When it comes to the United States’ decades-old ban on the export of domestically produced crude oil, Canary has made no secret of our position: Lift the ban! We’ve also made no secret of our belief that fracking is a responsible and effective means of extracting “tight” oil and natural gas.
Fracking has been the subject of a lot of debate in recent years. While there are plenty of people out there who share our view that fracking is good for the economy and for the US oil industry, there are many others who have concerns or questions about the process.
If enough of us speak up, perhaps our leaders in Washington will see the importance of changing the current regulation. Chances are good that, when Washington votes to lift the ban, oil and natural gas producers will step up fracking in the U.S. That’s why we think NOW is a great time to take to social media and open up a thoughtful discussion about fracking and its effects on the oil industry, the economy, and the environment.
We posted the following question on the Canary Facebook page: “Lifting the crude export ban would likely result in increased fracking in the United States. What questions and concerns do you have about lifting the crude export ban?”
Unsurprisingly, we received a wide variety of responses.
An “Earth-Shaking” Controversy
Earthquakes were a top concern among people who were skeptical of the process. Facebook commenters DeAnna D. and Harold H. both brought up recent earthquakes near drilling sites.
“Earthquakes are caused by this means of getting fuel,” DeAnna wrote.
Harold agreed: “You cannot keep causing small earthquakes without triggering a huge one. There is cause and effect. A release of pressure in one spot affects pressure in another spot,” he wrote.
But other commenters were quick to disagree, saying fracking doesn’t cause earthquakes or other environmental problems.
Mary Ann K. wrote, “Earthquakes have happened for generations along the Balcones Escarpment in Texas prior to the first well ever drilled. … Shale is not solid. It is porous and in layers like slate or mica. The current drilling methods and practices are the safest since the industry began. Our future is in petroleum whether you like it or not. Even wind turbines and solar power use petroleum to be manufactured, in production and in transmission!”
Another commenter, Barry B., said he doesn’t believe that fracking creates earthquakes or environmental contamination.
“Fracking does not cause sinkholes or water contamination or earthquakes,” he wrote. “Most wells are over two miles down below the water tables. I work in the oilfield industry. Contamination is caused by the oil drillers not going by proper procedures.”
So, who’s right and who’s wrong?
The answer – like many things in the fracking debate – is not that simple: According to experts at the US Geological Survey (USGS), there may be some truth in both positions. The USGS classified the idea of “man-made” earthquakes as “partially fact.” However, the USGS went on to say there are only a few documented locations in the US where human activity influenced earthquakes and that, of these ground shakers, most were insignificant.
In a recent article posted to its website, the USGS stated, “The cause was injection of fluids into deep wells for waste disposal and secondary recovery of oil and the filling of large reservoirs for water supplies. Most of these earthquakes were minor… The (point of origin) of an earthquake is typically tens to hundreds of miles underground, and the scale and force necessary to produce earthquakes are well beyond our daily lives.”
Cliff Frohlich, a University of Texas seismologist, agrees with this assessment. At a recent shale-gas drilling conference, he stated that earthquakes near drilling sites are not caused by fracking but result instead from the disposal of drilling fluids in underground injection wells. And although there have been at least six earthquakes ranging in magnitude from 3.3 to 5.7 on the Richter scale since 2008 in the fracking states of Arkansas, Colorado, Texas, Ohio and Oklahoma, Frohlich pointed out that, given the amount of oil being produced and how much waste is being disposed of, earthquakes near drilling sites are “very rare.” He added that there are 10,000 injection wells in Texas, some in use since the 1930s, that have not caused problems. In other words, fracking and storage alone don’t account for the rare occurrences of earthquakes: Frohlich theorized that in cases where earthquakes have occurred, it was likely that the locations were “suitably oriented” near fault lines.
The bottom line: Earthquakes caused by fracking are rare – and when they do occur, it’s very likely that there are other, natural factors at work.
Water Quality Concerns: Drilling Down to the Facts
Earthquakes aren’t the only issue that Canary’s Facebook fans were interested in. There were also questions about drinking water and what effects, if any, fracking sites would have on local water quality. Commenter Barb A. asked, “What about methane gas and other toxic chemicals that could leech out and contaminate groundwater?”
This is a valid concern; after all, there have been reports of contaminated water near shale drilling sites in Pennsylvania and Texas, and a common fear about fracking is that the chemicals used in the process will eventually seep into the surrounding earth and get into local drinking water supplies. Fortunately, though, recorded incidents are few and far between.
Here are some statistics from a review conducted by the Associated Press, which recently requested data about water-pollution complaints stemming from drilling activity. It requested the data from four states including Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas.
- Since 2005 Pennsylvania has confirmed at least 106 cases of water-well contamination out of more than 5,000 new wells drilled. There were five confirmed cases in 2012, 18 in 2011 and 29 in 2010;
- Ohio had two confirmed cases in 2013, 2012 and 2011 and none in 2010. Of these six confirmations, none were a result of fracking, according to Mark Bruce, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources;
- Of 122 complaints over four years in West Virginia of water contamination, four cases warranted corrective action from drillers;
- In Texas there hasn’t been one confirmed case of water contamination due to drilling in the past 10 years.
So, is fracking responsible for water contamination? According to scientists from Ohio State University, the answer is, “No.” When they looked at the causes of the contamination near Pennsylvania and Texas sites, they found that, in each case, improper chemical storage and issues with leakage were the source of the problem. “Our data clearly show that the contamination in these clusters stems from well-integrity problems such as poor casing and cementing. The good news is that most of the issues we have identified can potentially be avoided by future improvements in well integrity,” said Thomas Darrah, the leader of the study.
Avner Vengosh, a Duke University professor of geochemistry and water quality, supported the Ohio State team’s findings. “These results appear to rule out the possibility that methane has migrated up into drinking water aquifers because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, as some people feared.”
Lisa Jackson, the former administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took this a step further in April 2012: “In no case have we made a definitive determination that (hydraulic fracturing) has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.”
Despite concerns about water quality, many of our Facebook fans were happy to learn that more and more drillers have begun to recycle the water they use to frack wells, a process that can easily demand more than 4 million gallons of water. When Canary reported in its “Myth Monday” series that “more companies than ever are recycling the water they use,” it drew a favorable response.
Sarah J. proclaimed, “Save the earth! Great job!”
Barb A. was also encouraged to read of the changes being made. “I’m glad to see companies being more responsible in this area. Looks like they’re being better stewards of sand and chemicals, too.”
Recycling water used in fracked wells has been particularly important in Texas, where droughts have been reported. Companies working in major Texas shale plays like the Eagle Ford and Permian Basin now report that 10-20% of the water they use for fracking has been recycled, and those numbers are expected to double over the next 10 years, according to a former water analyst with the research firm IHS. What’s more, a Texas businessman who owns a water recycling operation confirmed a two-year, 20-percent bump in business from companies drilling in the area. In addition, Houston-based oil company Apache Corp announced that it has stopped using fresh water at the Permian Wolfcamp shale play.
But it’s not just Texas shale plays where drillers are aiming to act responsibility when it comes to water usage; an oil company working in Colorado is also making recycling a priority. WPX Energy reported it recycled more than 250 million gallons of water at its treatment facility, close to all of the water it utilized for fracking of new wells. According to WPX, that’s enough to grow nearly 700 acres of corn.
Facebook fan Eric B. said he approved of the recycling practice and hopes the practice catches on at more drilling sites. “Good to read,” he wrote. “Hopefully those numbers keep going up.”
“Let the Free Market Determine Price”
Although fracking and the environment took center stage during this discussion, we did hear from several Facebook fans who were more interested in the economic side of the issue. This group was, for the most part, pro-fracking – and the general consensus was that joining the global oil market would be a positive step for the US
“I am all for increasing our domestic energy production!” wrote Noel M. “It increases our national security by keeping us from being dependent on foreign oil produced by governments hostile to us.”
Harry M. agreed, adding, “Allow free trade. Let the free market system determine price, not politics.”
So what do the experts see happening should America’s crude be allowed entrance into the world oil market trade? According to a recent IHS Inc. report, it would mean nearly 400,000 new jobs and savings of $67 billion a year for the US. The research firm said, should the ban be done away with and American oil becomes free to flow into global markets, it would “unlock the current supply and refining gridlock…lead to a total of $746 billion in additional investments (from 2016 to 2030) and an average of 1.2 million barrels per day.” IHS also reported that the increase in crude oil supply would end up saving motorists an average of 8 cents per gallon annually.
A Lively Discussion on a Complex Subject
We were impressed and pleased to see that so many of our Facebook fans were interested in learning more about fracking and its impact on the environment and the economy. At Canary, we believe that open, logical dialogue is the best way to make sure that everyone is on the same page – and we were happy to hear a wide range of opinions and viewpoints.
To read the full discussion or to weigh in or ask questions, visit our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/DanKEberhart.