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Friday, February 25, 2011

Brendan Demelle: Natural Gas Industry Rhetoric Versus Fracking Reality

Natural Gas Industry Rhetoric Versus Reality

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by Brendan Demelle, desmogblog, February 25, 2011
As the recent natural gas industry attacks on the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland demonstrate, the gas industry is mounting a powerful PR assault against journalists, academics and anyone else who speaks out against the dangers of hydraulic fracturing and other threats to public health and the environment from shale gas development. DeSmogBlog has analyzed some of the common talking points the industry and gas proponents use to try to convince the public and lawmakers that fracking is safe despite real concerns raised by residents living near gas drilling sites, whose experiences reveal a much more controversial situation.

DeSmogBlog extensively reviewed government, academic, industry and public health reports and interviewed the leading hydraulic fracturing experts who challenge the industry claims that hydraulic fracturing does not contaminate drinking water, that the industrial fracking fluids pose no human health risk, that states adequately regulate the industry and that natural gas has a lighter carbon footprint than other fossil fuels like oil and coal.

Below are ten of the most commonly repeated claims by the industry about the 'safety' of hydraulic fracturing and unconventional natural gas development, along with extensive evidence showing their claims are pure rhetoric, and not reality.
Natural Gas Rhetoric Vs. Reality

1.    RHETORIC: There has never been a proven instance of drinking water contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing.

REALITY: This statement, repeatedly used by industry and pro-drilling groups, is highly misleading. 

There is no doubt that water contamination has resulted from natural gas drilling practices. The actual cause of contamination can vary from case to case, and it is often difficult to conclusively determine the exact cause. Therefore, no natural gas drilling practice, including hydraulic fracturing, can be ruled out categorically.

This is an example of a typical PR trick, where industry uses highly specific language to deliberately mislead the public and to discredit the citizens whose drinking water has been ruined by contamination.
By crafting its argument around hydraulic fracturing specifically and not natural gas drilling more generally, industry is hiding behind technicalities to obscure its documented role in contaminating drinking water supplies.  It is referring only to a precise moment that occurs within a much larger industrial process.

Attributing groundwater contamination to the specific moment of hydraulic fracture is difficult to conclusively ‘prove’ because the process occurs thousands of feet underground, where it is difficult to track the exact migration of the chemicals and gasses involved. 

The Houston Chronicle has noted industry’s use of this tactic, reporting that, “industry officials say few such incidents have been tied conclusively to hydraulic fracturing and that they are more likely isolated accidents involving other parts of drilling operations.” [emphasis added]

In fact, natural gas operations, especially hydraulic fracturing projects in unconventional gas deposits, have been linked to numerous instances of water contamination. For example, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission confirmed that natural gasdrilling directly caused the methane contamination of drinking water in Colorado, but could not definitively confirm the contamination was the direct result of hydraulic fracturing. 

There are numerous aspects of drilling which may contribute to drinking water contamination, including spills, accidents, well blowouts, faulty cement jobs, and the improper transport, processing and storage of wastewater and drilling muds. Hydraulic fracturing in unconventional gas deposits requires vast amounts of water, and entails intensive drilling methods, and high-pressure injections – risky processes that increase the probability of accidents that could affect water supplies.

For numerous examples of water contamination related to natural gas drilling see reports from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Working GroupProPublicaEarthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, and the New York Riverkeeper.

2.    RHETORIC: Hydraulic fracturing is a proven method successfully applied in millions of gas wells for over 60 years. 

REALITY: Again, this assertion leaves a false impression that industry has used the same fracking technique for six decades, when in fact the current hydraulic fracturing practices used in unconventional gas recovery have evolved greatly from the original methods employed 60 years ago. The reality is that the industry has less than ten years’ experience with high-volume slick water hydraulic fracturing.

According to recent testimony by Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, a hydraulic fracturing expert from Cornell University, the current fracturing technology is “surprisingly, relatively new. There are four elements of that new technology, and they did not come together in the United States until about eight years ago. So this is not the hydraulic fracturing of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. It’s not conventional gas development of that era. It’s a relatively new combined technology. … When industry says that they’ve had vast experience, 60 years of experience, with hydraulic fracturing, what they fail to say is that they’ve had fewer than 10 years of experience on a large scale using these unconventional methods to develop gas from shale.” [emphasis added]

The scope and scale of modern hydraulic fracturing operations in unconventional plays are much greater than the way the technology was used decades ago.

These drastic differences include:
•    Significantly higher amounts of water (and water pressure) used in each fracture, up to 7.8 million gallons per well. This represents 50 to 100 times the amount needed in conventional gas wells. Each well is capable of being fractured multiple times, in some cases, as many as 20 times. Post extraction procedures, such as refining and transport, can use an additional 400 million gallons of water each day.
•    Horizontal drilling is employed in about 90% of unconventional gas wells in the U.S. Horizontal drilling techniques allow lateral access to deposits thousands of feet underground. This recent technological advancement is what has made harvesting unconventional deposits profitable, and accounts for the increase in drilling pressure, up to 13,500 psi.
•   The chemical components of fracturing fluids are constantly evolving and research has shown a number of them to be extremely toxic to human and environmental health. Given the high volumes of water necessary for each fracture job, enormous amounts of chemicals are required, up to 20 tons per 1 million gallons of water used.

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