The Shale Gas Myth — Part 2: Five Fracking Myths Revisited

A Response to Robert W. Chase’s article “Five Myths About ‘Fracking’” in the Akron Beacon Journal, Jan 26, 2012

Part 2: Five Fracking Myths Revisited — Illusion and Reality of the Fracking Industry

By Bernhard Debatin

As we have seen in Part 1:  Unquestioned assumptions about Shale Gas Extraction, Robert Chase, who recently appeared on a local WOUB Newswatch show on fracking, starts his professed debunking of fracking myths with an introduction that heavily relies  on the unquestioned and unsubstantiated mythology of “more than 100 years’ worth inexpensive, environmentally attractive energy.”

How bad the situation actually is — overestimated recoverable gas resources, a financial Ponzi scheme, and an environmentally devastating record of the fracking industry — has recently been reported in an in-depth  article by Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal, that was published in the March 1, 2012, edition of the Rolling Stone. The piece, titled The Big Fracking Bubble: The Scam Behind the Gas Boom  also uncovers the autocratic rule and political entanglements of Chesapeake CEO A. McClendon, whom Goodell calls an “influential right-wing power broker” like the “Tea Party-financing Koch brothers.” Incidentally, this makes Chesapeake’s $26 million donation to and its acceptance by the Sierra Club even more despicable.

But it is also worth noting that fracking giant Chesapeake Energy has been one of Robert Chase’s financial sponsors. Chase is not only a professor and chairman of the Department of Petroleum Engineering and Geology at Marietta College, but also a member of the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission and at the same time a mineral rights leasing consultant who draws personal monetary profit from the leases he negotiates with companies such as Chesapeake. This obvious role conflict has received widespread attention and led the head of the head of the Oil and Gas Commission, Linda Osterman, to ask “the Ohio Ethics Commission to determine whether Chase’s business activities present a conflict of interest” (see Columbus Dispatch, February 18, 2012).

It is thus not really surprising that Chase’s attempt to debunk alleged myths of  anti-fracking arguments quickly turns into the creation of half-truths that are mythical in nature, as well:

Anti-Fracking Argument 1:
Water Contamination

Chase claims it is a myth that “hydraulic fracturing could contaminate the aquifers that supply drinking water.” His rebuttal simply states: “…fracking takes place well below 7,000 feet and solid rock separates the shale deposits from shallow groundwater aquifers… (and this) buffer makes contamination from fracking virtually impossible.”

This claim is faulty because it hides behind the industry’s narrow definition of “fracking” as a singular event that only takes place in the deep underground. However, once the whole industrial process of fracking  is considered, things look quite differently. As an industrial process, fracking entails: Drilling through aquifers, pumping water under high pressure through the well into the deep shale,  the flowback water returning to the surface under some pressure during the first weeks, and also the produced water coming up to the surface throughout the lifetime of a well. Furthermore, it includes the transportation of water, sand, and toxic chemicals to the drilling site, as well as the temporary storage of drilling muds and  toxic wastewater in storage pits or containers, as well as the loading and shipping of these wastes to disposal sites.

Each of those steps in the process is risky and a potential cause of contamination. Accidents and surface spills can happen, and “even when proper precautions are taken,  pit linings can tear, and in heavy rains the pit can overflow” (Scientific American, Nov. 2011, p. 82). Moreover, well casings are notoriously the weak link of fracking. Contaminated water and methane gas can easily migrate into aquifers through cracks of the cement casings. Chase claims that wells “are constructed with at least four thick layers of steel casing and concrete such that they are cemented in place to create a solid divider between gas production and the fresh water aquifers.” However, four layers of steel are not always used, and if so, they are only used in the first couple hundred feet close to the surface. Chase also does not address the much discussed problem of corrosion and cracks in the casing, “faulty cementing is the leading suspect in possible sources of contamination.” (Scientific American, Nov. 2011, p. 84).

To make things worse, the Chase and the fracking  industry in general base their risk assessment only on singular fracking events, not on the combined effects of fracking. While well casings and the “solid rock buffer” may be unaffected after one fracking, things may look quite differently once a number frack jobs are conducted in adjacent horizontal wells. The cumulative effect of these mini-earthquakes, caused by explosives and the following high-pressure injection of fracking water, is plainly unknown. Rock fracture expert Dr. Ingraffea from Cornell University warns that the probability of vertical rock fissures goes up with each frack job (Scientific American, Nov. 2011, p. 82). This would indeed make possible that contaminated water travels upwards over long distances and potentially reaches aquifers.

Aquifer contamination next to fracking sites has been documented all over the country, most notably that in Dimmock, PA, and Pavillion, WY, as well as in Parker County, Texas. Legal and public battles are still being fought about the source of the contamination. Ultimately, however, it is irrelevant whether the contamination happened due to deep-level migration, faulty well-casing, or surface contamination. Either way, the industry process of fracking is the cause of the problem.

From this perspective, Chase’s claim that water contamination from fracking is “virtually impossible” can only be seen as cheap semantic trick and a result of wishful thinking, a fairy tale with little to no connection to reality. Of course, this position is part of a general denial strategy by an industry that doesn’t get tired to blame nature for the contamination, claiming that methane and all sorts of chemicals in people’s drinking water are natural occurrences even though, coincidentally, these contaminations always happen in close temporal and spatial vicinity of fracking operations. The renowned Duke University Study from May 2011 has clearly shown this connections and, as ProPublica wrote, the researchers were  “alarmed by what they described as a clear correlation between drilling activity and the seepage of gas contaminants underground, a danger in itself and evidence that pathways do exist for contaminants to migrate deep within the earth.”

Anti-Fracking Argument 2:
Huge Amounts of Water wasted for Fracking

Another argument by fracking opponents that Chase identifies as a myth is that “a huge amount of water is used in the fracking process.” Chase’s rebuttal is based on a comparison to coal and nuclear and the argument that in 2010, horizontal fracking only “used about 0.02 percent of total water used in the country.” In addition, he claims that wastewater recycling is “rapidly” being adopted.

Chase’s arguments are highly questionable. In the case of coal and nuclear, one would at least expect some point of comparison, such as use of water per produced energy unit. Also, overuse of a resource in one area cannot be justified by pointing at overuses in other areas. To put the water use for fracking into a human perspective: By 2014, when fracking is in full production, Ohio will lose 6.5 billion gallons of water per year to fracking activities.

Fox Lake (source: ODNR)

This represents the annual domestic water usage of ca. 258,000 people in Ohio, or the equivalent of the population of eight counties in the Athens region (see Concerned About Fracking — Part 2). Or, as shown in the same article, if all the water from Fox Lake were used for fracking, the lake would be empty after only 30 frack jobs!

Wastewater recycling — the repeated use of frackwater to frack several wells — is possible but at this point far from being used a lot. The vague language about recycling being “rapidly adopted” would need to specified, as well. However, reliable statistics don’t exist and much of the recycling talk seems to refer to pilot projects and R&D activities, rather than a real practice. Facing the “worst drought in a century,” some Texas companies started recycling frack fluids in 2011, but this did not seem to make a tangible difference.

And even if less water per unit were used, one still needs to ask if the used water is going back into the water cycle.  That’s not the case with fracking water: Large amounts of fracking water stay underground and the flowback water is toxic and salty enough that it can’t be cleaned and has to be injected into deep storage wells. This water is completely taken out of the water cycle, whereas the popular example of golf courses using more water than fracking usually ignores the fact that the irrigation water, as wasteful as this practice may be, at least goes back into the water cycle through evaporation and infiltration into the groundwater.

Anti-Fracking Argument 3:
Flammable Methane in the water

Fracking opponents have said and documented multiple times that “fracking can cause tap water to become flammable.” Again, Chase dismisses this argument as a mere myth and states: “In places where methane appears to have leaked into the water supply, the consensus among state environmental officials is that the problem was not fracking but rather new water wells being drilled in areas with high natural levels of methane.”

Home owner puts tap water on fire (from "Gasland")

This explanation is frequently to be heard, probably to counter the powerful images in the documentary Gasland. However, Chase actually acknowledges the possibility of drilling-related gas in tap water when he continues to say: “Also, some small producers over the years didn’t take proper care in cementing their wells or in plugging old wells.” This confirms not only the possibility of fracking-related methane gas contamination of the tap water, but also the long-term problem of well casings (see above, point 1).

Anti-Fracking Argument 4:
Wastewater Injection Wells cause earthquakes

Chase presents this argument against fracking in a misleading way by rephrasing it as “earthquakes are a constant danger from fracking.” This makes it easy for him to hide behind the narrow industry definition of fracking: “Fracking itself — as distinct from wastewater disposal — is in no way responsible for the tremors.” Thus, it sure sounds like he discovered yet another myth. He forgets to add, though, that the argument is about wastewater injection, not fracking in general (although it still remains to be seen whether the actual fracking events do have a cumulative effect on the geology where they occur).

Source: WKBN.27 FirstNews

Interestingly enough, he then contends: ” Oil and gas waste water disposal wells, on the other hand, have some history of causing tremors, most recently in Youngstown.” And that’s exactly what the opponents of fracking are saying, too. Again, all depends on semantics and on the question how honest one is in including all the side effects, externalized costs, and unintended consequences in the industrial process that is referred to as ‘fracking.’ Wastewater injection as an important part of this industrial process has indeed resulted in earthquakes. That’s not a myth, it’s a reality.

Anti-Fracking Argument 5:
Insufficient regulation by the State

Here, too Chase rephrases the argument in a somewhat misleading way by saying “the public cannot afford to rely on state regulation of fracking.” This obliterates the differences between insufficient regulation, lack of enforcement, and a general mistrust of state regulation. This obfuscation allows him to call it a myth and it prepares the ground for his claim that “just about all of the states, including Ohio, are insisting that fracking and the disposal of wastewater be done properly.” The implication is twofold: first, almost all states have proper and sufficient regulation, and second, Ohio is among them.

Let’s assume, for the moment, that it is true that this “rigorous state regulation” exists:  We would then still have a huge problem with code enforcement.  Ohio has only ca. 40 ODNR well inspectors for about 65,000 wells, and very few of them are trained in horizontal hydraulic fracturing issues.

However, Ohio, like many other States is far from having a rigorous and consistent regulatory system. Here is a (not even comprehensive) list of the most important issues that currently are not properly regulated in Ohio but should be mandated to make fracking less dangerous:

  • The permitting process should be extended to include geotechnical soil studies to prevent potential earthquakes.
  •  Water usage should be regulated more tightly to prevent draining of local streams and ponds (currently, Ohio allows a single company to withdraw up to 100,000 gallons of water per day without permit).
  • All chemicals used in fracking should be disclosed, so that they can be identified in testing, and so that health issues associated with toxic chemical releases and spills can be addressed with the proper causal information. Currently, Ohio law only requires after-the-fact disclosure and many chemical mixes remain undisclosed as “proprietary” formulas.
  • Baseline water testing of all water supplies should be mandated prior to initiation of fracking activities, so that valid correlations can be made subsequent to fracking and the argument of “naturally occurring” contamination cannot be used as an excuse.
  • Extensive testing of concrete well casings should be performed, as this is the most common source of failure and water contamination;
  • Vapor recovery systems should be implemented to prevent release of toxic gases into the air.
  • Air quality monitoring systems should be required at all fracking sites.
  • Drilling mud containing chemicals should be handled and disposed as hazardous waste, and not be stored in open ponds.
  • Frack wastewater containing chemicals should be handled and disposed as hazardous waste, and in particular not be allowed to be used as dust and ice control on public roads (the “surface application loophole”)
  • The volume and chemical composition of frack wastewater disposed into injection wells must be closely regulated and inspected, especially in view of the increased drilling in Ohio and the large amount of out-of-state waste received.
  • The property rights of persons not leasing for gas need to be protected.

Conclusion: How to create myths by claiming to Debunk myths

Chase wrote his article with the intent to debunk common myths of the fracking opposition. The result of my analysis, however, shows that he did the opposite. Not only did he not uncover any opposing arguments as myths, he also presented his counter-arguments in an obfuscating way that misrepresents the reality and creates an illusionary image of fracking.

As shown in part 1, Chase framed his tractate with the industry’s mythology of nearly endless gas reserves, as well as inexpensive and environmentally friendly extraction. He did not even attempt to provide any evidence for these ideological assumptions. Moreover, his “myth-busting” by trying to deconstruct five main arguments against fracking only showed that he himself only perpetuates unquestioned myths and unsupported allegations.

The self-professed myth-buster, it turns out, it actually a myth master.

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2 responses to “The Shale Gas Myth — Part 2: Five Fracking Myths Revisited

  1. Prof. Debatin’s hyperlink to an earlier post re Surface Application gave me a shiver: Times Beach, Missouri used liquid contaminants to hold down road dust; in my text on Superfund I explain the resulting costs of removing all the road surfaces of the town to remove PCBs. Ohio needs to make all County Engineers aware that Times Beach-sized costs await those who allow surface application of liquids with potentially toxic but un-characterized contents. Act now before the Gift of Free Dust Control is accepted by unaware county officials; write to your county engineer: No Times (Beach) Like the Present! — Prof. Jim O’Reilly

  2. In your recommendations on ways to strengthen regulations, you suggest baseline testing of “all water supplies”. I would say that all water sources within a specified radius of industrial activities should be tested by an independent EPA certified lab at the company’s expense — regardless of whether the land in question has been leased for drilling or not.

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