You might call the public debate on fracking “a moral panic.”
When it comes to questions of the environment vs. fossil fuels (especially shale development), New York City, Colorado, California, England, France, Bulgaria, and South Africa are becoming epicenters of public anxiety and panic. Many fear that hydraulic fracturing is an outright threat to the moral, social, and environmental fabric of neighborhoods (a.k.a. “moral panic”). Lawmakers and anti-fracking activists (or “fractivists”), celebrities and shale barons (so-called “frackmasters”), local communities, politicians, and scientists have been debating – sometimes shouting – about the risks and rewards of this comparatively new shale exploration technology and its effects on planet Earth.
Many see fracking as an assault on environmental and social values or a threat to the public health, safety, and sanity of communities disrupted by noise and drilling machinery. And some assert that the US energy industry should be focusing on renewable sources, not hydrocarbons (which are thought to contribute to climate change), although US efforts reduced carbon dioxide emissions in April 2012 to the lowest levels since 1992. Several complaints about fracking have found their way into Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports and well pad research studies conducted by NOAH, Purdue, ICF, and many other institutions. These studies have documented incidents – though relatively rare – of methane gas leakage from well pads and pipelines, groundwater contamination, and seismic activity around shale plays.
On the other hand, those who defend shale give abundant examples of economic and even environmental benefits – from US job creation, lower natural gas prices, and reduction of energy imports to increased investment in petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries for which shale-derived natural gas plays a critical role. In addition, methane (the predominant component of natural gas) burns cleaner than coal or oil and is quickly supplanting coal-fired plants to generate electricity.
“The increase in [shale gas] supplies has resulted in dramatic price decreases that are essentially forcing coal-fired power plants into retirement,” said Mark Brownstein, the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) associate vice president and chief counsel on US climate and energy. EDF has publically come out in favor of carefully monitored shale development with safeguards to protect citizen and community health and safety. “Between coal and natural gas in many respects, gas is much better than coal for the environment,” Brownstein told us in a recent interview. “You get virtually none of the toxic air pollutants (e.g., sulfur dioxide and mercury) that you get with coal, and you get much less carbon dioxide pollution” – on the order of 50% less.” (Carbon dioxide is the gas most commonly implicated in warming global temperatures and climate change.)
The Fracking Debate: All Just Rhetoric and Moral Panic?
The primary reason for the activity around “unconventional” shale plays is that supplies in “conventional” US oil and gas wells are being tapped out. Renewables – even vast solar projects in transition – are part of the US energy mix, but not as far along as they eventually will be. Further, the US Energy Information Administration forecasts that, by 2035, natural gas-derived electricity will roughly double to meet about half the country’s electricity needs.
Much of this increase in shale resources comes from advancements in drilling technology. According to Brownstein, 90% of all new oil and gas wells in the US now employ some form of hydraulic fracturing – and within that, the vast majority of sites are now using horizontal drilling. “The practice of hydraulic fracturing is now the predominant way we are producing oil and gas,” Brownstein said. “The question is not whether we drill, but how we do it in ways that minimize risks to health and environment.”
And so the debate rages on.
Confrontations over fracking have accelerated because of the huge economic and environmental stakes involved. And, as David Spence (a University of Texas Austin professor of law, regulation, and policy) notes, public policy debate appears to seesaw between “cool analysis and moral outrage” that obscures the ability to evaluate data rationally and solve complex problems.
This moral outrage is akin to moral panic, a term invented in 1987 by media scholar Stanley Cohen, who defined the term as “a condition, episode, person or group of persons [who] become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” In this case, fracking is seen as a disruption to the normal course of community events and as a threat to ground water safety.
How does moral panic play out in the shale debate? One way for opponents is to exaggerate negative findings. Proponents, likewise, look to overemphasize positive ones.
But the rhetoric attached to the shale debate has become extreme – not at all helpful in increasing public understanding of relative risks and benefits. Mass demonstrations in big cities have galvanized opposition groups. Celebrities like Yoko Ono make speeches, stage news conferences, and produce radio ads attacking the shale oil and gas industry. “Fracking kills,” Ono said at a press conference with other drilling opponents. “And it doesn’t just kill us, it kills the land, nature and eventually the whole world.”
“Opponents of fracking have generally framed their arguments in moral or ethical terms, calling shale gas production a ‘nightmare’ that will harm people and the environment,” Spence writes. “The industry’s proponents point to the paucity of hard data supporting opponents’ claims, dispute the anecdotal evidence opponents cite, and respond with their own exaggerated claims… Meanwhile, systematic research is beginning to build our understanding of the risks associated with shale gas production, though the record is far from complete.”
“To me, the most important fracking impacts are all associated with local disruptions: for example, truck traffic, noise, and changes in neighborhood character,” Spence maintained. “A lot of the impact that upsets people and motivates local bans comes from intense industrial activity at the well pad. Almost everything else we’re talking about – seismic activity, violation of air pollution standards, ground water contaminations – are the exception rather than the rule.”
“Fracking has actually gotten ahead of our studies of its impacts,” Spence added. “While scientists are filling in the fracking profile study by study and presenting these results circumspectly, public debate has gotten more polarized and shrill.”
What has science discovered thus far about fracking? Almost all environmental debate centers on three major issues: 1. groundwater contamination; 2. methane gas emissions; and 3. safe disposal or recycling of millions of gallons of water and chemicals used in fracking. (A fourth issue, seismic activity, is a concern to scientists and citizens in some parts of the country like Ohio, where drilling and an increase in low-magnitude earthquakes seem to be associated. Investigations are ongoing.)
Issue #1 – groundwater contamination: A review article published in Science May 16, 2013 and funded by the National Science Foundation investigated what fracking was doing to groundwater supplies. The result? No recorded effect, at least thus far. “There is no irrefutable impact of this industry on surface or ground quality in Pennsylvania,” said Radisav Vidic, a University of Pittsburgh environmental engineer who led the review.
Many factors can influence groundwater contamination, and problems have been sporadically reported in Wyoming, Texas, and Pennsylvania. For example, in 2013 an environmental advocacy and publishing group, www.desmogblog.com, obtained a copy of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) presentation suggesting “a clear link between hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in Dimock, Pennsylvania, and groundwater contamination.” The presentation, “Isotech-Stable Isotype Analysis: Determining the Origin of Methane and its Effects on the Aquifer,” concluded that methane had migrated up into the aquifers adjoining the Cabot Oil and Gas Gesford 2 well, possibly during the drilling/fracking process started in 2009.
EPA also found arsenic, barium, and manganese, all naturally occurring substances (albeit hazardous in large quantities), “in well water of five households at levels that could present a health concern,” according to an EPA desk statement. But the EPA suppressed these findings in 2012 in the wake of President Obama’s coming reelection campaign, according to some EPA insiders.
In light of these EPA well tests, Cabot paid for deliveries of fresh water supplies to Dimock area households for a couple of years but never acknowledged formal responsibility for the problem. EPA followed with an investigation and also paid for water deliveries to 19 local families beginning in January 2012 until the investigation ended. But, again, the government agency announced that fracking was not the cause of the water contamination, although some experts involved in the report stated otherwise.
What’s the truth?
Both a Yale University study and a Scientific American report on shale oil and gas safety noted that fracking itself, which generally occurs a mile or more beneath the surface, is highly unlikely to actually blast a path to drinking water resources. But if wells aren’t properly installed, or if there are cracks in the concrete casings used to seal the main well pipe from the surrounding earth, fracking fluid or methane could leak upward and find its way toward the surface.
Based on 2008-2013 citation records from the Pennsylvania Department of Environment (DEP), for example, roughly 3% of all wells drilled in PA suffered some kind of faulty construction problem resulting in leaks. Still, the DEP is “not seeing any evidence for groundwater contamination from methane leaks,” University of Pittsburgh’s Vidic says. And wells in New York State – where no fracking exists – have similar concentration of methane to those in Pennsylvania where fracking is abundant.
Overall, “we’re still trying to understand the risk factors from hydraulic fracturing,” said Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, the Dwight C. Baum professor of civil and environmental engineer at Cornell University. An expert on shale geology, Ingraffea believes that more aggressive renewables development is a “must” to reduce greenhouses gases now and in the future. With current fracturing and horizontal drilling, “the likelihood of there being a serious problem with respect to drinking water contamination is small,” he noted. “It’s not negligible, but it’s small.”
The main conclusion scientists draw from available reports is that checking well casings and construction is paramount to ground water and air safety. Both the states and the federal government are tightening up on well regulation to assure that leaks are detected and contained.
Issue #2 – methane emissions: Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas, 84% more potent than carbon dioxide as measured in the first 20 years of release. Methane can leak right across the shale gas value chain – from well pads to local and interstate pipelines to gas mains to storage tanks and sealed storage pits. But estimates for how much leakage vary significantly, running between 1.5% (EPA estimates) to 6% or more (Brownstein’s guess).
One finding is that, in some shale and coal development regions where drilling has been conducted for decades – or even a century or more – old pipes or weathered concrete casings can act as a conduit for natural gas moving from lower to upper regions. For example, in April 2014, a Purdue University study on methane emissions from shale gas published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed abnormally high methane levels over a handful of wells in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
But the vast majority of wells in the region had little to no emissions. The authors of the study found methane mixtures characteristic of coal bed gas, not Marcellus gas, strongly suggesting that the vented gas had come from old coal beds. Experts evaluating the study indicated that special precautions should be taken to prevent methane escape during vertical and horizontal drilling in these areas. But because the methane sources appear to be extremely limited, the problem can be fixed with stronger gas measurements and containment procedures before, during, and after drilling.
“Once identified, gas leaks in production and transportation systems can be reduced, and there is an economic as well as environmental incentive to do so,” wrote Andrew Revkin, a New York Times commentator on the study. Take pneumatic valves in gas pipelines, for example: These actually vent gas as part of their operation and are a big source of methane leakage, according to an EDF study. But they can be replaced easily with electronic valves.
States like Colorado and Wyoming, and parts of Texas have enacted legislation to reduce methane emissions from fracked wells. Further, the EPA has enacted a set of standards to ensure, by end of 2015, 95% decreased emissions in the 11,000 newly hydraulically fractured gas wells across the US each year. The techniques for capturing flow-back gas, known as “green completions,” are based on known and cost-effective industry practices. About half the fractured wells in the US employ green completions already.
“[Methane leakage] is a solvable problem,” Brownstein told us. “We can achieve a 40% reduction in methane emissions across the [shale production] system for less than 1 penny per thousand cubic fee produced,” he said. “40% reduction opportunities have a net payback to companies; if you’re taking steps to minimize emissions, you’re saving product. From a societal perspective, none of this is expensive to do.”
Issue #3 – recycling/disposing of fracked water: Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling require a great deal of water –as much as 10 to 100 times the amount of frack fluid used in conventional drilling – along with chemicals and sand to open up cracks in shale along vast stretches of rock. In conventional (vertical, non-shale) drilling, “they’d use a petroleum gel and sand, add chemicals, then pump it into the rock, and then that gel would have to dissipate,” said Ingraffea. Recycling wasn’t much of an issue because the fluid amounts were relatively small.
Today, though, with Texas and California both experiencing droughts, using water for shale drilling is controversial. A dozen communities in California, for example, have voted to restrict or prohibit hydraulic fracturing in their jurisdictions because of drought and a recent spate of powerful earthquakes. The Western Petroleum Association, an industry lobbying group, indicated that a single fracked well consumes 87% of the water used by a family of four over a year.
Fracking operations can use 7.5 to 26.6 million liters (1.89 to 6.9 million gallons) of water. Add to that powerful chemical cocktails (which vary according to the drilling company) using ingredients ranging from grain alcohol to coffee grounds, the danger of toxic spills, large amounts of left-over salt, and even the presence of radioactivity. Tainted water has been located, for example, outside the Marcellus shale fracking zone deep underground, although more than a kilometer beneath ground water supplies. Shallower fracked wells in West Virginia and Wyoming have also contaminated groundwater, according to Scientific American, and evidence of contaminants has been showing up in Pennsylvania rivers.
Preventing well spills and properly recycling and/or disposing of fracked well water remains paramount.
Because of the geology of the Marcellus shale, disposal isn’t an option, so drilling companies have been increasingly reusing the water in new wells – in fact, 2012 reuse rates in Pennsylvania were 90%. Texas is also looking to reform its regulations regarding recycling and disposal, as well as its water usage; at present, companies dispose of fracked water in deep injection wells, although recycling has begun.
In addition, several states have required companies to disclose the chemicals they are using in fracking; the website FracFocus allows anyone to look up specific wells to see what’s in the fluid mix. EPA’s regulations for green completions will also require companies to use special equipment to separate and capture gas and liquid hydrocarbons in well flow back, helping to reduce waste.
Fracking is a Work in Progress
Every industrial activity carries some measure of risk. But the private sector, oil and gas industry leaders, and NGOs (such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Air Task Force, the PA Environmental Council, and the Center for Sustainable Shale Development) are working actively to reduce risk and enforce best practices through cooperative activities.
State laws and regulations about fracking are also important. In addition to environmental concerns, legislative issues are cropping up. Some 450 separate communities across the US are fighting with state regulators over who has the right to block local drilling. In New York, one of the four states sitting atop the gas-abundant Marcellus shale, a moratorium on shale hydraulic fracturing has been in effect since 2010. Four communities in Colorado have banned it, and a measure to halt fracking statewide is on the ballot this fall.
Despite these bans, it’s notable that the country is actually divided about shale development – pretty equally. A recent Pew research study found that 49% percent oppose additional hydraulic fracturing, while 44% are in favor of it.
The question remains how shale hydraulic fracturing and other forms of energy development, including renewables, will affect the economic and environmental picture of our society long-term.
The jury is out.
Attention to science – not myth mongering – is critical to finding common-sense energy solutions. “Many of the risks [of shale fracturing] can be addressed through appropriate operating practices and best practices, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Susan LeGros, the president of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development in Pittsburgh. LeGros told us that the Center is working with four major energy partners – Shell, Chevron, EQT, and Consol – along with several environmental NGOs to define a 15 point certification process for fracked wells in the Appalachian basin (Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Eastern Ohio).
Society accepts some level of risk with all industrial activity. “We don’t ban cars or electricity, even though people are sometimes harmed by those activities,” Spence pointed out. “The challenge for regulators is to minimize the probability of harm and of human error, and to balance the benefits of this form of energy production against its risks.”