Is Fracking a Good Idea?

By Weston W. Wilson

Earlier this month I had an unusual request.  Our nephew in Pennsylvania is a middle school principal and one of the teachers there has a 9th grade science class that decided to study fracking.  They presented me with six challenging questions.  Here are their questions and my responses.

  1. Do you support the idea of fracking? Why or why not?
    I do not support fracking because fracking: 1) harms the climate, 2) can pollute local ground water and release toxic air emissions, 3) consumes vast quantities of clean water, and 4) because local governments are forced to accept this large scale industrial development in their communities.

    Fracking, specifically high volume slick water hydraulic fracturing, has become the main way to supply natural gas and oil in the United States.  Hydraulic fracking uses large volumes of water in a slurry of toxic chemicals[1] containing small sand particles.  Once the rock behind the well bore is broken by the high fluid pressure, the sand contained in the fracking slurry holds the fissure open so that natural gas can flow.  The excess gases that are burned off following drilling and fracking in North Dakota are so large that it can be seen from space.[2]

    The oil and gas industry has developed a clever way of combining horizontal drilling with fracking to produce vast amounts of natural gas and oil.  See the following animation on YouTube to get an understanding of how horizontal drilling and fracking works.[3]  It’s been claimed that the computer-controlled drilling bit is so accurate that if there was a small home a mile or two underground, drillers could enter the front door and exit out the back door.

    The main reason I not support fracking is because it produces a fossil fuel which harms the climate. The burning of natural gas in a power plant does produce 50% less carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, than does burning coal.  However, producing natural gas allows vast quantities of methane to leak into the atmosphere.  Methane is even more effective at trapping solar heat than CO2.  Fracking has unlocked perhaps a century’s worth of natural gas while making a false promise of reducing greenhouse gases.  So, fracking keeps us from making the needed investments in renewable energy sources.  If there is a safe exit from the human-induced climate disaster, renewables and an energy diet are the only escape hatches available to us.

    The environmental threat of climate change is the greatest challenge ever presented to humanity.  In his election night speech last November, President Obama said: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”  However, the President and his Administration have supported the rapid development of fracking throughout the country.  The President declared in his second inaugural speech that: “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years.”  While this technology of horizontal drilling combined with fracking is capable of providing such a long term natural gas supply, by doing so, the rate of global warming will be vastly accelerated.

    In a debate this month in New York featuring Dr. Tony Ingraffea of Cornell University, the professor explained the recent scientific studies about leaking of methane from fracking and how that could cause an acceleration of global warming perhaps to a tipping point in just the next 30 years.[4]  Dr. Ingraffea and his colleague Robert Howarth of Cornell wrote the world’s first paper on methane leaks from oil and gas drilling in 2011.  Their data showed a leak rate between 3.6 to 7.9% of the gas produced.  Here, Dr. Ingraffea, at minute 52 to minute 65 presents an important update of their prior investigations — citing the recent work by National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists from Boulder, Colorado.  NOAA’s field work confirms a high rate of release of methane from drilling, up to 9% of the produced gas in Utah, which doesn’t include the gas distribution leaks.  In Dr. Ingraffea’s words: “Our original estimate was conservative, unfortunately.”

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change.  Dr. Ingraffea also uses what will be in the upcoming IPCC’s 2013 report about the 105 times heat trapping effect of methane compared to CO2 over a 20-year period.  This means that to avoid disastrous world-wide temperature increases by mid century, reducing methane in our lifetimes is vastly more critical than reducing CO2.

    I invite you to watch this 11-minute animation on the potential of rapid global warming to drastically affect the planet in perhaps the next 30 years.  This informative but disturbing animation is entitled, “Wake Up, Freak Out, and Then Get a Grip” is available on line at this British website.[5]

    It’s not too late to make the changes necessary to prevent this harm to the planet’s ecosystems, but time is running out.  All the people that lived before did not know of this problem and the people that will come after can’t do anything about it.  It’s up to this generation to take action now to prevent climate disaster.  By consuming less and investing in renewable energy sources, including solar and wind energy, there is time to avoid this calamity, provided your generation takes an aggressive and committed effort to make large changes in the way we get and use energy.  Consuming less for each of us means fewer electronic devices, less clothing, smaller houses, more efficient cars, and fewer trips to the mall.  Renewable energy supplies Germany and the State of California with 25% and 20% respectively of their energy needs, but overall America lags behind with just 11% of the nation’s energy coming from renewable sources.


    I also oppose fracking for natural gas because, at the local level, it can pollute ground water, release harmful toxic gases, and disrupt local communities that are not used to having large industrial activities in their mist.


    I oppose fracking because it requires large volumes of clean water.  Some horizontal wells require eight million gallons for each frack operation.  In my state of Colorado, where up to 100,000 new wells are planned, the vast amounts of water for fracking will have to come from our rivers that have been reduced by prolonged drought.  The amount of water needed to frack 100,000 wells will be more than the entire City of Denver uses each year.  Water used in fracking is used to extinction; that is the water is used in one well then the flow back water used in another well and finally the remaining contaminated flow back water is disposed deep underground.  Most of frack flow-back water from the 10,000 horizontal wells drilled and fracked in Pennsylvania is hauled by truck to Ohio for disposal into deep injection wells there.


    Finally, I oppose fracking because state governments are imposing this industry on all communities and denying them the fundamental right in a democracy to decide for themselves whether they want this industrial activity in their neighborhoods.  In Colorado, the Governor has sued the City of Longmont for what in his opinion are unnecessary restrictions on the industry.   Also the oil and gas industry, with the Colorado Governor’s support, has sued the same city to stop its ban on fracking that was voted in by a majority of its residents.  Similarly in Pennsylvania, the state legislature has enacted a law that is intended to stop local communities from restricting or impeding the fracking industry. [6]

  2. Why is the government choosing to continue fracking when so many people are against it?
    Our government attempts to balance many competing interests and sometimes, as with fracking, the claims about environmental harm and damage to public health, are not taken as seriously by our government as the certainty of making large amounts of money from oil and natural gas.

    When I worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, I realized that an EPA study concluding that fracking was safe and posed little risk, was invalid and fraudulent.  In 2004, I wrote to Congress and requested an investigation.[7]  However, in 2005, the Congress exempted fracking from being regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.  See this summary of those events from the environmental organization Earthworks. [8]


    In 2011, I was concerned about the industry attacks on Ian Urbina, a New York Times reporter, who had uncovered that radioactive fracking waste was being disposed in sewer plants in Pennsylvania.[9]  I wrote an editorial about not allowing the EPA to buckle to the oil and gas industry pressure to ignore the local environmental problems due to fracking. [10]  Later, EPA and Pennsylvania did stop the industry practice of dumping radioactive frack fluids in community sewer plants. This was due to the exposure brought to that practice by the New York Times’ investigations.


    Some local governments are choosing to stop fracking.  The City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, banned fracking in their city.[11]  Last November, the people of Longmont, Colorado, voted to ban fracking in their town.[12]  Fracking has been banned in New Jersey[13] and Vermont.[14]  The state of New York currently has a moratorium on fracking while state officials conduct studies on whether fracking operations adversely affects people’s health.[15]

  3. How could fracking affect someone who lives very close to where the drilling is taking place?
    There are two main ways that fracking could adversely affect someone who lives close to drilling.  One way is that improperly sealed wells or spills of the toxic fracking fluids can allow methane and fracking fluids to contaminate a homeowner’s water well.  This has happened in Dimock, Pennsylvania; Weatherford, Texas; and Pavilion, Wyoming.


    Another way nearby residents can be harmed is more common because all fracking releases toxic fumes.  These chemical fumes have been shown to cause cancer and other health problems for people living close by.  A colleague of mine, Dr. Theo Colborn, who runs the Endocrine Disruptor Exchange in Paonia, Colorado, recently published results of air sampling from a home 0.7 miles from drilling.  Dr. Colborn found concentrations of toxic hydrocarbons from drilling that would harm people even at low doses.[16]  In a recent video Dr. Colborn addresses the President and First Lady about the dangers of endocrine disruptors — toxic hydrocarbon chemicals made from fossil fuels — which adversely affect unborn babies.[17]  Another report from Colorado by the Colorado School of Public Health reported that people living within one-half mile of drilling had a 60 percent higher chance of getting cancer.[18]

    Last year NOAA found high concentrations of methane, propane, and 44 other hydrocarbons in the town of Erie, Colorado coming from fracking operations near that town.[19]  The town of Erie has some 400 fracked wells nearby and Weld County, where Erie is located, has 18,000 fracked wells producing oil and natural gas.

  4. Why are many people still in doubt of the safety of fracking when the EPA claims that it is safe?
    Perhaps you are referring to the case last year in Dimock, Pennsylvania, where EPA tested the water in people homes and found their water to be safe.  Dr. Colborn and I have studied EPA’s test results and found that the EPA did not consider recent science that shows low levels of hydrocarbons to be unsafe.  Dr. Ron Bishop, a professor at the City University of New York, reviewed the EPA test data from Dimock wells and he found it was premature of EPA to conclude these wells are safe.  Dr. Bishop said:“One-third of the wells (20 of 59 wells tested) are contaminated with methane at levels of concern to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, with methane concentrations up to 69 parts per million: well within concentration ranges which can be ignited and/or detonated.  In half of the water wells (32 of 59), oil and grease were detected but not quantified, and 2-methoxyethanol was similarly found in over a third of the wells (22 of 59). Overall, these observations suggest that many of these homeowners’ water wells are significantly contaminated with a variety of pollutants in concentrations which are of concern to public health professionals.”

    Last month I traveled to Dimock, Pennsylvania, along with Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon who sponsor “Artist Against Fracking.”  We went to get a first-hand look at what fracking and drilling are doing there.  Some residents say fracking has caused their well water to become contaminated with dark sediment and make it smell of petroleum.  Other residents there say that nearby fracking has not harmed them and they appreciate the new economic opportunities that drilling has brought to their community.

    What I learned on this trip is the special vulnerability that fracking creates in the narrow stream valleys near Dimock.  Any toxic spill is likely to harm the ground water which is so close to the surface and the narrow valleys do not offer proper air dispersion of the toxic gases that result from the fracking process.  Seeing once rural homes just across the road from the large, noisy compressors stations is not something I would want in my community.

    Here’s what the Bloomberg Press reported about the “Artist Against Fracking”[20] trip to Dimock: “The bus trip’s celebrity plumage was the lure to get journalists into an enclosed motor vehicle with the local activists and a retired U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official named Wes Wilson.  In 2004, Wilson sought whistleblower protection after an agency study of hydraulic fracturing in coal-bed methane deposits concluded that the chemicals the industry used are toxic but that they posed no risks — a paradox that drove him to Congress and the EPA Inspector General’s office.  The next year, Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, essentially shutting down the issue for a time, he said.  Last year came the EPA’s statement declaring drinking water safe in Dimock. “EPA has failed here at Dimock,” said Wilson, an environmental engineer. “It has walked away from Dimock.”

    EPA is now conducting a nationwide study on the effects of fracking on drinking water, but results won’t be available until 2014.[21]  However, EPA’s national study won’t consider the toxic air problem.  EPA unfortunately has decided it will only investigate potential contamination of drinking water by fracking.

    The state of New York and my state of Colorado both are poised to conduct health effect studies on fracking that will evaluate the air toxic problem.

  5. Do you believe that there is a safer, more eco-friendly method of natural gas extraction that could replace fracking? If so, how would this method work?
    Yes, fracking can be done using non-toxic chemicals.[22]  Drilling and fracking can be made safer by better well casing and cementing requirements.  Currently, about 7% of new wells fail to seal their methane leaks properly.[23]  Fracking can be regulated so it does not occur within communities or near residents.  Testing can be required to make sure that spills and pollution doesn’t occur.  Instead of disposing the frack flow-back water in deep injection wells, it needs to be treated and the cleaned water returned to the rivers.  For example, there is new technology that uses algae to treat the frack flow-back water to make it clean enough to return water to a river at the same time collecting some of the petroleum products in the frack flow-back water.[24]


    We need to get to the point where fracking does not release any toxic gases.


    Last year, EPA announced new rules that would limit the amount of toxic gases that can be released during fracking.[25]  These rules would require drilling companies to install equipment called ‘green completions’ to capture most of the toxic gases and either burn them off or allow the methane to be sold.  These EPA rules are planned to be required of all fracking operations by 2015.


    Fracking can be done without using vast quantities of water.   To solve this problem drilling companies in Canada are experimenting with the use of propane to frack the rock.[26]  This technique has a high risk of explosion, however, and may need to be done with robots to protect the workers and any nearby community.


    We need laws that preserve and protect local communities rights to regulate fracking, including banning it if they choose to do so.  Local governments should play a strong role in the regulation of fracking and while some state laws expressly preempt local government control, the issue is far from settled.[27]  The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund located in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, has guided dozens of communities to ban fracking by asserting their right to local self-government and the rights of nature. [28]


    However none of the above should be taken as a backhanded endorsement of fracking.  This responds to the question of whether it can be made better; not an answer to whether it is good.  Fracking is not good for the reasons I stated in response to the pervious questions.

  6. How has fracking changed over the years?
    Both drilling and the fracking operations have changed in the last decade.  Last century, drilling with limited fracking was done vertically to find a natural trap for oil and natural gas.  If that drilling was just to one side or the other of an oil and gas trap it would be a dry hole.  With horizontal drilling combined with fracking in this century, the industry is able to drill down vertically first and then turn the drill bit to go horizontally through the shale.  Then holes are opened up in the horizontal part of the well bore and the fracking fluids and sand are injected.  This not only allows the well bore to access more rock, it also provides for oil and gas to be recovered where the oil and gas were originally sourced.  This means that the hydrocarbons are still locked in the same rock they formed in and as a result there’s almost never a dry well anymore.  The water used to frack a horizontal well is 10-20 times more than needed to frack a vertical well; the complex mix of toxic chemicals requires about 5 tons of chemicals for each horizontally fracked well, and each horizontal well releases 2.5 times more methane than a vertical well.  Because of this clever albeit harmful technology, the United States has reduced its imports of oil of the nation’s total oil needs from 60% in 2005 to 45% in 2010.[29]

The following diagram shows the difference between ‘conventional’ oil and gas deposits, also known and ‘oil and gas traps’ and the ‘unconventional’ deposits where the oil and gas remain in the same original rock where the hydrocarbons were formed.

wilson_frack

Weston Wilson was an environmental engineer at the EPA for 37 years before leaving the agency in January, 2010.  In 2004, Wilson sought whistle-blower protection based on his report to Congress about EPA’s study of hydraulic fracturing. His findings questioned EPA’s conclusion that there was no evidence that hydraulic fracturing posed a threat to drinking water.  “EPA produced a final report … that I believe is scientifically unsound and contrary to the purposes of the law,” Wilson wrote to lawmakers.  Wilson is now a board member of three grass roots organizations concerned about the effects of fracking:  Be the Change – USA in Colorado, Stop Drilling-Save the Bridger Teton National Forest in Wyoming, and Damascus Citizens for Sustainability in Pennsylvania

 


[1] 8020 Vision, “Congress Releases Report on Toxic Chemicals Used In Fracking”, by Jay Kimball, April 17, 2011, http://8020vision.com/2011/04/17/congress-releases-report-on-toxic-chemicals-used-in-fracking/

[2] New Scientist, “Gas flares from Bakken fracking are visible from space”, by Julia Sklar, January 28, 2013, http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2013/01/julia-sklar-reporter.html

[4] Dundee Debate, Upstream, “Should New York State Allow High Volume Natural Gas Extraction?”, Professor Ingraffea and Professor Engelder Debate”, http://www.ustream.tv/channel/dundeedebate

[6]  Philadelphia Inquirer, “Fracking spurs a municipal mutiny in Pennsylvania” by Ben Price, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, http://articles.philly.com/2012-05-24/news/31826960_1_municipalities-gas-drilling-corporations

[7] “EPA Allows Hazardous Fluids to be Injected into Ground Water”, by Weston W. Wilson, EPA, http://latimes.image2.trb.com/lanews/media/acrobat/2004-10/14647025.pdf, see also: Union of Concerned Scientists, “EPA Findings on Hydraulic Fracturing Deemed “Unsupportable”, http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/abuses_of_science/oil-extraction.html, see also:

[9] New York Times, “Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers” by Ian Urbina, February 26, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/us/27gas.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[12] Longmont Times Call, “Longmont fracking ban storms to victory”, November 6, 2012,

http://www.timescall.com/news/election2012/ci_21943036/longmont-fracking-ban-holds-early-lead

[13] Huffington Post, “New Jersey Fracking Ban: Gov. Chris Christie’s 1-Year Recommendation Accepted By Lawmakers,” January 10, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/10/new-jersey-fracking-ban-chris-christie_n_1197075.html

[14] Cable News Network, “Vermont first state to ban fracking”, May 17, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/17/us/vermont-fracking/index.html

[15] Huffington Post, “New York Fracking Moratorium Unlikely To Be Lifted As Regulators Reopen Rulemaking Process”, October 1, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/01/new-york-fracking-moratorium_n_1928884.html

[16] The Endocrine Disruptor Exchange, “Air Pollution and Natural Gas Operations, An Exploratory Study of Air Quality near Natural Gas Operations”, by Theo Colborn, et.al., to be published in Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: An International Journal, November 9, 2012, http://www.endocrinedisruption.com/chemicals.air.php

[17] TED Talk, Dr. Theo Colborn, December 12, 2012, “Letter to the President and the First Lady”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2r2Rx8VRq48&list=SPsRNoUx8w3rN4l7h9HzGwXlDuUKWqb-eS&index=10

[18] University of Colorado Online, “Colorado School of Public Health Scientist Testifies Before Congressional Panel, Lisa McKenzie authored study on air emissions near fracking sites”, May 2, 2012, http://www.ucdenver.edu/about/newsroom/newsreleases/Pages/McKenzie-testifies-before-congressional-panel.aspx

[19] Boulder Daily Camera, “CU-Boulder, NOAA study uncovers oil and gas emission’s ‘chemical signature’

Study finds that more than half of ozone-forming pollutants in Erie come from drilling activity”, by John Aquilar, January 16, 2013, http://www.dailycamera.com/erie-news/ci_22390113/cu-boulder-noaa-study-uncovers-oil-and-gas

[20] Bloomberg Press, “On New York Shale Gas, Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon Say Let It Be”, By Eric Roston January 23, 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-01-23/on-new-york-shale-gas-yoko-ono-and-sean-lennon-say-let-it-be.html

[21] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “EPA’s Study of Hydraulic Fracturing and Its Potential Impact on Drinking Water Resources”, http://www.epa.gov/hfstudy/

[22] CNN Money, “Clean Fracking, Moving to Replace Chemicals” By Steve Hargreaves, November 16, 2011, http://money.cnn.com/2011/11/16/news/economy/clean_fracking/index.htm

[23] Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, “Well Casing Failures Explained” with data provided by Dr. Tony Ingraffea, Cornell University, November 4, 2012, http://www.damascuscitizensforsustainability.org/2012/11/well-casing-failures-explained/

[24] E&E TV, “OriginOil’s Eckelberry says algae can ease fracking chemical concerns”, http://www.eenews.net/tv/2013/01/28/

[25] ProPublica, “The EPA’s First Fracking Rules — Limited and Delayed”, by Lena Groeger

April 19, 2012, http://www.propublica.org/article/the-epas-first-fracking-rules

[26] Living on Earth, “Fracking with Propane Instead of Water”, June 22, 2012, http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=12-P13-00025&segmentID=3

[27] The Urban Lawyer, “Oil and Gas Fracking: State and Federal Regulation Does Not Preempt Needed Local Government Regulation”, by Dr. Robert Feilich and Neil Popowitz, Summer 2012, http://www.freilichpopowitz.com/siteerror404.html

[28] Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, http://celdf.org/section.php?id=220

[29] New York Times, “U.S. Inches Towards Goal of Energy Independence”, March 23, 2012, by Clifford Krauss and Eric Lipton, http://www.gasandoil.com/oilaround/2012/03/us-inches-towards-goal-of-energy-independence-1

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