While a Step in the Right Direction, TED’s Fracking Video Misses on Major Issues

A recent animated video published by TED discussing the hydraulic fracturing process has made rounds on social media this week, garnering 4.8 million views and more than 36,000 shares on Facebook.

The video examines the various steps of fracking and energy development, and is — to its credit — a more accurate description than most. However, it does have some glaring errors, namely the video’s inaccurate claim about water contamination from the fracking process, the conflation of fracking with wastewater injection in regard to seismicity, and the downplaying of benefits to health and air quality brought about by fracking.

When a well is hydraulically fractured, the process is taking place deep beneath the surface – up to 10,000 feet down, or roughly two miles. For comparison, residential water wells are generally around 500 feet, while aquifers used for drinking water can be several hundred up to about two thousand feet deep before the salinity and other natural contaminants make it undrinkable. In other words, with a mile or more of hard, impermeable shale rock between the fracking process and groundwater, there is no evidence of fracking fluids leaking up to drinking water aquifers as shown in the TED video.

The following image from Popular Mechanics puts the typical distance between potable aquifers and oil and gas production zones in proper perspective.

As the above image shows, the thousands of feet of impenetrable rock separating oil and gas producing formations from drinking water aquifers makes upward seepage of fracking fluids and hydrocarbons into drinking water virtually impossible.
As a 2015 Yale University report concluded,

We have found no evidence for direct communication with shallow drinking water wells due to upward migration from shale horizons.  This result is encouraging, because it implies there is some degree of temporal and spatial separation between injected fluids and drinking water supply.” (p. 5, emphasis added)

The EPA’s recent five-year study on fracking and drinking water also concluded,

“…due to the very low permeabilities of shale formations; this means that hydraulic fracturing operations are unlikely to generate sufficient pressure to drive fluids into shallow drinking water zones. … In deep, low-permeability shale and tight gas settings and where induced fractures are contained within the production zone, flow through the production formation has generally been considered an unlikely pathway for migration into drinking water resources (Jackson et al., 2013d).”

These are just two of the many studies to show that fracking in not a major risk for groundwater contamination. A recent study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), for example, concluded that methane isotopes and low concentrations of chemicals found in some wells in the Eagle Ford, Fayetteville and Haynesville shales are most likely naturally occurring. Another study, funded by the anti-fracking group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and completed by researchers at Duke

University, found “no indication of groundwater contamination” from fracking in West Virginia over the course of the three year study. Even the aforementioned EPA study found that impacts on water from fracking are “small,” reinforcing the original conclusion of their draft report which found no evidence of “widespread, systemic impacts” from fracking.

In addition to misrepresenting the low risk to groundwater from fracking, the TED video confuses fracking with wastewater injection – two completely separate processes – on the issue of seismicity. Fracking is a process used to produce oil and gas from shale rock, while wastewater injection is the pumping of wastewater — a vast majority of which is brine from day-to-day conventional and unconventional energy development — deep into the formation in order to minimize risk and safely dispose of byproducts. Fracking has been shown not to be related to a vast majority of induced seismicity, while less than one percent of the injection wells nationwide are thought to be tied to seismic events. A fact that the USGS notes in their “Myths and Misconceptions” website about induced seismicity, noting:

Fact 1: 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.” (Emphasis added)

Finally, the video downplays the beneficial effects on air quality and downward trend of greenhouse gas emissions brought about by fracking. Thanks to an abundance of previously unreachable natural gas unlocked through fracking, the U.S. has seen a massive drop in CO2 emissions from power generation, reaching the lowest levels 25 years. Moreover, emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxides (SO2), mercury and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from natural gas-fired power generation are significantly lower than other sources of power. In fact, power plant NOx emissions declined 67 percent between 1990 and 2015, with NOx and SO2 emissions from the power sector dropping 86 percent and 55 percent from 1990 to 2015, respectively. Meanwhile the direct emissions of PM2.5 have dropped roughly 60 percent over the past 10 years.

Overall, this TED video is a step in the right direction toward neutrally explaining hydraulic fracturing, but it nonetheless perpetuates some a few substantial misconceptions about the process – specifically about water impacts, seismicity and air quality. Understanding the minimal risks and environmental benefits associated with fracking is necessary to moving past the manufactured controversy surrounding the process and accurately informing the public about oil and gas development.

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