.
More to come. Please stay tuned for Part III.