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Fracking – splitting fact from fiction

The US is riding high on a shale oil and gas boom, but that has done nothing to stem the flow of negative, even frightening messages about the processes used to achieve it. Hydraulic fracturing is allowing us to extract more oil and gas than ever before, yet has been linked to numerous environmental disasters and risks to human health. Juliet Langton speaks to energy expert Steve Everley to discover the truth – and the lies – behind the controversy.

You don’t need to know a lot about it to see that ‘fracking’, a slang term for hydraulic fracturing, has outgrown the bounds of its real meaning in recent years and, predominantly to its own detriment, developed a life of its own.

In literal terms, fracking refers to using pressurised liquid to fracture tight underground rock – known as shale rock – so that it releases the oil or gas trapped within. This process has been used since the 1940s to increase yields from oil and gas wells, to great effect and with little attention from outside the industry. Look at the news media of 2013, however, and you’ll see ‘fracking’ being used to represent shale oil and gas development as a whole and in some cases, public enemy number one.

Oil spills and similar incidents have been giving people reason to distrust and oppose oil and gas development for decades; but fracking, at least since its introduction to the wider public conscious, has presented many new and sensational reasons. Earthquakes, water contamination and methane leaks – all of these environmental scares have been connected to fracking, with varying levels of evidence. Energy in Depth (EID) was launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) in 2009. It began as an online repository for key facts about oil and gas development and quickly grew into a research, education and public outreach campaign with representatives in the US states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, Colorado and California. Steve Everley joined EID in 2011 after several years of keenly following US energy policy, as well as the growing backlash against fracking.

“I started to realise, about three years ago, that fracking seemed to be taking on a life of its own – not only in terms of increased oil and gas production in the US, but also in terms of the groups suggesting that it was harmful, destroying our way of life, damaging the environment and everything else,” he says.

“But this is a process that the oil and gas industry has known about and used for a long time. There are people who are now retired after using fracking their whole careers, seeing this big anti-fracking movement on the news and wondering, ‘why is this an issue now? We’ve been using this process safely for a long time; state regulators have always understood the process; so what’s the big deal?’”

Vilified by the media

Fracking became a ‘big deal’ in the US, says Everley, when it made available more than a century’s supply of natural gas in the US, sending the price through the floor. This caused a number of environmentalists who formerly championed natural gas – as a cleaner, short-term alternative to coal until renewable energy gained prominence – to make a U-turn. Now a cheap and long-term source of energy, natural gas became another reason for the US to delay its transition to renewable energy. The environmental lobby largely turned against natural gas, putting it under the same umbrella as other oil and gas development.

As the enabler of the US’s gas boom – and a mysterious, violent and environmentally disruptive process to the uninformed bystander – fracking became an easy target. Scare stories began to emerge, damning associations to flourish and animosity to spread throughout the wider public sphere. Everley believes there are two main factors that have allowed opposition to the process to grow and spread as it has.

“The first is that it’s a media play,” he says. “People in support of something do not make headlines, while those making wild accusations about it do. These accusations are not borne out by the facts or the data, but they generate sensational headlines that sell papers and shock readers, in a way that evokes primitive fears and forms opinions.”

The media is also guilty of creating and promulgating the ‘fracking’ term – a shorter, catchier and less technical-sounding name for hydraulic fracturing that certainly hasn’t helped its reputation. “The word frack begins with f and ends in ck – it does not sound like a nice word,” Everley remarks.

“Environmental groups and the media have realised that if they can make everything about oil and gas development ‘fracking’, then they can suddenly talk about it in a much harsher, very negative light. They talk about oil and gas exports as ‘fracked’ LNG exports. They call pipelines ‘fracking pipelines’. They refer to natural gas that’s been flowing through our pipelines for decades as ‘fracked gas’. I think it’s very unfortunate that these groups are pushing against shale development, when the reality is that the benefits it delivers are the same things these groups support.”

Advantages for the public

What are the benefits to which Everley refers? On a country-wide scale, the ability to produce large amounts of natural gas in the US gives the country energy security and enables it to reduce its energy imports. This serves as a boost to US industry and the country’s economy, with more money coming in as tax revenues and less going out to other countries. A cost-benefit analysis done by a Yale University Energy Study Group determined that the extraction of shale gas has generated a consumer surplus of more than $100 billion for the American economy. This means the general public are now enjoying lower prices for natural gas than anyone could have foreseen.

“Ten years ago, we were talking about how we were going to import enough natural gas to meet our demand, and hoping it wouldn’t cost $15 per thousand cubic feet; now we’re looking at domestically produced natural gas that costs between $3-4, and we have an estimated 110-year supply,” remarks Everley.

“This means people are paying less on their energy bill each month, which is especially important now that there are so many low-income and fixed-income families struggling to pay the bills. A recent study found that the boom in natural gas has cut energy bills by three times the amount cut by the federal government’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). And that’s due to good old-fashioned American innovation.”

Growth within the domestic oil and gas industry has also created jobs in rural areas, “helping to put food on the table,” he adds. US manufacturing has received a boost and businesses in general have benefited from lower energy bills. “Manufacturers are coming back to the US, eager to take advantage of the cheap natural gas. This is a big deal, as they’re investing about US$100 billion in projects they’ve earmarked for the next few years. That’s going to create a lot of jobs – bring in a lot of benefits.”

Contrary to the message most widely conveyed, Everley says shale gas development has imparted environmental benefits too – ones that appear to be backed up by statistics. Over the past five years, the percentage of US energy produced from coal has fallen from more than 50% to around 35%. Over roughly the same period, energy produced from natural gas has grown from 15% in 2005 to 30% in 2012. This dramatic movement correlates with a 12% reduction in US carbon emissions – though it also correlates with a smaller growth in wind energy and slight decreases in the number of journeys made by road and air transport.

Burning natural gas to produce energy still produces carbon dioxide, but only half that produced by burning coal. In comparison to coal-fired power stations, generators fired by natural gas produce around a fifth of the carbon monoxide, less than a third of the nitrogen oxides and 1% of the sulphur oxides. In short, natural gas isn’t as clean a power source as renewables, but in replacing coal it appears to be driving a significant reduction in carbon emissions and an improvement in air quality.

Facing up to the risks

Having heard the positives of natural gas, it’s necessary to address the much-promulgated negatives – beginning with the ones Everley confirms are real.

Before joining EID, he undertook a great deal of research into the issues of shale gas development and specifically fracking.

“The answer I came to was that shale development entails certain risks,” he says. “There have been accidents. I don’t think anyone in the oil and gas industry would tell you that this is a completely risk-free business.”

The liquid used in fracking has been spilled and natural gas – otherwise known as methane – leaked, however with such great bias on either side of the debate it can be difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. A quick news search tells me that the most recent incident to date happened in Colorado, US, in March this year. Gas company Williams Energy suffered an equipment failure – a faulty pressure gauge on a 4in pipeline – which led to the spillage of an estimated 241 barrels of mixed natural gas liquid into the ground. Some of this washed into Parachute Creek as benzene, temporarily pushing the tributary’s levels of the carcinogenic chemical above the safe-to-drink limit of 5 parts per billion.

It sounds like a scary story. However, like many fracking-related news stories you come across, it was not as catastrophic an accident as you might imagine. For starters, Colorado does not define Parachute Creek as a source of drinking water, making its undrinkable benzene level inconsequential. It remained safely below the limit for non-drinking water, of 5,300 parts per billion. Furthermore, Everley points out, US citizens are already exposed to benzene every day through tobacco, wood smoke and car exhausts; in petrol/gasoline, the US currently permits benzene concentrations of up to 0.62% and Europe up to 1%.

“Fracking opponents talk about benzene a lot, throwing around the term cancer – shamelessly and indefensibly, in many cases,” he comments. “As if exposure to benzene will automatically give you cancer, which would be a very big problem for anyone who drives a car, seeing as the greatest source of benzene exposure is from automobiles. You wouldn’t ever be able to fill up your gas tank, due to all the benzene in the air.”

In a more serious incident in April 2011, a gas well in Pennsylvania operated by Chesapeake Energy erupted with thousands of gallons of mixed natural gas liquid. Seven families living nearby were evacuated temporarily. Like the previous incident, this one was also down to equipment failure – during a fracking operation, a steel coupling beneath the well’s blowout protector but above ground failed, allowing contaminated water to gush out of the well. The blowout protector prevented the release of methane.

Counting its losses

It’s clear that accidents do sometimes happen, especially due to equipment failure. In a 2011 study, however, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Energy Initiative managed to identify only 43 publically reported incidents from shale gas extraction between 2004 and 2011. Twenty of these concerned groundwater contamination by natural gas, 14 on-site surface spills, four off-site disposal issues, two water withdrawal issues, two blowouts and one air quality issue.

No incidents of fracking fluids invading shallow water zones during the fracking process were recorded. As regrettable as such accidents are, 43 is not many in the context of the hundreds of thousands of shale gas wells across the US.

Groundwater contamination by natural gas is generally caused by the failure of the well casing. But this is an “exceedingly rare” occurrence, says Everley, as is demonstrated by statistics. Records of 200,000 wells across Texas and Ohio over a 25-year period show that the rate of well casing failures was between 0.1-0.3%.

It’s also important to recognise that, with flaws in equipment and well construction causing the vast majority of accidents, almost all accidents could be prevented through companies being diligent in their maintenance, construction work and operation, and adhering to safety regulations.

“The overwhelming consensus of regulators, scientists and independent experts is that the problems [of shale gas development] can be managed,” comments Everley. “More often than not, they are managed well. In many cases, the industry goes above and beyond what federal state and local rules actually require of them.”

Risk management within the US shale industry is improving every day, he says, as further advances are made in technology and in regulation.

“That’s why we have a very strong record of safe development in the US, because we have effective technology in place and rules and regulations that work very well. State regulators, industry and certain environmental groups have been working together for years to ensure that safety regulations are kept up to date.

The industry learns a little bit more every single day, and manufacturers in the US are focused on creating safe and efficient technologies for the oil and gas sector. If you look at the record of hydraulic fracturing over the past 65 years, you’ll see that it can be done safely and it has been done safely.

“Unfortunately, no amount of regulation is ever going to be adequate for hard-line environmental groups because they just don’t want the resource developed, period.”

Water contamination

As previous examples show, accidents in shale development involving equipment failure and faulty well casings have led to water contamination – albeit contamination not yet proven to have damaged human health. But anti-fracking groups commonly claim that water contamination is an unavoidable side-effect of fracking, and happening all the time. They scare people, says Everley, by spreading the idea that the water supply to their houses is contaminated by carcinogenic fracking chemicals. This is very difficult to prove, which could be why it has not yet been proven; but its invisibility also increases its power to scare people.

“A fearful public is more easy to manipulate, so these anti-fracking groups have fuelled and prayed upon people’s fears to spread the idea of water contamination to great effect,” Everley remarks. Public fear of water contamination is completely unfounded, he adds, and backs up this argument with conclusions made by unbiased authorities on the issue.

“Lisa Jackson, former administrator for the EPA [US Environmental Protection Agency] with the Obama administration, said, ‘in no case did we make a definitive determination that the fracking process caused chemicals to enter groundwater’. The Secretary of Energy made the same statement, as did a former EPA administrator for the Clinton administration in the 90s. State regulators from at least a dozen states have made it. Independent experts from Harvard, MIT and Stanford have all made that statement.

“A very comprehensive study done by the University of Michigan concluded, based on a literature review, that there was no evidence of the hydraulic fracturing process contaminating groundwater. So I ask you, what do critics of the process know that these experts do not?”

Examine the basis of the issue – the fracking fluid itself – and you might find that the risk it poses to human health is smaller than scare stories will lead you to believe. According to Everley, fracking fluid is 99-99.5% water and sand. The remaining 0.5-1% chemical content is made up mostly of additives found in products around the home, such as detergents and cleaners; one of the largest components, guar gum, is found in ice cream. As mentioned earlier, one of the most hazardous chemicals in there, benzene, is also found in petrol/gasoline, tobacco and city air.

“I don’t bring this up to say there’s never a problem – no-one would tell you that,” Everley asserts. “I just mean to compare the risks to those that we manage every day when using chemicals in our daily lives. We know how to use them safely and if there is an incident, we know how to deal with it. The risks associated with fracking are no different.

“The US oil and gas industry is highly regulated, and the management and disposal of fracking fluid is very closely regulated by the federal and state governments. It’s all about safe management – keeping emissions and incidents to a minimum, which is exactly what the industry is doing.”

The lies behind Gasland

Another prominent fear is that fracking for natural gas contaminates groundwater and home water supplies with methane. The anti-fracking lobby claims to prove that this is happening in two movies entitled Gasland and Gasland 2, which show people setting fire to the water coming from their kitchen taps.

Everley says these claims are spurious on the basis that ‘flaming water’ is caused primarily by naturally occurring methane, not methane released by fracking.

“A lot of development around the US is happening on private land, and many private water wells in the US are not regulated,” he explains.

“Anyone can drill their own private well for a source of drinking water, and many private water wells have a long history of methane occurring in them naturally.

Many of these water wells have been known to have a very low quality of water in them for a long time, some containing centuries’ worth of chemicals from agricultural run-off. In addition, previous industrial development has punctured gas reservoirs and released natural gas into groundwater. As a result, people have been able to set their water on fire for hundreds of years. Now that shale development has come to town, opponents can blame this historical problem on fracking.”

Further to this, Everley claims that the iconic flaming water scenes in the two Gasland movies were faked. He says that regulators in Colorado had already responded to complaints of flaming water in the area and traced the problem back to an old coal seam that had been punctured by a non-oil and gas well.

These regulators allegedly offered to appear in the film to explain the real reason for the flaming water, but the film makers wouldn’t allow it.

Gasland 2 featured a man lighting water from his garden hose on fire, but Everley claims regulators looked into this and concluded it was not due to oil and gas development. Apparently, the man in question had hooked his hose up to a gas vent that connected to a water well drilled by a neighbour into a shallow, gas-bearing foundation.

“Basically, the iconic scenes in the Gasland movies have been exposed as frauds by regulators and independent scientists,” says Everley. “Unfortunately, people continue to watch them as factual documentaries.”

Methane leaks

According to its critics, fracking leaks methane into not only the water, but also the air. Because the gas is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, they argue that the methane released into the atmosphere by fracking counteracts the reduction of carbon emissions it enables. Everley says this is another example of where the statistics say otherwise.

“[Anti-fracking groups] claim that there are these uncontrollable and extremely large emissions of methane, and they do this with very little credible evidence,” he says. “They refer to a study done by researchers at Cornell University that suggested between 4-8% of natural gas being produced is leaking into the atmosphere; but dig a little deeper and you’ll see the basis for this claim is pipelines in the former Soviet Union – data that’s decades old. It also assumes that any gas not ultimately sold to the consumer was just vented into the air, ignoring the fact that a lot of natural gas produced along the supply chain is used to power that supply chain. That paper was based on a complete and fundamental lack of understanding about the industry they were talking about.

“Some of the professors involved in the study are known critics of fracking; one of them claimed that a process called ‘sustained casing pressure’ constituted a leak, when in reality it is just a build-up of pressure that can be addressed with a variety of technologies,” Everley adds.

The ‘findings’ of the Cornell study have been refuted by a number of experts from official environmental bodies. One of the leading authors of a report done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that methane emissions from natural gas production are actually dramatically lower than was claimed, with methane leakage falling instead between 1-2%. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) worked with the University of Texas to measure US methane emissions during natural gas production and found these figures aligned with EPA estimates of 1.3-1.5%.

“In conclusion, this idea of astronomically high methane emissions is not based on facts, data, credible science or industry operations,” says Everley.

“It’s purely based on groups who oppose hydraulic fracturing and think they can confuse the public enough to convince them it’s an environmental disaster, when actually it’s a net environmental benefit.”

‘Millions of gallons of water’

Another environmental accusation frequently levelled at fracking is that it uses vast quantities of water. Critics will talk about the process in terms of the “millions of gallons of water” it uses, neglecting to put it in context, says Everley. This is vital to having a true understanding of the issue, he adds, because the US Department of Energy found that hydraulic fracturing typically uses only 0.8% of the regional water supply. “Colorado is one of the biggest oil and gas producing states in the US, yet its water use for hydraulic fracturing is about 0.1%; in Texas it’s the same situation. Car washes, golf courses and agriculture use far more water – the amount of water used by agriculture is hundreds if not thousands of times larger than what hydraulic fracturing uses,” he continues.

“Nevertheless, we recognise that water use is an issue and companies carrying out hydraulic fracturing must ensure they use water resources responsibly. Many oil and gas companies are experimenting with ways of cutting their water use, increasing the amount they recycle and sourcing it not from the main groundwater reservoir, but from deeper reservoirs that are brackish and not potable.”

In addition, there are also companies such as GE developing new technologies and methods targeted to reduce the volume of water required by fracking and the ways in which it is treated.

“So you can see that the industry is responding to this concern and taking the issue seriously,” Everley adds. “It is continuing to innovate every single day to reduce its environmental impact.”

While we’re on the subject of water, we might as well address another frequently voiced criticism of fracking – that it is unfairly “exempt” from the safe drinking water act, presumably allowing oil and gas companies to behave less responsibly with water. The truth is that this and other laws that critics point to were simply never designed to cover fracking – it is an irrelevant to them, rather than a special exception.

Earthquakes

The final and perhaps most headline-grabbing side-effect of fracking, allegedly, is earthquakes. There are areas in the US that have reported higher levels of seismic activity since companies began fracking nearby. Among a collection of damning statistics reported in the press, one of the most astonishing is that Oklahoma experienced more than 1,000 seismic movements in 2009 compared to an annual average of 50, coinciding with the commencement of fracking in the state. However, as with other statistics linked to fracking, it’s vital to understand them in context.

Asked whether fracking can be linked to earthquakes, Everley replies, “It depends on what your definition of ‘earthquakes’ is; the short answer is no”. This is because the seismic activity in question is far, far smaller in scale than the type of earthquake that damages infrastructure. “A geophysicist from Stanford University put it in the best way – he said that the amount of energy released by hydraulic fracturing is roughly equivalent to a gallon of milk falling off a kitchen counter,” he remarks. “Do you call that an earthquake?”

The US Geological Survey has said it doesn’t see any evidence of fracking-related earthquakes being of concern to society, while the National Academy of Sciences has said that hydraulic fracturing wells for shale gas recovery do not pose a high risk of inducing felt seismic events.

However, there is an explanation for the increasing number of tremors experienced by people in fracking areas. The increased seismic activity has been traced back not to the fracking itself, but to the disposal of the wastewater resulting from the process. This is a completely separate procedure, regulated under a different set of rules and often managed by a different company to the one doing the fracking. “[Nevertheless,] the media claims that because the wastewater came from hydraulic fracturing before it was transported somewhere else and disposed of, these tremors caused by wastewater disposal are ‘fracking earthquakes,’” Everley remarks.

He explains that the number of wastewater disposal wells known to have caused palpable seismic events is an incredibly small portion of the total number.

There are around 150,000 of these wells in the US, of which around 50,000 are used for oil and gas waste. “Only a very small fraction of those have ever been connected to seismic activity, and an even smaller fraction of that connected with seismic activity that people could feel,” he says.

“If you look at the bare bones facts of the matter, you’ll see that the actual risk of wastewater disposal causing earthquakes is exceedingly low. If you’re looking at hydraulic fracturing itself, the risk is basically zero.”

Fracking and the people

Derogatory and scaremongering stories in the press, alongside anti-fracking protests on the streets, broadcast the message that the general public is very much against fracking. But EID has found that the populations of areas in which fracking occurs are typically supportive of the process, on account of the local benefits – jobs in particular – that shale development produces. “These people are often overlooked, but there is a huge story to be told by the people who are benefiting from shale development,” Everley comments.

“EID talks to these local people, and we find that their opinions differ greatly to what you see in the media and even read in the local newspaper. The story you don’t hear is that, as the country claws its way out of a recession, natural gas development gives hope to people struggling to get by and looking for employment. In addition, there are millions of people living close to shale developments who know that it’s safe and that if they do have a problem, they just need to contact the regulator or company who must then fix the problem.”

But what about people who haven’t any experience or knowledge of shale development? It’s understandable that people in the UK, for example, where fracking is only just beginning to be talked about again, would feel worried or even scared about the process.

“I would say to them that having concerns about oil and gas development, and trying to understand the risks, is a perfectly legitimate position to have,” says Everley. “Everyone should be interested in the truth and concerned about impacts on the air, water and land. People should demand their questions be answered in an accurate and contextual conversation; they deserve better than to be fobbed off with scary anecdotes and baseless claims.

“No-one in the oil and gas industry would tell you that this is a completely risk-free, incident-free business,” he adds. “But the fact is there is no such thing as risk-free energy; even renewable energy technologies come with risks attached, but no-one wants to talk about those. I think the oil and gas industry is willing and able to talk about the risks in oil and gas development.”

Massive potential

When the debate has been fought, the risks explained and the benefits shown, just how much more shale oil and gas does the US hold for fracking to recover?

The country’s estimated recoverable reserves have been increasing since fracking began. Everley highlights the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota, which in 1995 was estimated to hold 150 million barrels of recoverable oil. Thirteen years later, that estimation jumped to 4.3 billion barrels. Now, the US Geological Survey estimates that it holds 7.38 billion barrels of still-undiscovered, technically recoverable oil. Add the oil potential of the neighbouring Three Forks formation and the total oil content could rise to 32-35 billion barrels. This is just one formation of many that have seen their estimated oil reserves multiply as technology has advanced.

As for natural gas, it is estimated that the US could produce sufficient amounts to meet current demand for an impressive 110 years. It is almost certain that further developments in technology will dramatically increase the amount the US can extract, potentially adding up to enough to power the country for centuries to come.

The extraction of these high quantities of oil and gas was made possible by advancements in fracking, without which the US oil and gas boom would have never happened. When you look at what a difference it has made and the future potential it unlocks, it becomes clearer why governments such as the US, and more recently the UK, have judged fracking to be worth the risks. These are risks that shrink considerably when one looks past the sensational headlines to instead examine the facts – the scientific studies and hard evidence.

“If you look at this issue with a clear head and without any sort of bias – whether you’re on the side of the environment or the industry – you’ll see that it’s all about balance,” says Everley. “There are a lot of benefits – lower energy bills, more jobs, more manufacturing and fewer energy imports – and there are also risks, which are being managed incredibly well through industry innovation and regulation. Fracking in the US will continue to generate these benefits in a safe and responsible way, as it has already done for decades, for a very long time to come.”

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