Shouting past each other: Fracking debate generates lots of noise, not much else


Heated debates over energy and the environment are nothing new.

Twisting facts ever so slightly to support one’s argument or using over-the-top hyperbole are also common.

But is it going to lead us to a better-informed populace and policymakers or to better practices and policy?

Here are just two examples from the current war of words over hydraulic fracturing that are either not-quite-getting it right and outright going over the top.

One of many websites that have popped up to oppose hydraulic fracturing is Frack Action. The group states its goals pretty clearly: “Frack Action is a campaign working to stop the dangerous practice of hydraulic fracturing.”

The description of fracking on the main page of the site says it “involves injecting secret, highly-toxic chemicals deep underground to fracture rock formations. Fracking has been linked to over 1,000 incidents of groundwater contamination across the US, including many cases where people can actually ignite their tap water!”

The statement has elements of truth but fails to mention the chemicals used in frac jobs aren’t always the toxic ones, that the chemicals only make up 5 percent or less of the volume of materials that used, and that they’re not completely secret. They’re also not injected directly into drinking water, as many opponents seem to imply.

The part that say fracking “has been linked to over 1,000 incidents of groundwater contamination” might also be a bit strong.

Elsewhere on the site the language on this is slightly different: “There have been over a thousand instances of groundwater contamination in areas near fracking sites,” it says with a link that seems to be the source material: a 2009 ProPublica story summary, that phrases it more carefully: “But water contamination has also been reported in more than a thousand cases where that drilling is taking place …”

So it takes the statement of “reported” in cases where drilling is taking place and makes to a situation where fracking is “linked” to water contamination. Small change, but a significant one.

Now, over to the other end of the spectrum, outright hyperbole.

Earlier this week Elizabeth Jones, head of the Texas Railroad Commission (the state’s main drilling regulatory body), spoke before a hearing on hydraulic fracturing held by the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

The headline on the press release announcing her participation: “No water contamination ever due to homegrown technology — Hydraulic Fracturing.”

“It is morally wrong to deprive Americans the benefit of their God-given natural energy resources because a few special interest Grimm Brothers insist on perpetuating fairy tales,” Jones says in the release. “It is geologically impossible for fracturing fluid or natural gas or oil to migrate upward through thousands of feet of rock, sometimes miles, to affect the water table.”

Does Jones not count frac fluid that has been spilled above ground on more than a few occasions and reached streams, ponds and wells?

True, it’s unlikely frac fluid could find a path to migrate thousands of feet upward, but is it truly impossible for gas to migrate up through rock?

And doesn’t this all seem to be shouting over what plenty of people in the industry believe is behind some of the instances (just some mind you) of gas or chemicals reaching drinking water: poor cementing and well casing or older, poorly abandoned wells allowing for migration?

It’s hard not to think that these exaggerations and shifted meanings aren’t of much concern to parties on either side of the debate. This is a brawl between those who feel like there’s a clear-and-present danger to drinking water and those who feel like the economy is going to be trashed based on misinformation.

But twisting facts to suit particular needs — even slightly or unintentionally — just undermines their credibility. Heavy-handed rhetoric can do the same (and be a bit embarrassing on the public stage as a certain CEO found out this week when he called a proposed energy bill “un-American”).

In other words, accuracy still matters. Or at least it should.

Tom Fowler

15 Responses

  1. Eric_7_V2 says:

    During the drilling process, thousands of gallons of contaminated fluid are typicall spilled on the ground. When toxicity is measured in parts per million or part per billion, then it is irrelevant to site the low percentage the toxic chemicals make up in the fracing liquid. This is especially true when it is going to be spilled on the ground. The fracking industry also fails to address the very significant air quality problems associated with their well. THe whole industry is a bunch of liars!

  2. Trail Trash says:

    @bradley…get rid of dihydrogen oxide?! I’d like to see you try. That stuff is everywhere!

  3. Trail Trash says:

    Ingredients Used in Frac Jobs: Hydrochloric acid, like that used on swimming pools. Glutaraldehyde, used in household disinfectants. Citric acid, like that used in food and beverages. Ammonium persulfate, used in in hair coloring and household plastics. Dimethyl formamide, used in pharmaceuticals. Borate salts, used in laundry detergent, Isopropanol, used in glass cleaners and antiperspirants. Petroleum distillate, used in make up and skin care products. Guar gum, used in ice cream. Potassium chloride, used in intravenous fluids. Sodium carbonate, used in soap. Ethylene glycol, used in household cleaners and paints.

  4. bradley says:

    A couple of things, I think Robert F. is talking about OBM. (I find it amazing that theres no big uproar about OBM). However, the initial vertical hole, (at least here in AR), is drilled with air rigs. The surface casing is cemented in before any mud is used. He’s right about some wells here being less than 2000 tvd. I can tell you that I have personally spoke with the water director at the ADEQ, and he told me their have been no verified contamination examples. Plenty of call and claims, but none that hold water.
    Finally, Trail Trash is on to something about dihydrogen oxide. I think a documentary film should be done and we should rid our planet of this evil chemical!!!

  5. bg says:

    Robert F: Seems like you are the one who is guilty by omission (is that the same as lying) and generalizing.

    Please explicitly state the citation of your Arkansas drilling and completion statistics from the AOGC (you should define your acronyms). The article is not talking about coalbed natural gas development which IS produced from the depths you mention and less. Are you claiming that shale and coal are the same? I have seen crude oil produced from wells at less than 1,000 feet all over the world along with bituminous sands that area mined a the surface–what is your point?

    Diesel additives to drilling muds are rarely used do to their EXPENSE and they would NEVER be used in the shallow fresh water portions of the borehole as they would NEVER encounter drilling conitions that would warrant its use at those depths. Regulations require that oil and gas wells are cased and cemented to protect those zones.

    Did you fail to mention that the large majority of the frac fluids come back as flow back water and are either treated resused or disposed of through a permitted UIC well?

    Please cite the source of your cancer toxicity data on frac additives so that everyone can evaluate them as you did. Has there ever been a case of detectable frac additives found in someone’s drinking water well? If so please cite the fairy tale so I can read it to my kids.

    Can you define USDW for everyone else who might think you know what you are talking about?

  6. Dollar says:

    @Robert F. You say …… ” He also omits the fact that numerous wells have been drilled using diesel fuel based slurry and this is used when the drill through an aquifer to get to the shale. “‘

    Uhhh no. They use drilling mud when they drill surface hole.

    They were using diesel as frac fluid.

    And when I worked in the oil patch 30 years ago, they used oil as frac fluid.

    Imagine that , huh ??

    Every well drilled on the planet, has been drilled through water aquifers. Every one of them .

  7. Dollar says:

    @Robert F. You say ” With optimal fractures at near 500? ” , are you sure about that ?

    I think that is an exaggeration.

    Its more like 100 feet.

    And its not like the well operator is oblivious to the depth he’s drilling and the depth of the aquifers.

    And they are not setting off nuclear bombs when they frac. Here’s a interesting tidbit for you and your 500 feet. When they first began testing nuclear bombs underground, to limit nuclear fall-out from these tests, they started shallow at around 100 feet and finally reached a depth of 980 feet, where the nuclear explosion was completely contained.

    Thats a nuclear fricken bomb.

    980 feet.

    The nat gas operators are just pumping water.

    Talk about hyperbole.

  8. Robert F. says:

    “The statement has elements of truth but fails to mention the chemicals used in frac jobs aren’t always the toxic ones, that the chemicals only make up 5 percent or less of the volume of materials that used, and that they’re not completely secret.”

    Seems the author is somewhat guilty himself by omission and generalizing.

    He repeats the standard industry meme that it’s only “5 percent or less of the volume” yet fails to mention that the total volumes used are in the 3 to 7 MILLION gallons range. The industry figure most often quoted is .5% chemicals and even at that low figure it equals 15000 to 35000 gallons of chemicals, many of them know carcinogens and many chemicals completely unknown and protected by trade secret clauses even in states that tout full disclosure rules like Wyoming and Arkansas.
    He also omits the fact that numerous wells have been drilled using diesel fuel based slurry and this is used when the drill through an aquifer to get to the shale.
    He also generalizes with the statement “it’s unlikely frac fluid could find a path to migrate thousands of feet upward” when its a known and provable fact that not all shale lies at those depths. Many wells in Arkansas are permitted at less than 2000’and several as shallow as 1200′. This information is on file at the state regulatory agency AOGC.
    With optimal fractures at near 500′ and existing or new water wells possibly drilled to 500′, that places them fracturing within a few hundred feet of USDW.

  9. bg says:

    I doubt that industry PR staffs were prepared for the professional “organizers” that obstruction groups can readily deploy on this non-issue. They can even bring in joke propagandists that produce lies like “Gasland” and have everyone stand up and cheer at Sundance Film Festival. Most of these folks have honed their tactics in the anti-mining and logging wars out west and they feel empowered. There are even degree programs in some public universities and law schools to become a professional Obstructionist.

    There is no easy solution to get the truth out there as they will shout down any opposition with religious fervor and a large legal war chest. The public is basically dull, uneducated, and gullible. They have been subjected to decades of bad liberal press that make it popular and correct to despise the industry that fuels their SUVs and heats their homes. Truth and science do not matter in the environmental obstruction world as the end justifies the means and their end is no resource development.

  10. Dollar says:

    Swimming pools have toxic chemicals, don’t believe that, just put a fish in one and see how long it lives.

  11. Trail Trash says:

    People are upset over “secret chemicals”, yet over look the know frac component of dihydrogen oxide. A highly corrosive substance directly link to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people every year.

  12. Trail Trash says:

    It is a testiment to how gullible people are to latch onto a buzz word, like they have over “fracing”. The critical barrier on any well is the cement job on the surface casing. It does not matter whether the well was frac’d or not. Shallow gas and saltwater zones above the production cement job can migrate up the backside and into fresh water zones that are suppose to be protected by the surface casing cement job. If you want to protect fresh water supplies, focus on the surface casing cement, and poorly plugged and abondoned wells, which includes abandoned water wells.

  13. Adler says:

    Let’s see, top secret deadly, frac chemicals, most of which can be found in or around the typical home.

    Water – check
    Salt – check
    Gel – check (look at your Jello or jelly ingredients)
    Dispersant – check (dishwashing liquid)
    Defoamer – check (alcohol)
    Sand – check

  14. Dollar says:

    How accurate is this …

    ” Does Jones not count frac fluid that has been spilled above ground on more than a few occasions and reached streams, ponds and wells? ”

    This would be due to an accident, which changes the parameters. Its very true that if fracing is done correctly, it will not reach drinking water. That is not a stretch.

    It takes an accident to cause environmental damage.

    As opposed to wind and solar, which cause environmental damage by its existence.

    Me, I find the exaggerations from the anti side far more ridiculous and absurd than the industry’s defense. The anti side is engaging in fear mongering for profit.

    You state the number of new anti fracing sites ? Well, this a growth industry and is creating huge profits for environmental groups.

    Its also opened up an entirely new genre of Federal funding available to academic types in universities, who are already feasting a fat Federal teat. I have no doubt the presses are busy at any university with professors churning out grant applications.

    And Lisa Jackson and the EPA have no qualms about spending other people’s money on this foolishness.

    And the general population thinks the ” Big Oil ” execs are greedy ???

  15. Energy Moron says:

    Howdy Neighbor:

    If you wonder what can happen with abandoned WATER wells and gas