The moderator of a 'neutral' university lecture series on fracking pauses to review for us what she's learned thus far. I think what she really learned is how to keep the funding flowing.
The title of Dr. Patty Limerick's opinion article that appeared in the Denver Post on November 9, 2013, is "Limerick: Changing the conversation over fracking." I agree that the conversation may need to be changed, but not in the direction she's taking it.
For the last year Limerick* has been involved in a project by the National Science Foundation's Sustainability Research Network. In this project researchers are attempting to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of natural-gas production. Limerick states repeatedly that she wishes to open up the framework of public discussion to more listening and reflection and to 'cut back on the shouting and take part in a civil discussion shaped by the consideration of evidence rather than the denunciation of opponents'. I have attended every session of her series and have yet to hear anything even approaching shouting or denunciation from compliant FrackingSENSE audiences, so in that aim she must be succeeding.
This is what she has learned in this series:
Apples and oranges.
1. Communication often founders on the unexamined use of definitions. As to hydraulic fracturing, are we talking about the point below the ground at which fracking fluid is pushed at high pressure, or is fracking the entire process from above to below the ground?
When conversants employ different definitions, agreement is futile.
2. Before development occurs, water and air samples must undergo baseline environmental monitoring.
I would add that monitoring must continue with development.
Technology outstrips consent and cooperation.
3. Technology now enables a dramatic increase in production of natural gas, but not so developed is the 'social license to operate'--residents in proximity to sites of natural-gas development may not wish to tolerate industrial activity by their homes, and so arises the question of their consent and cooperation. As the boom spreads across vast areas overlying deep shale, the question only becomes more acute. Will politicians come to the aid of their citizens, at least providing for decisions to be made locally?
According to Colorado's Governor Hickenlooper, imposing any local control over fracking is a taking--seizure of property (or prevention of use) without just compensation. Local control would impede the state in its efforts to eschew waste. Eschewing waste sounds like a stellar aim for a state until one realizes that the legal meaning of waste, according to Colorado, is leaving hydrocarbons in the ground, wasting away without reaching their full potential in flames.
Aim those anxieties.
4. Limerick disputes the public's anxiety about groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing, saying that when oil-and-gas wells are well constructed, that which they release far below is unlikely to be able to find its uninvited way back up.
That is true, when the O&G wells are indeed well constructed, and the concrete used to case the pipe is of high quality and many layers. And also when these new shafts do not accidentally or occultly encounter old or abandoned shafts, sometimes presenting unsuspected new routes to the surface, or to aquifers, for escaping gas and chemicals. Taking the industry at its word, Limerick suggests a better target for public anxiety, that being methane leakage, which reduces if not eliminates the 'climate advantage of natural gas over coal'. Although I don't think concerns about groundwater contamination are entirely misplaced I will agree that methane leakage is another worthy target on which to pin one's worries.
Aim those anxieties II.
5. Nearly one thousand components of fracking fluid have been identified despite the industry's reticence, of which only a few dozen should be of concern to us, says Limerick. The ones that concern us are the ones that, underground, possess three specific qualities: they are hazardous; they are mobile enough to get to the surface; and they are persistent enough to retain their toxicity. If they pass those barriers, she says, their work is still not through; like the victim of a demanding stepmother they still must fulfill three more: A source such as a spill (or a leak), a receptor such as a person (or an animal) drinking from a well or a farmer irrigating with contaminated groundwater; and a pathway to link the twain.
For toxicants that have muscled their way to the surface, those final three barriers do not seem unlikely to be whelmed.
Know your waters.
6. Limerick has learned to distinguish flowback from produced water, either one of which can contaminate the surface. Flowback returns when the high-volume drilling ceases; it contains fracking fluid. Produced water, also called formation water, already existed in the underground bed and so can be laced with its own dangerous chemicals, compounds, and radioactivity. According to one of the spring FrackingSENSE speakers, Dr. Bernie Goldstein, the public-health effects of produced water may be of more concern than the fracking fluid.
Nevertheless the two waters, flowback and produced, mix together seamlessly and the distinction between them is flowing.
7. Limerick argues the import of proportion in appraising O&G production on water and as an example she contrasts agricultural water use with O&G water use--In Colorado, over 85 percent of water is devoted to agriculture and only about 0.1 percent goes to O&G developing, including fracking.
This ratio--85 to 0.1--seems to pose an impressive discrepancy, until you realize that Limerick is quoting data from 2005, when fracking was barely a gleam in the industry's eye. There are as yet no more current data, as USGS was delayed and does not expect to complete a 2010 report until late in 2014, but that is not what raises my brow. Why is it that Limerick, in quoting that minuscule percentage for fracking's water use, felt no need to point out that not only is the data eight years old, but it occurred on the cusp of the current fracking boom?
Unquestioning reliance on eight-year-old, pre-boom water-use data is gullibility that I find hard to credit in anyone as sharp as Dr. Limerick.
Consumption versus withdrawal.
8. As to water scarcity in the western US, Limerick advises that treatment and reuse of fracking water would offer a 'promising and problem-reducing response to the prospect of regional water scarcity'. No argument there--If only.
Cleaning and reusing the water would not only be a godsend, it would remove one of the major objections to fracking in water-starved realms. But much of the contamination of produced water arises from the salt dissolved within it, and at this point in human progress, quick and cost-effective remedies for briny water are yet not even close to salving fracking's consumption of water. That is not to say that this could not change--yet thus far humans are leaving unmolested the salt in the seas.
The optimistic notion of cleaning fracking water also ignores the radioactivity that accompanies produced water at "levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for ... treatment plants to handle."
Is it really very realistic, at this point, to put forth the proposition that fracking water be recovered?
9. Limerick recognizes that nondisclosure of the chemicals in fracking fluid has been the source of much public distrust. She perceives a trend toward disclosure arising both from regulation and from voluntary industry admissions but also predicts a legacy of distrust from the time of nondisclosure.
Yet for some reason she neglects to wonder what kind of legacy the Halliburton Loophole, which exempts the O&G industry from EPA oversight of clean water and air, is likely to leave.
Health impacts defined.
10. Public-health impacts of O&G development are hard to study conclusively; cancer takes time to develop. The best we can do at the moment is to measure, in air and water of a specific location over a specified time, the presence of potentially toxic chemicals and compounds to estimate the exposure that a human might accumulate.
Somehow this reminds me of the old tobacco argument--hard to say whence that lung cancer came. Since 2007 Colorado's Front Range, including Weld County, home to more new wells than anywhere outside of Pennsylvania, has been out of compliance with federal levels of ground-level ozone pollution. And the big skies of Wyoming no longer meet federal air-quality standards; sparsely populated Sublette County, with some of the highest concentrations of wells, have higher levels of ozone than Houston and Los Angeles. Fracking may not be the unmitigated reason for declining air quality around wells, but do we really wonder what kind of health impacts will obtain?
11. Stress is a variable in public health, but who can say if a person whose house is beside a drilling rig derived his aching head from air contaminants emanating from the rig, from his sudden inability to sell his property, or from his having drowned his sorrows in chocolate?
A person's home landscape can bring a sense of well-being that may be greatly disturbed by the sight, lights, sounds, and smells of an active drilling rig. That person's unease can be greatly exalted by feeling powerless.
12. Finally, risk will never be entirely eliminated from O&G production--an understatement if e'er there was one--and results of scientific observations and study are unlikely ever to point out a clear path for us to take.
Although Limerick admits the wisdom of employing the precautionary principle, by which one eschews actions that might bring unfortunate or unwanted results, she reminds us that scientific research will never relieve citizens of the burden of making difficult decisions without possessing all pertinent information. How very true, although politicians at national, state, and some local levels appear determined to relieve citizens of making any decisions at all about O&G development.
When it comes to public health, experts speak in terms of probabilities of risk, estimating the probability of something happening, while individuals may take potential risks on a much more personal level. Limerick rightly points out the prevalence of 'confirmation bias'--the tendency to incorporate only data that confirms what one already believes--as Simon and Garfunkel said, to see what you want to see and discard all the rest. This is truly an easy trap to fall into. (Here is where I must point out that Limerick has a remarkable tendency to adopt optimistic O&G-industry assurances that they will do better despite continual evidence to the contrary. Projection?) And she urges caution on those who make predictions, such as from a mere decade ago, when the US was in a position of energy dependence with a declining rate of production for both gas and oil; my, how things have changed. However, one thing hasn't changed, and that is this country's morbid and dire dependence on gas and oil, a dependence that is only deepening here and spreading with hurricane force around the world.
Limerick addresses all of the factors listed above. But there is a larger factor that neither she nor FrackingSENSE speakers choose to question. What effect will this new reliance on natural gas have on climate change? As Bill McKibben says, when the low-hanging hydrocarbon fruit began to decline, we could have taken that as a sign to begin switching our energy focus to sun, wind, thermal--clean and renewable sources of power. Instead, we turned our attentions to ever-more-remote and difficult-to-access sources of the same old hydrocarbons as we tear the tops off mountains, plumb ever-deeper and more-frigid waters, destroy subsurface geology, and scrape away arboreal forests for what lies beneath.
How about the probability of catastrophic climate change if we continue chasing and burning hydrocarbons? That is a probability that some would say is irrevocably personal.
* Patty Nelson Limerick is Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, where she also is a professor of history.