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A Fracking Tale!

September 30, 2014

The Fracking TruthNatural gas has the potential to be a clean, practical, abundant, and affordable energy source. Collectively, these energy and environmental benefits will help achieve our National objectives in the development of alternative sources of energy that are plentiful, clean and convenient. Only natural gas can be used to quantitatively replace coal in electricity generation and petroleum in the transportation industry. Successful development and implementation of natural gas will provide the American public with a safe, cost-effective option that can reduce our reliance on other fossil fuels some of which are imported and detrimental to the environment and public health and safety. In addition, these initiatives are critical to the success of our Nation in terms of global economic competitiveness, expanding economic growth, decreasing the dependency on imported petroleum fuels, revitalizing our industrial capabilities and reducing the emissions of harmful pollutants, or so it would seem.

With all the value-added topics on the global scene that can usher in a brave new world of clean energy, it was decided to limit this discussion to natural gas in terms of hydrofracturing aka hydraulic fracturing, fracking, fracing, frack or frac. At first glance, as the chosen technology to unleash vast quantities of natural gas on the global landscape, hydrofracturing is one heck of a controversial topic – understood by few and misunderstood by most. Yet, there is however another aspect of natural gas, again facilitated by fracking, which may have opened up another Pandora’s Box. This, if left unchecked, could negate natural gas’ pivotal role in achieving our national energy goals. To set the stage, Natural gas is philosophically a Yin-Yang savior with a physical bipolar disorder.

On one hand, natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel – hurrah. On the other hand, natural gas or at least its primary constituent methane (>80%) is a pressing environmental problem. Methane (CH4) is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities and a potent greenhouse gas — it damages our climate when it’s released during natural gas production and distribution. The global warming potential of methane is about 72 times that of CO2 over a 20-year period and 21 times that of CO2 over a 100-year time span. And unlike petroleum which spills when inadvertently released in the environment, natural gas, which is lighter than air, quickly disputes into the atmosphere.

It would be great if natural gas could be produced, distributed and used in a sealed enclosure. But it is not and it can’t. With more than 305,000 miles of interstate and intrastate pipelines in the U.S. and 1,400 compressor stations spaced every 40 to 70 miles apart, and transported at pressures anywhere from 200 to 1,500 pounds per square inch, natural gas is prone to leak anywhere in the supply chain from wellhead to burner tip. A problem coined fugitive emissions.

There is still considerable uncertainty over the amount of fugitive methane emissions of vapors that escape into the atmosphere from various points along the expansive natural gas highway. However, emissions from a combination of intentional leaks, often for safety purposes, and unintentional emissions, like faulty valves and cracks in pipelines, are substantial. Unless addressed, fugitive emissions can negated any gains in greenhouse gas emissions from cleaner combustion.

In context to the grand scheme of harmful emissions, not all atmospheric methane comes from natural gas wells, pipelines and storage tanks; collectively called CH4 Systems. While CH4 Systems are reported to generate about a third (32%) of all a methane emissions by % Tg CO2 Eq., other major sources of atmospheric methane include fermentation, landfills, coal mines and manure, Figure 1. Figure 2 shows that methane from all sources constitutes about 10% of all atmospheric greenhouse gases. Therefore, emissions from CH4 Systems constitute only about 3% (0.32 x 0.10) of the total greenhouse gas inventory. But as natural gas supplies and consumption increase so does its fugitive emissions and contribution to climate change.

Figure 1: Methane Emissions by Source

Figure 1: Methane Emissions by Source

Figure 2: GHG Emissions by Gas

Figure 2: GHG Emissions by Gas

 

Getting back on track to the subject at hand, hydrofracturing its advantages and disadvantages. We can now add climate change to the litany of potential issues stemming from fracking’s contribution to low-cost and abundant supplies of natural gas in the U.S. energy inventory.

There is one thing all can agree on, wherever fracking makes a presence; many hate it, others support it and some, frankly don’t give a dam. Other than the aforementioned subject of climate change, few energy topics hit a nerve like fracking. Whatever side one takes, there seems to be plethora of information supporting their position, or so it would seem. Trust in what the oil and gas industry is possibly at an all-time low. Government fares not much better, possibly even worse. Academic institutions are judged not by what they say but rather who funds a study or research project. Independent scientists too are mistrusted no matter what position they take. Neighborhoods rely on the whims of a few self-proclaimed champions or postmen spewing rhetoric from one source to another without any real knowledge of what they are talking about. The individual homeowner hears but may not know. At the end of the day, it would seem the only reputable source of information all can agree on is the family’s pet. To remedy this situation, it’s time to drill down on the flow of information about hydraulic fracturing in the public arena – good and bad, point and counterpoint. There may be better places to start, but it would seem GasLand, a HBO Documentary Films presentation written and directed by Josh Fox is as good as any.

 

GasLand 2010

Point: Gasland is a 2010 American documentary produced by HBO Documentaries and written and directed by Josh Fox. “Gasland is Fox’s urgent, cautionary and sometimes darkly comic look at the largest domestic natural gas drilling campaign in history, which is currently sweeping the country and promising landowners a quick payoff. Part verité road trip, part exposé, part mystery and part showdown, Gasland follows director Fox on a 24-state investigation of the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing. What he uncovers is mind-boggling: tap water so contaminated it can be set on fire right out of the tap; chronically ill residents with similar symptoms in drilling areas across the country; and huge pools of toxic waste that kill livestock and vegetation.”

Counterpoint: Debunking GasLand a seven-page rebuttal by Energy In Depth (EID). EID takes a factual approach in addressing several inaccuracies in the areas of: Misstating the Law, Misrepresenting the Rules, Mischaracterizing the Process, Flat-Out Making Stuff Up, and Recycling Discredited Points from the Past

Points are quoted from Josh Fox and Counterpoints from EID.

Launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) in 2009, Energy In Depth is a research, education and public outreach campaign focused on getting the facts out about the promise and potential of responsibly developing America’s onshore energy resource base – especially abundant sources of oil and natural gas from shale and other “tight” formations across the country.

A few select Points and Counterpoints from GasLand Debunking including some Personal Comments are:

 

Point 1: “What I didn’t know was that the 2005 energy bill pushed through Congress by Dick Cheney exempts the oil and natural gas industries from Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Superfund law, and about a dozen other environmental and Democratic regulations.”

Counterpoint: “This assertion, every part of it, is false. The oil and natural gas industry is regulated under every single one of these laws — under provisions of each that are relevant to its operations. See Figure 3.”

Figure 3: Federal Statues Regulate Every Step of the Hydrofracturing Process

Figure 3: Federal Statues Regulate Every Step of the Hydrofracturing Process

Personal Comments:  States have historically regulated most aspects of the O&G industry and continue to do so. Even in areas where other governments have important control, states are involved.  So while the EPA applies certain air and water regulations, the states are responsible to implement those regulations. In other words, the EPA administers the regulations, the states figure out how to issue permits under those regulations.

Overall, there are 600 best practices and standards covering the broad spectrum of all oil and gas activities.

Nearly 200 American Petroleum Institute (API) standards are cited over thirty-three hundred times in state regulations and more than 100 standards are citied 270 times in federal regulations. Hydrofracturing alone has 112 standards, 61 address above-ground and 51 below-ground activities. Unconventional oil and gas development is regulated at almost all levels throughout the entire wells lifecycle from cradle to grave. Given the wells expected productive life that spans many decades the fact of the matter is that pretty much everything anyone does within the industry is heavily regulated at the federal, state, and local levels, often at multiple levels simultaneously. Characterizing the industry as an unregulated free for all is simply not true.

 

Point 2: “But when the 2005 energy bill cleared away all the restrictions, companies … began to lease Halliburton technology and to begin the largest and most extensive domestic gas drilling campaign in history – now occupying 34 states.”

Counterpoint: “The contention that current energy development activity represents the “largest … drilling campaign in history” is also incorrect. According to EIA, more natural gas wells were developed in 1982 than today. And more than two times the number of petroleum wells were drilled back then as well, relative to the numbers we have today. Also, while it may (or may not) be technically true that fracturing activities take place in 34 states, it’s also true that 99.9 percent of all oil and gas activity is found in only 27 U.S. states (page 9, Ground Water Protection Council report)”

Personal Comment: Both horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are established technologies with a significant track record; horizontal drilling dates back to the 1930s and hydraulic fracturing has a history actually going back as far as 1860’s, when liquid, and later, solidified, nitroglycerin was used to stimulate shallow, hard rock oil wells in Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Due to the danger associated with nitroglycerine, by late 1800’s it was banned in most states. In 1866 (148 years ago), U.S. Patent No. 59,936 was issued to Civil War veteran Col. Edward Roberts for “Exploding Torpedo” or “superincumbent fluid tamping,” the inception of shale-gas fracking.

 

Point 3: “Because of the exemptions, fracking chemicals are considered proprietary … The only reason we know anything about the fracking chemicals is because of the work of Theo Colborn … by chasing down trucks, combing through material safety data sheets, and collecting samples.”

Counterpoint: “….. there’s actually a much easier way to obtain that information: simply navigate to this website hosted by regulators in Pennsylvania, this one from regulators in New York (page 130; it will take a few moments to download), this one for West Virginia, this one maintained by the Ground Water Protection Council and the U.S. Department of Energy (page 63), and this one on the website of Energy In Depth.”

“According to the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC), “Most additives contained in fracture fluids including sodium chloride, potassium chloride, and diluted acids, present low to very low risks to human health and the environment.” GWPC members include state environmental officials who set and enforce regulations on ground water protection and underground fluid injection.”

Personal Comments: Today, FracFocus manages a database “Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Component Information and Disclosure Sheet.” As of this date, there are 77,659 wells in the database. In states where disclosure using FracFocus is not a state requirement, well site information is voluntarily provided by participating oil and natural gas operators. The FracFocus system is designed to contain disclosures for wells fractured after January 1, 2011.   The primary purpose of this site is to provide factual information concerning hydraulic fracturing and groundwater protection.

Information contained in the database is site specific, and gives general information about the well along with specific chemical data for all materials used to frac the particular well. The chemical data includes the trade name of each ingredient, supplier, purpose of the ingredient, its chemical name, CAS number (chemical abstract services), and percent mass prior to and after mixing with the water.

 

Point 4: “[Hydraulic fracturing] blasts a mix of water and chemicals 8,000 feet into the ground. The fracking itself is like a mini-earthquake. … In order to frack, you need some fracking fluid – a mix of over 596 chemicals.”

Counterpoint: From the U.S. Dept. of Energy / GWPC report: “Although the hydraulic fracturing industry may have a number of compounds that can be used in a hydraulic fracturing fluid, any single fracturing job would only use a few of the available additives [not 596!]. For example, in [this exhibit], there are 12 additives used, covering the range of possible functions that could be built into a fracturing fluid.”

Personal Note: Hydraulic fracturing has been measured to cause micro-seismic activity about magnitude -2, a slip of one tenth of mm, generating less energy than a gallon of milk falling off a kitchen counter. These events are minuscule and not felt but measurable. They pose no public health or safety risks and occur on a continuous basis around the earth. However, wastewater injection wells are under investigation as the cause of more active seismicity, between 1 and 4 on the Richter scale. These earthquakes are typically felt but rarely cause damage.

 

Point 5: “The Pinedale Anticline and the Jonah gas fields [of Wyoming] are directly in the path of the thousand year old migration corridor of pronghorn antelope, mule deer and sage grouse. And yeah, each of these species is endangered, and has suffered a significant decline of their populations since 2005.”

Counterpoint: Three species of the pronghorn antelope are considered “endangered,” none of which are found anywhere near the Pinedale Anticline. Those are: the Sonoran (Arizona), the Peninsular (Mexico), and the Mexican Pronghorn (also of Mexico). According to the Great Plains Nature Center: “The great slaughter of the late 1800s affected the pronghorns … Only about 12,000 remained by 1915. Presently, they number around one million and the greatest numbers of them are in Wyoming and Montana.”

Only one species of mule deer is considered “endangered”: the Cedros Island mule deer of Mexico (nowhere near Wyoming). The mule deer populations are so significant in Wyoming today that the state has a mule deer hunting season.

The sage grouse does not currently have a place on the endangered species list, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) – and “robust populations of the bird currently exist across the state” of Wyoming, according to the agency. Interestingly, FWS recently issued a press release identifying wind development as a critical threat the sage grouse’s habitat.

 

Point 6: “In 2004, the EPA was investigating a water contamination incident due to hydraulic fracturing in Alabama. But a panel rejected the inquiry, stating that although hazard materials were being injected underground, EPA did not need to investigate.”

Counterpoint: No record of the investigation described by Fox exists, so EID reached out to Dr. Dave Bolin, deputy director of Alabama’s State Oil & Gas Board and the man who heads up oversight of hydraulic fracturing in that state. In an email, he said he had “no recollection” of such an investigation taking place. That said, it’s possible that Fox is referring to EPA’s study of the McMillian well in Alabama, which spanned several years in the early- to mid-1990s. In 1989, Alabama regulators conducted four separate water quality tests on the McMillian well. The results indicated no water quality problems existed. In 1990, EPA conducted its own water quality tests, and found nothing.

 

Point 7: Fox blames flammable faucet in Fort Lupton, Colo. on natural gas development

Counterpoint: But that’s not true according to the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). “Dissolved methane in well water appears to be biogenic [naturally occurring] in origin. … There are no indications of oil & gas related impacts to water well.” (complaint resolved 9/30/08, signed by John Axelson of COGCC).

 

Point 8: Fox blames methane occurrence in West Divide Creek, Colo. on natural gas development.

Counterpoint: That assertion has also been debunked by COGCC, which visited the site six separate times over 13 months to confirm its findings: “Stable isotopes from 2007 consistent with 2004 samples indicting gas bubbling in surface water features is of biogenic origin.” (July 2009, COGCC presentation by Margaret Ash, environmental protection supervisor)

Email from COGCC supervisor to Bracken: “Lisa: As you know since 2004, the COGCC staff has responded to your concerns about potential gas seepage along West Divide Creek on your property and to date we have not found any indication that the seepage you have observed is related to oil and gas activity.” (email from COGCC’s Debbie Baldwin to Bracken, 06/30/08)

More from that email: “These samples have been analyzed for a variety of parameters including natural gas compounds (methane, ethane, propane, butane, pentane, hexanes), heavier hydrocarbon compounds including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes (BTEX), stable isotopes of methane, bacteria (iron related, sulfate reducing, and slime), major anions and cations, and other field and laboratory tests. To date, BTEX compounds have not been detected in any of the samples.”

Calvin Tillman: Fox interviews mayor of DISH, Texas; blames natural gas development, transport for toxins in the air, benzene in blood.

 

Point 9: Tillman in the press: “Six months ago, nobody knew that facilities like this would be spewing benzene. Someone could come in here and look at us and say, ‘You know what? They’ve sacrificed you. You’ve been sacrificed for the good of the shale.'” (Scientific American, 3/30/10)

Counterpoint: A little more than a month later, Texas Dept. of State Health Services debunks that claim: “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)

More from the agency: “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.”

Another documentary film FrackNation was inspired when documentary filmmaker Phelim McAleer confronted Gasland director Josh Fox at an event in Chicago. McAleer confronted Fox about the historical records of people being able to ignite natural gas in water at “burning springs” long before fracking started. Fox responded to McAleer’s questions by saying that this information was not included in Gasland because Fox did not think it was relevant. After the video of the questioning was made public, Fox and his lawyers had the video removed from YouTube and Vimeo, although the FrackNation filmmakers successfully fought to have the video reinstated. This further led McAleer to believe that FrackNation was necessary to counter the “one-sided approach taken by the media, ‘outsiders’ and ‘urban elites'”. Source: Wikipedia

In closing: Interested in what you have to say. Coming up GasLand 2.

 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 1, 2014 7:07 AM

    Dear Barry,

    As I have researched energy for many years my first conclusion after reading your blog for two minutes is that you are hardly an independent sources of information.

    May I ask you one simple questions:
    Are you, or are you not- making good money from fracking?

  2. October 1, 2014 8:31 AM

    I am making “Zero” dollars and nothing in any other currency from fracking. Funds come from renewable energy projects.

    I am a scientist and believe in and challenge data. But, I do not believe in supposition, anecdotal information and hearsay.

    Where does your revenue stream come from?

  3. October 2, 2014 4:38 AM

    This debate is now of particular relevance in UK, where the pro- and anti-fracking debate swings wildly based one suspects on very partial/selected data geared to an equally-wide variety of motivations. One thing seems clear – shale is present here in very viable quantities and, with wind-power generation reaching voter-acceptable limits and growing instability in oil-source countries, we simply cannot afford not to exploit this resource. It is clear sufficient regulation is available to permit this exploitation at minimal risk to the population.

    Ian Wylie

  4. Anonymous permalink
    October 19, 2014 5:27 PM

    DB,
    You were quick to make an unfounded and unnecessary comment with zero value added, when checked on it you sequestered into your little box.
    Barry

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