Fracking Liars

Back at the AAAS Meeting, I was really annoyed by a session on fracking, the process by which natural gas is extracted from shale deep underground. As I wrote at the time, regarding the industry shills who spoke:

I left before the whole thing had wrapped up, because it was that or start throwing stuff at Martin and Gorody. Honestly, their presentations made me more convinced than ever that we need strict regulations governing the development of the shale. While the gas will inevitably be extracted (unless somebody comes up with a cheap and readily manufactured solar cell with 60% efficiency tomorrow), if the people running the operation are assholes to this degree, they deserve to be positively mummified in red tape.

A while later I wrote a calmer and more detailed post about the issue, which hits close to home, literally: my hometown of Whitney Point is in one of the areas where gas companies want to start fracking.

In both cases, I got comments from people saying I was too harsh to the industry, and that safety concerns were overblown, because there have been umpty-zillion wells drilled but not one documented case of fracking leading to contamination of drinking water. Only, as the New York Times reports today, that isn’t exactly what you might call true:

The report is not recent — it was published in 1987, and the contamination was discovered in 1984. Drilling technology and safeguards in well design have improved significantly since then. Nevertheless, the report does contradict what has emerged as a kind of mantra in the industry and in the government.

The report concluded that hydraulic fracturing fluids or gel used by the Kaiser Exploration and Mining Company contaminated a well roughly 600 feet away on the property of James Parsons in Jackson County, W.Va., referring to it as “Mr. Parson’s water well.”

“When fracturing the Kaiser gas well on Mr. James Parson’s property, fractures were created allowing migration of fracture fluid from the gas well to Mr. Parson’s water well,” according to the agency’s summary of the case. “This fracture fluid, along with natural gas was present in Mr. Parson’s water, rendering it unusable.”

the Times also notes that there may very well be more of these cases, but the industry has used legal dodges to keep them from coming to light:

In their report, E.P.A. officials also wrote that Mr. Parsons’ case was highlighted as an “illustrative” example of the hazards created by this type of drilling, and that legal settlements and nondisclosure agreements prevented access to scientific documentation of other incidents.

“This is typical practice, for instance, in Texas,” the report stated. “In some cases, the records of well-publicized damage incidents are almost entirely unavailable for review.”

So, why am I mean to gas industry shills? Because they’re lying assholes who shouldn’t be trusted any farther than I can throw a gas drilling rig. There will be plenty of reasons why they claim this case can be dismissed, and why they technically didn’t perjure themselves by testifying to Congress that there has never been a documented case, and blah, blah, blah. The fact remains, that one of their strongest go-to arguments for the safety of fracking is, in fact, a systematic deception.

So, I say again: if these gas deposits are going to be developed at all, the companies doing the drilling need to be regulated to within an inch of their life. They simply can not be trusted to deal honestly and openly with anybody.

Comments

  1. #1 Stephen
    August 4, 2011

    I’m out of the loop on this crusade, so let me ask an honest question – no documented cases? How do industry shills explain away youtube videos of people lighting the water coming out of their faucets?

  2. #2 andre
    August 4, 2011

    Stephen@#1: Those cannot be directly tied to drilling activity. It could be a natural event or something that was even present before drilling.

    It’s very difficult to prove any contaminants come directly from the fracking. This is especially problematic when the public does not know what specific chemicals are used in the fracking process.

  3. #3 cb
    August 4, 2011

    What did Sinclair Lewis say? You can’t make a man understand what his paycheck depends upon his not understanding. Something to that effect.

  4. #4 Erik
    August 4, 2011

    I spent all last summer in WPa working on a few cases for lower income people in the area. From what I saw, most of the contamination seemed to be well casing related or spilling water on the pad related.

    However, Andre brings up an excellent point, it is extremely difficult to determine where anything comes from. First, as far as the methane, methanogens(bacteria that produce methane) are extremely prevalent in well water. The test to determine the source consists of determining the radioiisotope ratio of the carbon and hydrogen in the methane, and the ratios tell what the source is. There are only 2 places in the country that we found who were willing to do this(UC Irvine and U Illinois), and it was a couple hundred bucks.

    The second issue(at least from the near ground issues), the fluids are only present for a few months after fracking, and then dissipate.

  5. #5 kermit
    August 4, 2011

    Why would you approve of PV only if efficiency reached 60%? I’m guessing that it’s a cost per MW thing. But the real cost of fracking is not only the $/MW the consumer spends, but also the contaminated water that you reasonably suspect exists, despite its sparse documentation. You also must factor in the damage from continuing to use fossil fuels. How many hundreds of billions of dollars is the US losing this year alone? Lost crops from drought and heat, damage to property and topsoil from floods, lost productivity, storm damage, etc.

    Of course profit is localized but cost is widely distributed, and difficult to quantify (but not impossible). Wind and solar are already much cheaper already, considering these side effects. Peak oil will also drive up the price of oil considerably over the next few years, which will in turn drive up the price of any other fossil fuels. Committing ourselves to more sources of stored carbon will not be cheaper in the long run, even if money were the only consideration. Solar will continue to get cheaper (if only from the price advantage from expansion) and oil, natural gas, even coal will have to get more expensive – we’re not making it any faster, we’re using it up faster!

  6. #6 NJ
    August 4, 2011

    kermit @ 5:

    Why would you approve of PV only if efficiency reached 60%?

    My guess is that he just picked a round number on the fly that is way above the efficiency required for grid superiority and way, way above the current efficiency record.

    And that you have read way, way, way too much into a throwaway statement.

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    August 4, 2011

    My guess is that he just picked a round number on the fly that is way above the efficiency required for grid superiority and way, way above the current efficiency record.

    That’s a very good guess.

  8. #8 Pierce R. Butler
    August 4, 2011

    andre @ # 2: It’s very difficult to prove any contaminants come directly from the fracking.

    Yeah, and I’ll never prove that the cancers which killed two of my uncles came from smoking tobacco.

    It would be very unscientific to compare Martin and Gorody & their ilk to the countless physicians who for decades propagandized for tobacco corporations about the “safety” of their products, until they were finally shamed into silence.

    Very unscientific, yes. But I hope it happens, and happens and happens, to the point where such science-pimps crawl back under their rocks and drink themselves catatonic.

  9. #9 Fah Fah Fah
    August 4, 2011

    Another issue besides the possibility of ground/well water contamination from fracking fluids is the amount of fresh water trucked in and used during the drilling that is then contaminated with fracking fluids and heavy metals churned up during the process. It is fresh water wasted and rendered unusable, and there is alot of it consumed in the process, not to mention in tar sand oil production.

  10. #10 Kevin
    August 4, 2011

    @ Pierce #8 Yeah, and I’ll never prove that the cancers which killed two of my uncles came from smoking tobacco.

    Right, you could never prove that. What you can prove is that smokers are at significantly higher risk for developing lung cancer. For fracking, we need data that says that wells near drilling sites have a significantly higher chance of being contaminated. Also, because the industry folks will probably say, “well, that’s just because wells near drilling sites are by definition closer to large methane deposits,” we also need data from wells before and after the fracking gets started.

    I believe there are a few groups working on those studies, but they’re pretty tough to do.

  11. #11 Walt's Garage
    August 4, 2011

    Fah – good point. I was in Towanda, PA (pop. about 3,000) a few months ago and got stuck in a traffic jam in the middle of the day caused by drill rigs and water trucks. I’m willing to bet Towanda never had traffic jams before fracking came to town.

    Pierce – there was natural gas in some of those wells before fracking came to town. As Erik said,it’s not cheap to test which gas is in your well.

    Overall, I believe that it is POSSIBLE to safely do this fracking. In the REAL world, however,there is far too much money involved and if the choice is between long term protection of the groundwater and making a quick buck, I think we know which wins out!

  12. #12 Peter Morgan
    August 4, 2011

    Via Casaubon’s Book, http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2011/07/fracosaurus_will_help_you.php , a coloring book for Steelykid. Don’t miss the Colbert Report that is linked to from there.

  13. #13 Selfinflictedfunk
    August 4, 2011

    I have only one question. If the drilling/fracking isn’t causing harm to people’s wells then why is the gas industry installing water filtration systems and delivering water to peoples homes daily? Is it out of the kindness in their oil baron hearts?…I don’t think so. Or could it be because they know they are responsible for ruining someones well?

    Ok so I lied…one more question. If the drilling/fracking doesn’t cause harm why did Dick and Bush give them specific exemption from the Safe Water Drinking Act? Seems to me that exemption isn’t needed if there isn’t a problem.

    “Spills and methane contamination fall under existing state and federal regulations. Fracturing, by contrast, received a specific exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act from a Republican Congress and then-President George W. Bush in the 2005 energy bill.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2011/05/13/13greenwire-baffled-about-fracking-youre-not-alone-44383.html?pagewanted=all

  14. #14 Richard
    August 4, 2011

    “…because they’re lying assholes who shouldn’t be trusted any farther than I can throw a gas drilling rig.” – Chad, I couldn’t have said it better if I had tried!

    I’ve been looking at all aspects of gas drilling since 2008 and fracking is only one of several important contamination issues associated with gas drilling (cradle-to-grave), and it may not even be the most risky regardless of the fact that thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals are involved. I am convinced that the first serious contamination problems arise from the initial bore hole that passes through the water table/aquifer to some point below (75ft. is typical), and this open hole allows for all sorts of stuff to migrate up the un-cemented bore hole to the ground water/aquifer, starting with methane, followed by the VOC’s and eventually brine and other materials associated with deep formations if the well is not properly sealed-off with cement.

    Even being sealed with cement is no guarantee: the Quebec Govt. examined 31 gas wells back in January and found 19 of them were leaking, so even after the grouting process, there is a very good chance (like over 60%)that the well will still leak. Until the gas industry comes up with some data to refute this, there is no reason to assume this rate of failure is atypical, and it could even be an industry standard for all we know.

    In defense of people lighting their faucets on fire, there are hundreds of thousands of orphaned and abandoned oil & gas wells all across Appalachia (NY, PA, W.Va., and eastern Ohio), and these are sources of contamination for ground and surface water, since they allow “communication” with deep formations to the surface, because they are leaking and in decrepit condition by now. There is no way to rule out the contribution old orphaned and abandoned wells may provide in these cases where seemingly “naturally” occurring methane in grandpa’s or the neighbor’s well is really associated with an old leaking oil or gas well nearby that affected the local ground water quality before any houses were built in the area. A lot of the gas industry’s claims of a “pre-existing” condition may be related to oil & gas exploration from an earlier time, and thus these cases may not be “naturally occurring” at all.

    Lastly, the gas industry and their shills keep whining that the “antis” are using emotional arguments that are not based on science, and that millions of oil & gas wells have been drilled and fracked without widespread problems. This is a myth: everywhere the gas industry operates public health and the environment suffer. There are NO studies dealing with the possible long term impacts of earlier frack-jobs done in the Barnett shale or anywhere else, because the gas industry doesn’t want the public and state and federal regulators to know how damaging their operations are. This is finally changing, and time is not on the gas industry’s side.

  15. #15 agm
    August 5, 2011

    The water use angle is significant. The city of Grand Prairie, TX (in the DFW metroplex) has cut off all water supply to fracking as part of water restrictions in effect due to the drought.

    Given that there will be precious little rain this year anywhere in Texas, more cities will follow.

  16. #16 Lauren
    August 11, 2011

    First of all, you are going to get me in trouble at work if I keep having to try to suppress all my giggles to your hilarious rants. Secondly, isn’t that EXACTLY what they said when they wanted to drill off the coast of Louisiana? People have short memories–maybe they need to be reminded of what happened down there before they willingly allow this type of thing in THEIR backyard.