Research for this article has taken one of the more aggravating routes we’ve had to navigate in looking for the truth on an array of energy topics for our readers. The heap of misinformation on the topic of hydraulic fracturing is mind numbing and cutting through what frankly can best be described as “garbage reporting” proved to be a two month long process. But that is what we do at “the Ink”. We cut through the garbage – no matter how long and messy of a process that is. The problem is that fracking has become the epicenter of the greatest debate over energy development since nuclear power in the 1970’s. Chris Tucker of Energy in Depth, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America puts it best in an article by National Public Radio: “fracking has been distilled down to a curse word, and that’s important for press releases and bumper stickers and everything else.” And that works for both sides of the debate depending on whether you hear “frack off” or “frack yes.”
With such a widespread debate comes dozens of schools of ignorance with only a few classrooms of fact. And once again, the theme which runs through all energy debate is that politics are the driving factor of lies and ignorance on both the liberal anti-fracking side and the conservative pro-fracking stance. Finding the truth was not easy, but point by point, Energy Ink has cut through the myths to give our readers the facts on the most commonly held questions about fracking. In this issue, we’ll cover some of the more common questions such as the claims over fracking’s history, claims of fracking created earthquakes, the issue of the process overburdening water supplies, and fracking fluid and the environment. But some of the more colorful disputes such as waste disposal of fracking fluids, whether fracking has or could contaminate water aquifers, and whether fracking can lead to flammable water will have to wait for our “Part Two” coverage of the Bakken in our Summer Issue.
For each “claim” we have provided a standard approach. First we “listen” to what hydraulic fracturing supporters have to say about an issue. Then we give equal time to the opponents. Next, we cut through the rhetoric of both and look at the clear facts of each claim and deliver you the no nonsense truth. But often, there is no clear cut “yes” or “no” answer to each claim and thus we provide a measured “grading” of each in our own “Fact Meter Scorecard” of truthfulness to lay out the bottom line answer to each.
Is Fracking an Unproven, Relatively New Technology?
The Supporters: Fracking has been in use for over 60 years and is a proven technology. The process is closely monitored by advanced technology to ensure that each procedure is performed in the manner it should, meaning, science and industry understand exactly what is happening underground. “The first fracked well was in 1947! And more than one million wells have been fracked in the US since then (2.5 million worldwide). In terms of industrial processes, it doesn’t get much older or more thoroughly tested than fracking.” (From “Ten big fat lies about fracking”; Spiked-online.com)
The Opponents: Fracking for unconventional resources is only 10 years old and is largely a new technique that has not been completely tested. The implication is that science and industry, by and large, does not really understand the environmental impact of the process, nor do they truly know exactly what is happening to the earth underground during a fracking procedure. “What they [industry representatives] fail to say is that they’ve had fewer than 10 years of experience on a large scale using these unconventional methods to develop gas from shale.” (From “Myths Versus Realities: ...Getting the facts about Fracking”; Canadians.org)
The Truth: Fracking, in a primitive sense, has been around since the 1860’s when the “exploding torpedo” was patented for “rubblizing hard rock formations” in well bores using gun powder or nitroglycerin. Water was pumped down on top of the charge to concentrate the explosion. And it worked in increasing oil well production. By the 1930’s, “non-explosive” methods were being experimented with resulting in a “Hydrafrac” process in 1949 using water and gelled crude oil. That patent is held by Haliburton. By the 1950’s, the process was used to fracture wells at a pace of about 3,000 a month. But this version of fracking was hardly the modern beast it is today. The old process used about 750 gallons of fluid with a 75 horsepower pump. Today, about 5-8 million gallons of fluid are used to frack a well with pressure provided by over 1500 horsepower pumps.
The other major difference is that fracking was primarily used in vertical wells. In 1976, the first experimental use of fracking shale began but did not come into widespread use until the late 1980’s when horizontal wells began being drilled in large numbers in eastern Texas in tight chalk formations. In 1997, the first widespread use of shale fracking also began in the Barnett shale of Texas. It wasn’t until about 2007 that the concept of using fracking “on the horizontal” exploded into widespread application. Though science is doing its best to keep up with analyzing the true impact of hydraulic fracturing along horizontal bores, the long term effects of fracking in this manner have yet to be revealed simply because it’s a relatively new technique.
The Bottom Line: Fracking techniques have been in use for over 60 years, but fracking on the horizontal is still a fairly “modern” development. Long term effects have yet to be revealed, however, it is not a fair statement to claim it is not a proven technology. As technology goes, 17 years of production values (considering only the point at which “slick water fracking” of shale begin in 1997) show that fracking is “proven”. What this means is that science and industry understand exactly what’s happening underground during the process through use of seismic monitoring and other means. Fracking is hardly new… but it can’t be claimed that modern techniques have been in use for 60 years. However, since long term effects are still being studied, the “Ink” can’t say this is a completely false statement. It took 20 years for the cell phone industry to realize some of the dangers extended use may cause. Because of these facts, the “Ink’s” assessment of this issue is that by and large, industry and science have shown that fracking is indeed effective and proven but we can’t possibly know the long term effects until more time has passed.
Largely False: Our score: 20% true, 80% false.
Has Fracking Increased the Incidence of Earthquakes? The Supporters: Since 1900, the USGS data shows that the number of damaging earthquakes has remained constant. There appears to be no connection between hydraulic fracturing and damaging earthquakes, although fracturing into a moderate sized fault may produce seismic energy sufficient to be measured by near-by instruments. However, some supporters admit, “injection wells that dispose of fracking wastewater sometimes cause earthquakes; and […] earthquakes triggered by injection wells are rare–extremely rare.“ (From “Hydraulic Fracturing 101...”; George King, Apache Corp)
The Opponents: Something is causing a spate of small earthquakes in the Lone Star State -- and many locals think they know the culprit: the already controversial process of fracking. Since Nov. 1, more than 30 small temblors have struck the rural area around Azle (pop. 11,000), and many residents are blaming the quakes on underground disposal wells, used to get rid of wastewater generated during the fracking and production process. Drillers inject the salty wastewater into wells a mile or two deep. (From “An earth-shaking mystery in Texas” CNN Money.com)
The Truth: Most opponents of fracking who discuss the debate over fracking and earthquakes generally get it right… in the end. Most acknowledge that it is not fracking itself which can cause earthquakes, it is the disposal of wastewater after the fracking process through injection wells. However, nearly every mainstream article we found on the issue of earthquakes related to wastewater injection wells has the word “Fracking” in their titles, implying that fracking is the culprit. For instance, Mother Jones magazine, an extremely liberal publication, did a multi-page expose on injection wells and earthquakes. Their work was very comprehensive and well researched and did not claim that fracking was causing the problem… yet the title of the article: “Fracking’s Latest Scandal? Earthquake Swarms”. The title clearly blurs the facts. The Bottom Line: The anti-fracking opposition has blurred the lines of truth on this one. Though they clearly understand (most of them) that their own argument is over injection wells used after the fracking process to dispose of waste water, they marry the process of fracking to the argument, implying that fracking is actually causing earthquakes. Fracking supporters are quick to point this out, but in doing so, they are indeed ignoring the true point of the argument – that the injection wells are causing earthquakes. Often, this dismissal is all a casual supporter needs to end the conversation, and their understanding of the facts. Still, some opposition bloggers point to the vast increase in seismic activity around fracking operations. They tend to fail to report however, that this seismic activity is measuring the explosive charge used in the perforating process – not a true earthquake. Also, some opponents claim that real quakes – where a fault slips, has indeed been linked to fracking and promote the notion that “...that a well could pierce an unknown fault five miles from a nuclear power plant.” As stated by “a prominent” USGS geophysicist.
But the truth on this topic seems to be a rather conclusive study done by Durham University in April of 2013. The study examined every “fracking-related occurrence... We have examined not just fracking-related occurrences but all induced earthquakes – as well as those instances cause by human activity (other industrial operations) since 1929.” They conclude “… that hydraulic fracturing is not a significant mechanism for inducing felt earthquakes.” It is extremely unlikely that any of us will ever be able to feel an earthquake caused by fracking. But theoretically, it cannot be ruled out completely. We cannot see every fault underground and therefore cannot completely discount the possibility of the process causing a felt earthquake - in the future. However, it is evident that injection wells have most certainly been responsible for earthquakes during the injection process. Once the process ends, so do the quakes… in most cases. But in speaking directly to the question of whether fracking has increased the incidence of earthquakes, the science is clear. They do not.
False: Our score: 0% true, 100% false.
Fracking and the Use of Water:
Is Fracking Dramatically Depleting Water Resources? The Supporters: “The big headline issues are not the real problem. Shale energy production, for example, happens to be the least water-intensive of the fossil-fuel-recovery technologies. Coal and conventional oil drilling use far more water per unit of energy produced, while “renewable” ethanol production uses up to 1,000 times more. Shale energy’s share of national water consumption is less than 1 percent. Agriculture, on the other hand, accounts for more than 80 percent of all American water consumption - about half of it wasteful” (From “Comeback: America’s new economic boom”; Reuters.com) “...the amount of water used for fracking is no greater than the water used for making snow at ski resorts.” (From “Experts: Fracking Depletes Water Supply”; Coloradoan.com)
The Opponents: “When water is used for fracking, it’s used to extinction. “It’s taken out of the hydrological cycle, never used again,” Phillip Doe, a former environmental compliance officer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said... “When they say 5 million gallons for a frack, they’re talking about 5 million gallons that will never see light again, and that’s if they’re lucky.” Doe said one of the biggest challenges… today is the amount of water used for drilling for oil and natural gas. That’s because water used for agriculture and most other uses is returned into the hydrological cycle and used again.” (From “Experts: Fracking Depletes Water Supply”; Coloradoan.com)
The Truth: There can be no denying that the boom in hydraulic fracturing operations in the U.S. has taxed local water supplies. But as with all development, the determination of the relative value of “trade off” between resources (known as opportunity cost) must be made. It is a basic question of whether the use of one resource is worth the value of developing another. And with that, it is reasonable to question the fairness of indicting the use of water in fracking while pointing out the vast use of water in other industrial processes. In other words, it takes water to grow crops too. Is energy less important than food? Not to an advanced civilization.
Energy actually uses 27% of all water consumed in the United States. Some energy production though uses far more water than others. According to a study done by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, corn-based ethanol production consumes over a 1,000 gallons of water per million Btu (MM/Btu) of the resulting ethanol produced. In comparison, shale production uses between a little over a half gallon to about 2 gallons of water per MM/Btu of the resulting oil or gas produced.
Another study by Carnegie Mellon University makes some pretty clear points. For instance, the total amount of water used to drill “all 2916 of the Marcellus wells permitted in Pennsylvania in the first 11 months of 2010” roughly equaled the amount of drinking water used by Pittsburgh residents during the same time. It further concluded that “water withdrawals of this new industry are taking the place of water once used by industries, like steel manufacturing, that the state (PA) has lost.”
Both studies speak to the relative trade-off, or opportunity costs of water versus energy production. All in all, shale oil and gas production compared to other industries is fairly low. Put in a more relatable way, just in Pennsylvania alone, the numbers are telling. Of the 9.5 billion gallons of water used daily in Pennsylvania, only 2/100ths of a percent of all daily water usage goes toward fracking for natural gas in the Marcellus shale.
A point to be noted though for the Bakken: Unlike all other plays in the United States, the Bakken actually requires “maintenance water” – up to 600 gallons a day per well due to salt buildup in the casing over time. The North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties estimates the possibility that over the 30-40 year life of a Bakken well, each could require about the same amount of water to maintain it as it took to frack it.
The Bottom Line: Yes, fracking is placing an extra burden on water resources, especially in drought stricken areas. However, though supporters of fracking greatly exaggerate the usage of water by fracking projects in comparison to other practices (fracking certainly uses more water than making snow for skiing) these supporters are making a valid point. Yes, fracking is utilizing massive quantities of water. Yes, by and large, this water is not recoverable nor recyclable. But no… fracking is not dramatically depleting water resources, especially when compared to the vast quantities used for other purposes. The amount of water that will “never see light again” because it is not “recoverable” (because it can not be cleaned of its waste chemicals) is fractional in comparison to total water resources. Fracking is thus in no way endangering current nor future access to regional drinking water supplies. The only warning then is it can result in shortages for agricultural use in drought stricken areas.
False: Our score: 10% true, 90% false.
Are Fracking Fluid Dangerous for People and the Environment?
The Supporters: Fracking fluid is 98.5% water, 1% sand, and 0.5% chemical additives. Some of these additives are also used in making ice cream! Colorado’s Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, drank fracking fluid to prove its safety to his local residents. But these are still chemicals and we should be scared of them – that is the cry of the fracktivists. But water is a chemical. Coffee has a whole bunch of chemicals in it. Everything is a chemical. (From “Ten big fat lies about fracking”; Spiked-Online.com)
The Opponents: Many of the chemicals used in the fracking process are proven toxins. These include benzene, …methanol, formaldehyde, … hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide, and others, which are hazardous if inhaled, ingested, or contacted by the skin and are considered caustic, carcinogenic, and mutagenic… Of the hundreds of chemicals tested by Endocrine Disruption Exchange, they report that 93% of them affect health and 43% are endocrine disruptors. They have been linked to infertility, ADHD, autism, diabetes, thyroid disorders. Even childhood and adult cancers have been found to be linked to fetal exposure to endocrine disruptors. (From “Gas Drilling and Your Health”; Catskill MountainKeeper.org)
The Truth: First, the action by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper: He told a Senate committee in 2013 that he actually “drank a glass of fracking fluid produced by oilfield services giant Halliburton.” He then stated that this fluid was made entirely “of ingredients sourced from the food industry.” He said this was “a demonstration. …they’ve [Halliburton] invested millions of dollars in what is a benign fluid in every sense.” In fact, Hickenlooper drank a specific type of enviro-friendly fracking fluid developed by Halliburton called “CleanStim”. It is simply a matter of fact that a vast majority of fracking operations use fluids that indeed contain very dangerous chemicals. CleanStim is not in wide use. Additionally, Halliburton’s own statement on CleanStim is simply that “the liquid is not safe for human consumption.” Doubts about whether the Governor consumed an entire glass are questionable. So, a sip of an envriro-friendly frack fluid does not provide proof of the health safety of the most commonly used fluids.
Though several hundred chemicals can be chosen from to create a frack fluid, about 10-15 are typically used to develop a product which will best serve the type of rock formation that is being worked. Some are indeed harmless, like guar gum, which is used in frack fluid to thicken the water. And yes, guar gum is also used to make ice cream. It is this substance most fracking supporters point to in claiming fracking fluids are “harmless.” But many of the most common chemicals chosen include benzene, hydrochloric acid and other fairly deadly compositions which perform various duties. Certainly, it is correct to say that only a small percentage of frack fluid contains chemicals. And that is what supporters always want to point to - the percentages – that only ½ of 1 percent (.5%) of fracking fluids are comprised of chemicals. But numbers, and fractions, are relative. Sure, ½% of 100 gallons of water equals a half a gallon. But when up to 8 million gallons are used, ½% represents 40,000 gallons of chemicals. That’s enough to fill two 30 foot diameter round above ground pools with 4 feet of chemicals.
A commonly used chemical in frack fluid is Benzene… a known cancer causing agent. Ironically, a 1948 toxicology report on benzene exposure by the American Petroleum Institute (API) flatly stated: “it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero.” It continued that there were “… well authenticated reports of at least 2 cases of benzene poisoning following exposure to only 75 ppm (parts per million.) A limit of 50 ppm is strongly recommended, particularly where exposures are recurrent. Skin contact should be avoided.”
Though it is difficult to find accurate percentages of types of chemicals used in frack fluids and in what concentrations, one disclosure document indicated that just .4% of benzene was being used in one particular frack fluid operation. Thus, if Benzene makes up just .4 percent of all the chemicals used (40,000 gallons), then some fracking operations could be using up to 160 gallons of Benzene per well. If a company uses 8 million gallons of fluid then, isn’t the 7.92 million gallons of water that accompanies it enough to “water-down” this harmful chemical? Well, maybe, but doing the math: if Benzene makes up .4% of the total chemicals in an 8 million gallon frack operation, it would equal about 40 parts per million of Benzene. That’s 10 parts less than the very cautious warning from the API – in 1948. But 60 years of study have resulted in far more stringent warnings. Since then, “The United States Environmental Protection Agency has set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for benzene in drinking water at 0.005 mg/L (5 ppb)” - that’s parts per “billion.”
The Bottom Line: The point of this lengthy focus on just one chemical is simple: Even if “watered” down to “acceptable levels”, no American would find it “acceptable” to drink any chemical, at any recommended level, that is known to cause health problems. Yes, coffee has chemicals in it as supporters would add, but it’s obvious we’re not talking about simple “aromatics.”
However… and this is a big however. When anti-fracking activists make claims that fracking fluids cause cancer and can virtually liquefy a person’s liver (which they have claimed), there is a raw implication well beyond the simple statement that “fracking fluids are dangerous to people and the environment.” That implication is that fracking is actually causing cancer and poisoning the environment. Let’s put this in perspective by drawing a parallel to something a little less controversial; swimming pools. The most common chemical used for keeping a pool algae free is chlorine. If we had a controversy similar to fracking over the notion that “swimming pool water is dangerous to people and the environment” then the arguments would sound like this: Anti-pool activists claim that swimming pool water is laced with chlorine which is known to elevate the risk of rectal cancer (which some actually claim) and most certainly can damage the skin and eyes. Pro-pool activists would claim that pool water is totally harmless. Both are clearly wrong. Everyone has felt the post pool sting of chlorine in their eyes… chlorine is a chemical and it is dangerous to people. But, of course, when it is used in the right amount in a pool the effects of chlorine are barely noticeable. Moving back to the fracking debate – yes, of course, fracking chemicals are dangerous to people and the environment. To argue otherwise is puzzling. But the number of cases in which people exposed to frack fluids resulting in illness are extremely low – and they were all directly exposed to the chemical that made them ill. Accidental exposure by workers from spills have made them sick; as has an over-chlorinated pool. Though to be clear, the workers made sick were in grave danger while the kid made sick from pool chlorine might just suffer from painful burning of the eyes. No case though has ever been reported of fracking fluids making a homeowner sick or causing cancer by means of ground water contamination.
When an anti-fracking activist claims that fracking fluids cause cancer, they are actually making a big leap from the fact that some chemicals in fracking fluids are known cancer causing agents to the claim that fracking fluids are actually causing cancer in people – they are not. Fracking fluids are dangerous… but they are not giving people cancer. If they were, imagine the hailstorm of articles and reports on such illnesses… it’s just not happening.
But whether fracking chemicals are indeed finding their way into our water resources is not the point of argument here (that comes later). The question being argued by both pro-fracking and anti-fracking camps is simple: Are fracking fluids dangerous to human health and the environment? It’s really a no brainer. Yes, they are. Admitting this is not making any statement about whether fracking should be banned. Chlorine use in residential pools is dangerous to human health and the environment as well. Dangerous chemicals are in use in hundreds of industrial operations without causing damage to the health and well being of humans or the environment. Thus, this is not an indictment of the industry… but it is an indictment of efforts by some in the industry, including the Colorado Governor, in arguing claims that fracking fluid is harmless. It clearly is not. Regardless of the fact that fracking fluids are indeed chemical in nature and thus dangerous, no documented cases of illness to a non-oil/gas worker caused by the fracking process (including cancer) could be found except one - that being a nurse who treated an exposed gas worker. Several statements in the press similar to “Researchers found chemicals from fracking that could cause infertility, cancer and birth defects” are clearly the stuff that fear tactics are made of. Several chemicals used in various industrial processes “could” cause a variety of health risks – if directly ingested or if exposure at high levels or for extended periods occur. For instance, arsenic is used in making certain metals (bronzing) and pesticides. Therefore – yes, fracking fluids are dangerous – the point of the question – but no, they are not poisoning people wholesale. Though there have been a handful of reported illnesses by workers due to accidental exposure through spills and mishandled chemicals, claims that “fracking causes cancer” or any other deadly illness are quite frankly, unfounded.
To properly “grade” this point then, we have split the issue into two parts. The actual question: are fracking fluids dangerous for people and the environment? Yes, they are. Then the implication within that question: are fracking fluids poisoning people and the environment? No, they are not… but yet another question must be answered within that implication. Certainly, the evidence is clear that when done properly, the fracking process itself does not poison people and the environment. But when improper disposal of waste products takes place, the “Ink” has found an entirely different situation. That one will have to wait for the Summer Issue and Part 2 of our Bakken feature.
Entirely True: Our score: 100% true, 0% false.
More to the implication. Almost Entirely False: Our score: 2% true, 98% false.