Commentary: University study backs safety of fracking

A well is drilled at an Apache Energy site in the Permian Basin in Midland, Texas, Feb. 14, 2012. Hydraulic fracking appears to cause smaller leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas, than the federal government estimates, according to a study released Sept. 16, 2013. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
A well is drilled at an Apache Energy site in the Permian Basin in Midland, Texas. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

By Erik Milito
American Petroleum Institute

Evidence continues to accumulate that fracking is safe. Earlier this year, the University of Cincinnati completed a three-year study in which researchers examined water samples three to four times per year from 23 wells in the Utica shale region. The study found no evidence linking fracking to groundwater contamination, according to Dr. Amy Townsend-Small, a geologist involved with the study. Samples that were high in methane “clearly did not have a natural gas source,” researchers found. In fact, Townsend-Small says, “Some of our highest observed methane concentrations were not near a fracking well at all.”

Erik Milito is the director of Upstream and Industry Operations for the American Petroleum Institute.
Erik Milito is the director of Upstream and Industry Operations for the American Petroleum Institute.

Good news — unless you have an anti-energy political agenda. Some of the study’s funders apparently do, and they “were a little disappointed in our results,” Townsend-Small said. “They feel that fracking is scary, and so they were hoping our data could point to a reason to ban it,” she continued.

Oil and natural gas opponents are similarly disappointed with a landmark study EPA released last June. The five-year, $31 million study of hydraulic fracturing “did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” EPA’s exhaustive study is the most complete compilation to date of scientific data on the issue, including more than 950 sources of information, published papers, technical analysis, contributions from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports.

Since releasing its findings, the EPA has faced calls to walk back its scientific conclusions. While offering no evidence to contradict EPA’s findings, some members of its Science Advisory Board recently called on the agency to provide additional data.

But the science is clear, and the evidence – including 65 years of safe operation – is overwhelming.  No cases of drinking water contamination have been documented in the Marcellus, Utica, Barnett, Permian, Eagle Ford, Woodford, Fayetteville, Haynesville, Bakken, Denver- Julesburg, Piceance, Raton, or any other shale plays where hydraulic fracturing has been used. The combination of continually improving industry practices, advancing state programs and federal environmental statutes all work together to provide an effective structure that allows for the essential development of the nation’s oil and natural gas resources while protecting the environment.

The United States remains the world’s leading oil and natural gas producer, and we couldn’t have done it without hydraulic fracturing, which accounts for more than 43 percent of domestic oil production and 67 percent of natural gas production.

The U.S. also leads the world in reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and fracking is the primary force behind that achievement, too. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions dropped 12 percent below 2005 levels last year, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports, “mostly because of changes in the electric power sector” – specifically, “increased use of natural gas for electricity generation.” Energy-related carbon emissions for this year are projected to reach their lowest levels since 1992. However much leave-it-in-the-ground activists may wish to deny it, we wouldn’t have such an abundance of clean-burning, affordable natural gas to use in power generation, and resulting emissions declines, without fracking.

The idea that energy production and climate progress are mutually exclusive just doesn’t hold up. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, aggregate national emissions of six common air pollutants have fallen an average of 63 percent since 1980 – while our population, energy use and GDP have increased. We’re even one-third of the way toward achieving the emissions reductions we committed to under the Paris climate agreement.

The role hydraulic fracturing plays in cutting carbon emissions has become clear only recently, but the environmental advantages of the technology as a production method have been understood for years. A 1999 Department of Energy report credits the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling with providing “environmental benefits” because “less wells are drilled, there is a smaller footprint, recovery is optimized, there is less produced water, less drilling waste, and – for hydraulic fracturing – protection of groundwater resources.” And technology has only advanced since then.

The facts on fracking show that not only has the technology helped lower fuel, utility and manufacturing costs, and not only is it environmentally safe, but it is integral to U.S. status as the world’s leading reducer of greenhouse gas emissions.