Myths and risks of fracking
Lessons from our U.S. Fracking tour 2015
In September 2015, Aedín McLoughlin was invited to join an international delegation to Washington D.C., Pennsylvania and New York State to investigate how fracking is impacting on communities and to discuss the industry with organisations, politicians and state officials. The tour was funded by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is a German independent political foundation, affiliated with the German Green Party. Tour participants included people from Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, China, Ireland and South Africa. It was a very focused and intensive 5-day programme during which the group visited Washington, Pennsylvania (including Pittsburgh), Ithica and Albany in New York State.
What was learned
A mythology has grown up around Fracking, propagated by the oil/gas industry. This was a message we got time and time again, by all organisations, everywhere we went. The oil/gas industry spends billions of dollars on propaganda, controlling the media, lobbying at all levels of government, contributing to political campaigns and public relations. There is no separation between fact and fiction. “Facts are increasingly irrelevant in public rhetoric in the United States” (Tyson Slocum, Public Citizen Energy Program)
“Regulations can make Fracking safe”
The fact is that no regulation is going to make fracking safe. The oil and gas industry is a high-risk industry. You don’t know what is happening two miles down where the gas is extracted, every well is different and every drill is an experiment. (Lena Moffit, Sierra Club) Regulation can’t prevent harms – well integrity and geological formation isn’t fully known throughout the length of the bore. Accidents happen, cement decays, machinery breaks down. 10,000 leaks and spills are reported each year. One in a thousand wells will fail – this means an uncontrolled emission of petroleum products and wastewater at high pressure. (NY State Dept. Health spokesperson)
“Natural gas is a bridge fuel”
There is NO peer reviewed report that puts a serious case for this statement. The technology is already here that would allow transition to non-fossil fuel sources of energy. The extraction of natural gas requires a lot of infrastructure – pads, wells, pipelines, compressors, refineries, etc. This will last two generations and is the real reason why this myth has to be promoted. Natural gas can only be a bridge to more natural gas. The fossil fuel infrastructure is unsuited to renewable energy generation. I asked the question, “Why doesn’t the oil/gas industry make the transition to renewable energy generation?” I was told ”It is a different business model.” (Off-the-record statements)
“Fracking does not damage health”
Public Health impacts are an essential part of risk assessment of fracking. Public health is essentially a political process – what risks are acceptable for communities and individuals. Dealing with risk analysis and mitigation. It lies beyond regulations compliance; it asks the questions: What does science say? What do people say? It fills in the gaps. There was not a lot of research or evidence of health impacts until recently; now internationally, common issues are identified with a diverse range of impacts. (Dept. Health NY State) Direct health effects include increased rates of hospitalisation, respiratory problems, lower birth rates, low weight babies, rashes and bloody noses.
The Association of Concerned Health Professionals of New York made this statement: We in the professional medical and public health communities stand in firm belief that the potentially grave health risks posed by shale gas drilling and fracking to air, water, soil, and community integrity call for a transparent, comprehensive Health Impact Assessment. The people of our state and generations to come deserve no less.” (Dr Steingraper)
The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project now has a medical toolkit “to inform health care providers of current information regarding the contribution of shale gas development exposure to disease causation or exacerbation of pre-existing conditions.” They also publish a guide: “3 Steps you can take now” for people who live in areas being fracked and who are worried about the health impacts. (This is truly frightening.) The members of this organisation are not researchers per se. They gather and disseminate information, advise medical practitioners and the public, and publish reports. (Raina Rippel)
“Fracking brings jobs and prosperity to communities”
This is a hotly debated issue. In areas being fracked there is a lot of short-term economic activity (boom) and local unemployment decreases. However, there are few local skilled jobs. Teams of non-local workers descend on rural communities, bringing demands for accommodation, food, drink, drugs and sex. The sudden “prosperity” comes at a cost – divisions in communities between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’; stress-related symptoms and issues; health impacts; and increase in crime. This economic activity is not sustainable – the life-cycle of the industry is short (10 – 15 years) and the long-term impacts on a rural area may not be positive. The taxes coming in may not even pay for the infrastructure costs (roads repairs etc.). (Steven Liss) Fracking brings disruption of indigenous industries such as farming and tourism (the dairy industry of PA has declined 30% since 2007).
“Natural gas gives us energy security”
Throughout the U.S. there are flags waving outside houses in areas being fracked. The homeowners consider that they are being patriotic in allowing the industry near their homes (Vera Scroggins). The reality is that the only consideration of the industry is profit-making. Its contribution to economy and security is exaggerated (David Livingstone, Public Citizen Energy Program ) Now that there is a glut of oil/gas, pressure is being put on Congress to allow export of the gas. Permission to export LNG is expected shortly. At the same time, subsidies for fossil fuel production increase while sustainable energy accounts continue to decrease. (Jennifer George Nicol, Congressman Polis office)
“Zoning makes fracking acceptable for communities”
It is difficult to have one set of rules for zoning. All communities are different. There must be a rationale for distances, etc. What are the parameters, they must be scientifically defensible. In Peter’s County, PA, the council decided on setbacks of 500ft from dwellings, 600ft from a watercourse. Pipelines are also needed, with compressors. There must be a plan for wastewater, seismic surveys before and after, estimate of structural damage to roads and buildings, emergency services must be trained – the types of fires experienced at a well-pad are different from the norm.
If the industry finds a “sweet spot”, then well-pad density becomes a problem. With over 100 wells, the area becomes uninhabitable! Pads in general are 5 – 10 acre with 10-12 wells. It takes 6 weeks to drill each well and pads can be actively drilling for two years or more with refracking of wells. (Dave Ball, Councilman, Peter’s County)
The Supreme Court in U.S. in December 2014 made a landmark decision: “Environmental rights – everyone has the right to clean air, clean water and a healthy environment.” (Dave Ball)
“There is no proven case of a water-well being contaminated by fracking”
This statement begs the question, “What do you mean by fracking?” The oil/gas industry often uses the word “fracking” to describe the stage of hydraulically fracturing a drilled well. Three comments can be made:
- Fracking is commonly understood to include the whole process of unconventional oil or gas extraction.
- When contamination happens, it matters not to a homeowner which stage of the fracking caused that contamination – drilling, loss of well integrity, accident, etc. Their well is still contaminated.
- In PA, 245 water wells are now contaminated and that contamination is documented (Professor Ingraffea, Cornell University).
“Natural gas is clean energy”
Natural gas is mainly carbon and when burned, releases carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that is most implicated in global warming. It is not a renewable energy source; neither is it “clean”. The process of extracting and transporting natural gas releases high concentrations of methane into the atmosphere. This is a potent greenhouse gas, 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years, during which time carbon emissions have to lower considerably to prevent the world overheating. With regard to greenhouse gas emissions, shale gas is actually worse than coal! (Professor Howarth)
- The problem of wastewater disposal has never been solved satisfactorily and many billions of gallons of toxic wastewater is dispersed throughout the environment – spread over land and roads, dumped into rivers and lakes, and forced down deep injection wells with unknown potential for travel along deep faults. Much of this has elevated levels of radioactive compounds.
- Flaring is a common procedure resulting in toxic emissions of gases and particulates.
- Accidents happen – spills, gas emissions, uncontrolled connection with previous wells, blow-outs, traffic accidents.
- The emissions from traffic associated with the industry constitute many health and safety risks, especially since the fuel used is mainly diesel and the dust from the traffic contains elevated levels of heavy metals.
- Pipelines constitute risks that are underestimated – a gas pipeline transports gas at 1,200 psi. Gas coming into home is at 2 – 4 psi. (Various speakers)
“Methane emissions from fracking are not significant”
In Pennsylvania (PA), 10% of wells are leaking and there are 8,000 unconventional wells in the state. As well age and cement decays, the rate of leakage rises. 30% leak after five years. Regulations don’t matter, more recently drilled wells with “tougher” regulations have the effect of increasing the rate of leaking! (Professor Ingraffea, Cornell University). This leakage is so high that the greenhouse gas emissions of natural gas are higher than coal. Methane concentration in the atmosphere above US increased between 2003 and 2012, mainly due to the natural gas industry (Professor Howarth, Cornell University).
- Health, Safety, Environment and Climate Change considerations make Fracking a totally unacceptable way of meeting our energy needs. It cannot be made safe.