Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Problem with Fracking: Part 2

In the first part of this series, I demonstrated, by correcting a representative anti-fracking graphic with a few simple facts, that contamination of aquifers by fracking fluid or hydrocarbons from the completion of a shale gas well is highly implausible due to the natural barrier between the two in the Marcellus shale.

In this second part, I will argue both that the composition of fracking fluid is benign and that, even if it weren't, it wouldn't matter. Hopefully putting to bed another fracktivist fable.


Sensationalism and Ignorance

The myth goes something like this: “fracking is pumping millions of gallons of a cocktail of poisons into the ground”. The majority of people who believe this do so because they've been misinformed, usually by people who claim to understand fracking and ought to know better, often by people who actually do know better and are compartmentalizing, and rarely by idealogical liars.

Much fracktivist propaganda exploits public scientific ignorance and chemophobia (“Eek! It's full of chemicals!”).

Not everyone is, or can be, highly scientifically literate, but to most of us, who don't know our isomethyloxidocarbonoxybenzoic acid from our isopropanylmethylphosphonofluoridate, these claims about an absolutely real fracking fluid component sound very scary: 
  • Component X is a powerful industrial solvent.
  • Component X is based on the highly reactive hydroxyl radical, known to mutate DNA, denature proteins, disrupt cell membranes, and chemically alter critical neurotransmitters.
  • Component X is a CNS (central nervous system) depressant, and can cause cerebral edema and brain herniation.
  • High levels of Component X have been found in tumors excised from cancer patients.
Are you scared yet? You should be: water is scary stuff!

The most common metric of toxicity is the median fatal dose, (LD50) usually expressed in wt/wt form, such as mg/kg (milligrams of toxin per kg of bodyweight) for lab animals like rats or rabbits (with certain caveats, we usually make the assumption that this “scales up” to people, at least roughly). The LD50 for water is 90 g/kg; this means that if 100 people, each weighing 80 kg (176 lbs) drank 7.2 liters (1.9 US gallons) of water in one sitting, half of them would die. Water is toxic.

This toxin, water, is “a powerful industrial solvent”. So what! Alternative uses of a substance tell you absolutely nothing about its safety.

Both sides of the fracking debate are absolutely rife with “danger by analogy” or “safety by analogy” fallacies, sometimes about the same substance. For example, a fracktivist might tell you that potassium chloride is the poison used in death by lethal injection, while a fracking proponent might tell you that potassium chloride is a harmless substitute for regular table salt. Both of these statements, on their own, are entirely true.

Now it would be tempting to damn both sides for making such fallacious arguments. After all, both “true” statements in the preceding paragraph are equally misleading, aren't they? Well, no, not quite. When we're talking about fracking, the concern is not that someone will accidentally inject fracking fluid intravenously, it's that someone will inadvertently ingest something contaminated with fracking fluid. In context, one of the analogies parallels the implied concern (ingestion vs. ingestion) and the other one doesn't (ingestion vs. injection).

Ultimately, there are three key points here:
  • misleading phraseology can make anything look extremely dangerous to a superficial reading;
  • simply asserting that something is “toxic” is meaningless without information about dosage (how much) and delivery (oral, skin, IV);
    • also, using more specific terms like “neurotoxic”, “hepatotoxic”, “cytotoxic”, “carcinogenic”, “teratogenic”, “mutagenic” doesn't change that; and
  • alternative uses for a substance are not indicative of their safety or otherwise.
Now, bearing these facts in mind, read this sensationalist article from Business Insider.  


Incidental Constituents

Let me ask a question:
  1. What would you think of a father who added acrylamide and nitrosamines to his child's food?
If we hadn't already dispensed with “danger by alternative uses”, I could probably ram home the psychopathic perversity of this parent by noting that acrylamide is a poison and carcinogen used in the manufacture of plastics and pesticides and in sewage treatment, and nitrosamines are known carcinogens used in the manufacture of rubber, pesticides, and cosmetics.

Now that you want to lynch the parent from the nearest tree for adding dangerous chemicals to their child's food, let me ask you a second question:
  1. What would you think of a father who gave his child a hot dog?
According to fracktivist logic, 1. and 2. are exactly the same thing.

Whenever you see anti-fracking propaganda saying that “oil companies used millions of gallons of products containing benzene and toluene in fracking fluid”, as in the above-linked article, it's undeniably true. Light hydrocarbons — including benzene, toluene, and others — occur incidentally in minute quantities in petroleum distillates, which are used directly as lubricants and indirectly as carriers for other additives. They are present, just as acrylamide is present in baked goods, such as a hot dog bun, and nitrosamines are present in cured and cooked meats, such as a wiener. But there is a huge difference between something being present incidentally in minute quantities, and being added with deliberate intent and depraved indifference to public safety.

The truth is that “Big Oil” is no more adding benzene to fracking fluid than Oscar Mayer is adding nitrosamines to bacon.


The Same, or Worse

Some of the most hysterical reactions to fracking fluid constituents are prompted by aromatics — hydrocarbons that contain 6 carbon atoms in a loop called a benzene ring that are often carcinogenic — such as benzene itself, toluene (a benzene ring with one methyl group), and xylene (a benzene ring with two methyl groups).

Natural gas, including shale gas, is a mixture of a large number of hydrocarbons. The composition varies widely from reservoir to reservoir, just as the composition of oil from Saudi Arabia, Texas, and the North Sea differ. We can say that it is mostly methane, ethane, propane, and butane, but also that it contains, amongst other things, benzene, toluene, xylene, and other aromatics.

The lithostatic overburden pressure (due to the rock above) in the Marcellus formation is probably something in the region of 400 to 500 times atmospheric pressure and the temperature is also considerably higher than at the surface. When the reservoir fluid is brought to the surface, it expands and cools. Some constituents remain or become natural gas and some condense into a liquid, called condensate. It can be pretty difficult to get an idea of the exact composition “deep in the ground” because data are published separately for natural gas and condensates at surface conditions, but the gas typically contains only minute traces of aromatics (0.005%), while the liquid condensate can contain aromatics at concentrations between 0.2 and 12%. What we can say is that there are a lot of aromatics in the ground and the concentration is non-negligible.

Why would a reasonable person care about pumping fracking fluid that has a trace of toluene in it into a formation where the concentration of toluene is 100 times higher? It makes no sense. We would all agree that discarding a lit cigarette butt is generally bad because it creates a fire hazard, but discarding it into a blast furnace is another thing entirely.


The Real Question

The proper concern about any component of fracking fluid is “is this substance harmful in the concentrations found in fracking fluid?”

We can vacillate endlessly about individual components, but ultimately, the simple answer is “no”.

Furthermore, whatever the components of any real-life fracking fluid, the same in higher concentrations or much, much worse is already down there, and some of it ends up in the fracking fluid that returns to the surface when the frack-job is done. This is the reason why it is the waste water after fracking that should be the focus of environmental concern, and not what “Big Oil” is putting in the fracking fluid. Conflating the two, as fracktivists are wont to do, is worse again.

Saying things like “fracking is pumping millions of gallons of a cocktail of poisons into the ground” is a shibboleth for reflexive opposition and ignorance of the real environmental issues.

In the next instalment, I will deal with the question: “When is fracktivism really about fracking?”

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