Saturday, August 10, 2013

Top Fracking Falsehoods

Fracking involves injecting pressurized water combined with sand and small amounts of chemicals to crack open shale rocks so that they will release trapped natural gas. Generally, the shale rocks are thousands of feet below the aquifers from which people draw drinking water. No doubt to the dismay of activists, President Barack Obama appears to endorse the process. 

"Sometimes there are disputes about natural gas," he said at his climate change speech last week at Georgetown, "but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions."

The president gets it, but a lot of activists don't. To help bring them around, I thought I'd take a look at some of the misleading claims made by opponents of fracking. Fortunately I just got a fundraising letter from fine folks at foodandwaterwatch (FWW) urging me to sign and send in a petition to the president to ban fracking. The letter is a nice compendium of anti-fracking scaremongering.

Falsehood 1: You can light your tap water on fire. Fox made this claim famous in the first Gasland movie when he showed a resident of Colorado striking a match as water came out of his tap; the natural gas dissolved in the water burst into flame. Yet the water was tested by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, which reported to the resident: "There are no indications of any oil & gas related impacts to your well water." The agency concluded that the natural gas in his water supply was derived from natural sources—the water well penetrated several coal beds that had released the methane into the well.

Falsehood 2: Fracking fluid "could seep into groundwater and poison drinking water." (The underlining is the FWW's.) The letter also asserts that fracking fluid is "full of poisonous chemicals." 
Of course, the cabinet underneath your kitchen sink is also likely to be "full of poisonous chemicals." What matters to your health is the amount of exposure you have to them, not the mere fact of their existence.

A new study by researchers at Duke University, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June, did find higher concentrations of methane in water wells that were within a kilometer of gas wells. But like earlier reports, the new paper concluded that the two simplest explanations for the higher levels of dissolved gas were faulty steel casings and improper cement sealing of the wells, not fracking. In addition, this study and two earlier ones done by the same team found no indication that well water has been contaminated by fracking fluids. (About 99.5 percent of fracking fluids, I should add, consist of water and sand.)

Falsehood 3: Fracking increases air pollution. The FWW letter warns that fracking "contains high levels of neurotoxins and carcinogens and contains compounds that can create smog."

Almost any industrial activity will involve the production of noxious fumes at least some of the time. So how does the air pollution associated with producing natural gas compare to other industrial processes? A 2013 report from RAND Corporation researchers, published in Environmental Research Letters, calculates the regional air quality damages from gas production in Pennsylvania. Their reckoning of total damages takes into account harms both to physical health and the environment, including mortality, morbidity, crop and timber loss, visibility, and effects on anthropogenic structures and natural ecosystems.

Falsehood 4: Fracking causes cancer. The FWW letter hints at this, but the most incendiary claim along these lines was made by Josh Fox in his short "emergency film," The Sky Is Pink (2012). Fox intones, "In Texas, as throughout the United States, cancer rates fell. Except in one place: in the Barnett Shale. The five counties where there was the most drilling saw a rise in breast cancer throughout the counties."

The claim is entirely specious. Fox apparently based his lightly sourced assertion on a single newspaper article. Even that article garbled the data, reporting that six counties in the western Dallas-Fort Worth area have the highest rates of invasive breast cancer in Texas, rising all the way from 58.7 cases per 100,000 people in 2005 to about 60.7 per 100,000 in 2008. Typically breast cancer rates are reported as per 100,000 women, which would roughly double the rates cited in the article to 117.4 and 121.4. Meanwhile, the incidence of breast cancer among all Texas women hovered around 116 per 100,000 between 2005 and 2009. The U.S. rate was 125.7 per 100,000 women.

Falsehood 5: Natural gas is worse than coal. This particular claim was launched in 2011 with a hastily cobbled-together study by three anti-fracking researchers at Cornell. Their argument is that leaking methane, whose global warming potential is much greater than that of carbon dioxide, more than entirely offsets whatever reductions in carbon dioxide emissions would be achieved by, for example, switching from coal to gas to generate electricity. The FWW letter claims that calling natural gas "clean" energy is "misleading," but unlike the Cornell researchers the group concedes that burning natural gas "emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal."

The FWW came much closer to the truth than the Cornell crew did. A comprehensive analysis published in November 2012 by researchers associated with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that "the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with electricity generated from Barnett Shale gas extracted in 2009 were found to be very similar to conventional natural gas and less than half those of coal-fired electricity generation." With respect to global warming, producing and burning natural gas from fracked wells is much better than burning coal.

Read More: Reason