Similar to climate change, the issue of hydraulic fracturing is now deeply mired in the quagmire of national politics and caught up in environmental hysteria. Josh Fox’s movie Gasland created a huge sensation – decrying the environmental evils of fracking, including exploding water faucets seen here, and calling for a national moratorium on fracking. Hollywood too has entered the fray, with Matt Damon’s Promised Land movie, adding fuel (no pun intended) to the political fire. So, here we go again – what and who is the public to believe regarding the risks and dangers of fracking. Is Hollywood sensationalizing the issue just to sell more tickets?!
As a former EPA water official, I’m often asked about fracking and my view on the topic and environmental risks. My response is that fracking, if not done properly, like any industrial activity, is going to cause environmental problems. Fracking was an issue when I was at EPA, although the biggest concern then was the risk of groundwater contamination from diesel fluids used in the fracking process. Now due to the rapid expansion of shale gas drilling and production, the environmental concerns are amplified due to the sheer volumes of produced water, the treatment and disposal of wastewater, the number of wells being brought into production, and encroachment into areas where such activities have not previously occurred. No doubt fracking has contributed to water pollution in some areas, and will continue to do so if not properly regulated. And in small sleepy towns like Montrose, Pennsylvania (where coincidentally my grandparents are eternally resting), it’s the biggest thing that has ever happened – akin to the California Gold Rush – and has brought with it lots of big money, social upheaval (both good and bad) from the haves and have-nots, and environmental problems.
EPA has done a good job at researching and documenting the potential risks and range of impacts to drinking water resources. What many people don’t appreciate is that fracking has been around for well over 60 years, is regulated by the states, and in the vast majority of cases, has been done safely, with little or no environmental impacts. Most of the shale gas being extracted is a mile or more beneath the surface and much deeper than the groundwater resources that need to be protected, as depicted in this schematic. Many of these shale gas communities historically have had to cope with naturally occurring methane in their water long before fracking descended upon them. Good history and background on shale gas in the U.S. here.
Like so many other environmental issues, I don’t question the intentions or motivations of the majority of those who voice concern about the environmental impacts from fracking. Most are genuinely real, others are genuinely mistaken, and yet a small handful of activists are genuinely wrong and motivated for purely political reasons. For those who are genuinely concerned, I get it – I understand and appreciate those concerns. Heck – those flames coming out of the faucet are pretty darn scary and the stories about families becoming sick after drinking polluted water are disconcerting (however, the facts are not always what they appear to be). For those who voice alarm about protecting family and community from unknown risks and environmental harm, one cannot simply dismiss all concerns out-of-hand. Once again, such concerns are a conservative instinct, i.e., to protect the homeland and those things we cherish most. And while there are legitimate localized concerns, for the most part, concerns of fracking have been largely overblown, distorted, and hyped by the media and certain activists opposed to the oil and gas industry writ large. Josh Fox engaged in distorting the facts and shaping the narrative to fit his story – I call that shoddy journalism at worst activism at best.
For those who have seen Gasland, I’d encourage you to watch the FrackNation, a documentary by Phelim McAleer, an investigative journalist (update: with a great
Scottish Irish accent I might add – sorry Phelim for them there fighting words), whose funding for the documentary came from small on-line donations, not from the oil and gas industry. (While you have to purchase the entire FrackNation for $19.95, you can see McAleer here and some of the FrackNation clips; another similar film called Truthland can be seen here on Youtube.) FrackNation is an absolutely fascinating documentary – and a tale of the tumult and difficulty often entailed in getting to the truth on environmental issues so emotionally charged. Even the NYT gave strong marks to McAleer’s FrackNation, calling it
Methodically researched and assembled (and financed by thousands of small donations from an online campaign), the film picks at Mr. Fox’s assertions and omissions with dogged persistence. Much of what it reveals is provocative, like a confrontation with Mr. Fox about the presence of methane in the water supply decades before fracking began.
One of the antagonist in FrackNation even threatens to shoot McAleer for simply asking questions, and wouldn’t even believe EPA who, after extensive testing, met with her and her family to inform her that their water was safe to drink. As with the Alar scare in 1989, while there is often a kernel of truth that surrounds these types of issues, there is often an equally irrational and emotional exuberance that enshrouds them, obscuring the facts, confusing the public, and clouding the judgment and perception of many. We humans are prone to getting caught up in scary stories and losing sight of the facts; conversely, we also can be slow to awake to environmental risks that confront us.
And quite frankly, the opponents of oil and gas and hydraulic fracturing fail to mention the environmental benefits that have been yielded through new technologies such as directional drilling, which reduces the number of wellheads needed and ultimately the environmental footprint of these operations (keep in mind that wellhead construction and access roads encroach into wildlife habitat and can impact threatened and endangered species – so the reduction in the environmental footprint is a good thing). Additionally, the fact that we now have access to even larger natural gas reserves, a cleaner source of energy than other fossil fuels, means potentially less greenhouse gas emissions. Note that one emerging concern is the potential for fugitive methane gas emissions from fracking, although recent studies suggest that initial concerns may have been exaggerated (methane is a potent GHG, more so than carbon dioxide). On the economic benefits of fracking, Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, talks here about the significant opportunities for natural gas production in terms of generating trillions in new revenue for the U.S. Treasury, creation of millions of well-paying jobs, and creating greater energy security.
Done correctly, in the right location, and with the proper regulatory oversight, fracking is absolutely 100% safe! Listen folks, with all the focus on the environmental risks of fracking, and the states regulating and EPA watching this issue like hawks – as they should – not to mention the eNGOs and civic groups monitoring localized risks and impacts, we’re in good hands. So to those who may be hyper-ventilating over this issue after watching Gasland, my recommendation is to step away from the faucet, take a deep breath, count to 10, and know that these environmental issues are being thoughtfully and adequately addressed. And lastly, let’s keep focus on the real facts and not Hollywood’s portrayal of those facts.
(Full Disclaimer: For those who don’t know me from Adam, I have no vested interest in Al Jazeera’s Current TV, Al Gore’s royalties therefrom, or the oil and gas industry for that matter, apart from the 20.8 shares of Chesapeake Energy Corp that I own at the time of this post, worth a disappointing $462. My vested interest is helping to shine the light of truth on complicated environmental matters like this one and ensuring that my family, my friends, and other earthlings around me have a sustainable future and the same opportunities with which I’ve been blessed.)