This subject has moved from being one of rational debate to being symbolic and thus driven by emotions. It is difficult to see how this has come about: we all need power (although there is an excellent argument that suggests that we need to change our ways so as to consume less far less, than we do at present). We all know that power means using some form of the resources available to us and that our fossil resources are finite. Quite rightly we have tried to look at alternative ways of generating power using “renewables”: wind, solar and wave power. These are steps in the right direction but the first two are unreliable (the wind does not always blow – it gets dark) and the third is proving far harder than we once thought. We need more time in which to solve these problems and need to decide how to bridge that gap.
The use of shale gas is one obvious way to bridge that gap, so what is the problem? I suppose the answer is “fear” – a combination of genuine concern for the environment (good) and nimbyism (bad but understandable). I have no intention of considering the second reason: it is not in my nature to take on moral or philosophical challenges about the balances between the public good and the private individual.
In the environment, I include the well being of humans as we are a part of that environment. However, before we look at what we know about fracking in terms of what can go wrong and how to reduce the risks, we have to accept that every enterprise carried risks – even making a cup of tea. I cannot accept the argument that we should refuse to carry out something unless it can be declared “risk free”. Such a demand lacks any measure of intellectual credibility. Meanwhile there remains a shadow over fracking – as with every other human activity: unexpected events, consequences, call them what you will. By their very nature it is impossible to take them into consideration so the very best we can do (and should do) is to use our intellects to reveal as many possible problems as we can and to see whether they may be solved. It is the ones for which no credible solution can be found that should be used to decide the answer to our question.
Meanwhile, because of the emotions surrounding fracking, the world is awash with rumours about eventualities (with little or no basis in science) and the first thing to do is to look at those and see which have any merit. Here are the views expressed on the web site of someone called “dangers of fracking“. In this part I add my first thoughts (for what they are worth).
“Each gas well requires an average of 400 tanker trucks to carry water and supplies to and from the site.”
First thoughts. What size of tanker? Over what time scale (per hour, day, week, month)?
“It takes 1-8 million gallons of water to complete each fracturing job.”
First thoughts. 1 to 8 is a pretty wide range. What is the definition of a “fracturing job”? Are we talking about getting the thing operational or the whole life span of the well?
The water brought in is mixed with sand and chemicals to create fracking fluid. Approximately 40,000 gallons of chemicals are used per fracturing.”
First thoughts. The world is full of sand and we seem to manage it without difficulty, it must be the chemicals that concern us. We need to know what chemicals are used in fracking.
“Up to 600 chemicals are used in fracking fluid, including known carcinogens and toxins such as ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid, mercury, methanol, and uranium.
First thoughts. “Up to” always makes me worry. I say, “I walk up to thirty-four miles a day.” Once, when I was in my early twenties, I walked thirty-four miles so my statement is true in all respects but it gives a completely false impression as, to my shame, my average daily mileage over my life span is probably less than one of those miles. So where does that 600 come from? We need to find out.
“During this process, methane gas and toxic chemicals leach out from the system and contaminate nearby groundwater. Methane concentrations are 17 x higher in drinking-water wells near fracturing sites than in normal wells.”
First thoughts. If this is true we have a problem so we need to look into this one vary carefully. Seventeen times higher does seem rather a specific figure, it would be interesting to see where they got that.
“Contaminated well water is used for drinking water for nearby cities and towns. There have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination next to areas of gas drilling as well as cases of sensory, respiratory, and neurological damage due to ingested contaminated water.”
First thoughts. Well, this leads on but over a thousand cases can’t have happened without someone doing something about them. We shall have to see what investigations resulted and what was revealed.
“The waste fluid is left in open air pits to evaporate, releasing harmful volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere, creating contaminated air, acid rain, and ground level ozone. In the end, hydraulic fracking (in the US) produces approximately 300,000 barrels of natural gas a day, but at the price of numerous environmental, safety, and health hazards.”
First thoughts. Well, this certainly gives us the case against but nothing at all in the way of verifiable facts.
* * * * *
Faced with the above, the next thing to do is to try and establish some facts but we are, as always, worried that everything we read is tainted: everybody seems to have an ax to grind. First, though, let mew get my ax out of the way. I am a life member of the Campaign to Protect Rural England and I really, really do not want to see further despoliation of our countryside. Here is the official CPRE view with which I agree.
We all have a role to play to reduce our energy consumption but we are realistic and recognise there are no easy solutions to our energy mix if we are to meet our current needs and allow for fuel security in the long-term.
Although shale gas exploitation could reduce the use of more damaging resources such as coal we must also continue to move towards a cleaner, more renewable mix.
Fracking is not a permanent fixture on the landscape so there could also be less damaging visual impacts than some other forms of extraction. The potential repercussions in some areas of the countryside however would still make fracking entirely inappropriate, which is why careful consultation and engagement with communities is essential to determine possible sites.
You may wish to click here to see the full text.
Now for a more detailed look at some of the issues raised above.
Right, now back to business. Obviously the big one is water contamination so let’s start there. Yes, there have been quite a few cases of water contamination in various parts of the US. Associated Press carried out an extensive report a week or so ago. Here are a few extracts (click here to see full text).
Pennsylvania has confirmed at least 106 water-well contamination cases since 2005, out of more than 5,000 new wells. There were five confirmed cases of water-well contamination in the first nine months of 2012, 18 in all of 2011 and 29 in 2010. The Environmental Department said more complete data may be available in several months.
Ohio had 37 complaints in 2010 and no confirmed contamination of water supplies; 54 complaints in 2011 and two confirmed cases of contamination; 59 complaints in 2012 and two confirmed contaminations; and 40 complaints for the first 11 months of 2013, with two confirmed contaminations and 14 still under investigation, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mark Bruce said in an email. None of the six confirmed cases of contamination was related to fracking, Bruce said.
West Virginia has had about 122 complaints that drilling contaminated water wells over the past four years, and in four cases the evidence was strong enough that the driller agreed to take corrective action, officials said.
A Texas spreadsheet contains more than 2,000 complaints, and 62 of those allege possible well-water contamination from oil and gas activity, said Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees drilling. Texas regulators haven’t confirmed a single case of drilling-related water-well contamination in the past 10 years, she said.
Now, I don’t know what you think about that but I feel this suggests that, as you would expect, water will become contaminated and in some cases the work associated with fracking is to blame and that it is right and proper that when this happens those doing the fracking are required to take the appropriate remedial action.
Why do I feel reasonably happy? Well, let’s look at the figures and please accept that this is not a truly accurate way of looking at the problem but is probably as near as we can get without making it a life time project.
In Pennsylvania, 106 reports of contamination of which 52 were confirmed associated with fracking at over 5,000 wells or, if you like percentages, 2.12% of wells were suspect and 1.04% were proved to be contaminated. These figures, of course, assume that there are exactly 5,000 wells so the true percentages are even lower.
We can’t get similar figures for the other three states but we can note two very important sentences.
“. . . in four cases the evidence was strong enough that the driller agreed to take corrective action”
“Texas regulators haven’t confirmed a single case of drilling-related water-well contamination . . .”
These are important because the first suggests that when action is needed, action is taken whilst the second reminds us that not all contamination is caused by fracking.
Disposal of Waste Water
This is a problem – but disposing of waste water in old dis-used wells as happens in places such as Ohio does not seem to create the earthquakes that have been reported. This rumour started because a researcher at Columbia University identified that there had been 167 earthquakes in Youngstown (Ohio) during the first year of fracking but that there had been none recorded before that. Both statements are true (the results were published in the Journal of Geophysical Research). Also true is the fact that these were detected using extremely sensitive instruments which had not been used before and, or so it seems, none of them were noticed by any other means. The only reports of a person claiming to have felt one of these earthquakes which were then investigated indicate that the earthquakes people felt were not detected by the seismometers being used in the laboratory. So, define “earthquake”.
Having said that there is evidence that in some places waste water has seeped through fissures in rocks deep below the ground and contaminated the ground water.
If you try to find out what us happening by using Google, you will be offered numerous anti-fracking sites – simply because they are the most popular. That does not mean that enough attention is being given to considering the disposal of waste water. Far from it. Most scientific journals suggest that this is the biggest problem surrounding fracking but those presently available are already out of date. I am still trying to find the latest position on this subject which, in my book, is the real reason why we need to look at each situation with great care. Fracking should be allowed only if it can be demonstrated that all the waste water generated can be dealt with safely. That’s quite a big “if”.
Probably the sanest source for looking at the chemistry is FracFocus’s site.
One quote that might help to put matters into perspective is: “Multiple names for the same chemical can also leave you with the impression that there are more chemicals than actually exist.” You may remember that one of the chemicals mentioned above was ethylene glycol. Well, this is probably better known to you as anti-freeze (and that is what it is used for).
How unbiased is FracFocus? Judge for yourself – it is, of course, in the US. “FracFocus is the national hydraulic fracturing chemical registry. FracFocus is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, two organizations whose missions both revolve around conservation and environmental protection.”
This is why I think it is the best place to look but I might be wrong. An aside: this site registers sites in the US and the total is presently 68,887.
As far as I can establish, this is often a problem during the development of the site (as it is with building a house) but not usually thereafter – where, in the US, no provision as such has been made to ameliorate traffic nuisance it is because there is little need and where there is a need action is taken. I assume it would be the same here.
It is a great pity that we have allowed society to become so dependent on power but, as they say, this is where we are. Shutting down old coal fired generation plants has created a gap in production and made us heavily dependent on imports of all fuels: and dithering over how we should go forward has made the problem worse. Somehow we have to fill the gap. There are no solutions that are ideal but, with the various caveats suggested above, it would seem that fracking is the best way to do that.
However, that is all it should be: a stop gap. We have to find a better long term solution. My guess is that this should be the sum of thousands of micro-solutions rather than one or two macro-solutions but that is another story.