Monday, August 25, 2014

The Problem with Fracking: Part 3

In the first and second parts of this series, I argued that aquifer contamination from the completion in a fracked gas well is highly improbable, and that fracking fluid, as distinct from waste water, is benign.

In this part, which could easily be titled “When Fracktivism Isn't About Fracking”, I take a look at “fraccidents” in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has been a gas-producing state since the mid 19th century, but has seen a boom in gas production since fracking enabled the exploitation of the Marcellus shale. There are estimated to be 350,000 oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania, the vast majority of which are old, inactive wells. EIA data shows a sevenfold increase in gas production in the four years after horizontal drilling (more-or-less synonymous with fracking) began in earnest around 2008. Currently, there are about 9,000 active wells in Pennsylvania, with a new well being drilled every day (on average). The following EIA animation shows wells drilled in Pennsylvania between January 2005 and April 2012:

As it happens, this is more-or-less the same time span covered by Earth Justice's record of “fraccidents” in Google Maps. In mid-late August, 2014 (the time of writing of this blog entry), they place 38 “skull and crossbones” symbols over Pennsylvania for what are, presumably, poisoning events of some kind resulting in death or serious injury; at least a major fish-kill or something, right? You don't use a skull and crossbones to indicate something like rocks falling from the back of a truck with a faulty tailgate, after all, right? It turns out that you do.

“Fraccidents” in Pennsylvania
When you click on a skull & crossbones, you sometimes find that it corresponds to two or three separate events that might be revealed at a higher zoom level (or not; sometimes they are in the associated text or linked articles). It can sometimes be hard to disentangle where and when, exactly, a particular event occurred since, often, linked articles make reference to events that happened elsewhere in Pennsylvania at some indeterminate time in the past (the Zimmerman vs. Atlas Energy lawsuit is mentioned several times). Equally, there are occasions when an opportunity to include a separate skull and crossbones has been missed.

“Fraccidents” Overlaid on EIA Well Data
All in all, I figure that the Earth Justice “fraccidents” represent 45 separate events.

But how many of these are actually to do with fracking?

Let's have a look at a few of these fraccidents...

Sticking out like a sore thumb, there's a lonely skull & crossbones about 30 miles south of Harrisburg, and over 100 miles east of any well (fracked or otherwise) known to EIA. It turns out that this is actually a drilling mud spill that happened when a gas pipeline was being drilled 13 feet under a creek. This might be related to the Pennsylvania gas industry, but has nothing whatsoever to do with fracking and, even if it did, it's a very minor event. Equally, representing a spill of 2-3 cubic yards of bentonite (a kind of clay) with a skull and crossbones reeks of alarmism.

More appropriate use of a “skull & crossbones” is in the southwest corner (as it happens, the event actually happened in West Virginia, but appears in Pennsylvania, presumably due to some innocent error), where 10,000 fish were killed over a 30-mile stretch of river. What caused this? An algal bloom caused by discharges from coal-mining. Nothing to do with fracking, or even the oil & gas industry.

There's a water-contamination event in Hickory (just west of Pittsburgh) in December 2005. The problem is that the first horizontal well in this area was recorded by EIA in September 2007. So this event, if it was was due to a gas well at all, was due to a conventional well and, again, nothing to do with fracking.

There are several examples of compressors catching fire, a faulty tailgate on a truck allowing drill cuttings to fall out onto the road, a truck leaking hydrochloric acid, drilling mud spills, diesel spills, or methane leaks. These are nothing whatsoever to do with hydraulic fracturing: they might just as well have happened with any kind of gas well, fracked or not, or in another industry entirely.

In fairness, there are several events that can plausibly be linked to fracking in some way. In most cases, these are either actual wastewater leaks or events probably caused by wastewater leaks. For example, there are several cases of high levels of metals, including arsenic, and aromatics, including benzene, being found in soil or drinking water. Although the causal connection with fracking is tenuous, they are most likely attributable to wastewater leaks, and the wastewater is from frack-jobs. There have been a number of casing and cementing failures that probably wouldn't have happened in a conventional well, probably happening due to the extreme pressure used during fracking.

So, how many of the 45 “fraccidents” survive cursory fact-checking?

Being generous? About half. The other half range from outright lies (fish-kills due to coal-mining) to gross exaggeration (cuttings falling from a truck) to falsely attributing accidents to fracking when they're just associated with the gas industry generally (compressor accidents, pipeline leaks).

So is, say, 25 real “fraccidents” too many? Maybe. The reality is that oil & gas extraction is dangerous. All extractive industries carry the potential for pollution, whether that's fracking for shale gas or mining neodymium for the permanent magnets in wind turbines. With 9,000 active wells in Pennsylvania producing 4 trillion cubic feet of gas over 6 years, 25 accidents doesn't seem like a whole lot to me.

It isn't a great surprise that much fracktivism is disingenuous. After all, the movie that essentially started the whole anti-fracking hysteria, Gasland (on Netflix), is a stunningly dishonest piece, as exposed by FrackNation (also on Netflix). The truth is that almost all real “fraccidents” are wastewater leaks, which are actually pretty rare, but do happen occasionally.

The idea that we need better regulation of wastewater storage and disposal practices is worthy of consideration, and enforcement must be adequately resourced, but the way to argue these points is not with alarmist lies, hysterical exaggeration, and presenting personal anecdotes as fact.

Josh Fox (Gasland) found a dozen people who claim that “fracking” has destroyed their lives. Phelim McAleer (FrackNation) found a dozen who claim that “fracking” is essential to their economic survival. Neither is a sound basis for forming a personal opinion, much less government policy. I could easily find a dozen people who claim to have been abducted and anally probed by aliens. I could make an engaging and emotional documentary about it. But that doesn't mean that we need a government policy to deal with the alien abduction problem. Policy should be based on expert analysis of evidence.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. There are many good resources for me to review. I have been skeptical of fracktivism, but lacked the time to do as much research as I needed to present a coherent and well supported argument over what are the important issues that fracking presents to regulators and environmental science. I can refer them here for convenience.