I was under the impression that the tenor of this lecture series on hydraulic fracturing at the University of Colorado was to be neutral. Yet all but one speaker, scientist Gabrielle Petron, ranged from shoulder-shruggingly resigned to essentially aquiver over fracking. The new neutral, it seems, is see no, hear no, speak no, and negatives need not apply.
Where did Bernie Goldstein, a public-health physician, stand on this moiety? Well, he began his talk, titled Does Living Near Hydrofracturing Activity Put Our Health at Risk?, by announcing that there is no way we'll get over our need for fossil fuels in the next several decades, and that in that time every tight-shale formation in the US will entirely be drained of its bounty to fuel our every need. These continental tight-shale formations are ours, all ours, with no other nation able to get at them them (unlike the floor of the Gulf), so we can take our time. As for the Gulf, there we'd better get busy, before anyone else gets ideas about what is rightfully ours.
During the Gulf spill--remember that slow-motion, ongoing calamity?, which Goldstein wrote about, British Petroleum whose rig exploded was adamant that constituents of Corexit, the chemical applied by the ton to make the oil disappear (but not go away), remain unknown. Goldstein believes that industry hurts itself with excessive opacity around its practices; he said BP needn't have been so secretive. I find that sentiment puzzling since Corexit turned out to be more toxic than the gushing oil itself (a peer-reviewed study in Environmental Pollution reported that crude oil combined with Corexit becomes 52 times more toxic), disrupting the food chain of the entire region.
Meanwhile, back on the land ...Are noxious fumes bad for us?
As to the burning, no pun meant, question of whether proximity to noxious fumes might have a negative impact upon one's health, well, it's complicated. First some geology. In these talks and elsewhere we've heard about shale gas and tight shale. They are both unconventional resources within which natural gas was fairly well corked until hydraulic fracturing released the genie. In both instances, shale gas and tight shale, natural gas is secreted in tiny pockets within layers of rock like air pockets in baking bread, as poetically told by Shell. There is need for chemicals to "slicken" and make penetrable the fluid going down, where it mixes with more bad company before it all eructates.
As Cornell University's Anthony Ingraffea points out, most other manufacturing from automobiles to Xeroxes is ensconced inside buildings within zoned industrial areas. Now the hydrofracturing industry locates their industrial spaces inside our fields and forests, beside and above our waterways, and increasingly proximate to our schools, hospitals, and homes.
Goldstein did not spend much time on the medical effects of fracking on people, ostensibly because there is not much data. Data is scarce because the industry is not providing it and actively prevents its egress. Although Goldstein soft-pedaled this question, other toxicologists are not so sanguine; this website provides information and advice to people whose lives have been disordered by gas extraction.
One did slip by. During three years of monitoring, McKenzie and colleagues at the Colorado School of Public Health found potentially toxic chemicals airborne near wells in Garfield County, Colorado, and concluded that it is worse to be closer than further from well sites.
At least that's settled.On accidents, incidents, and waste
Goldstein does have one quibble with fracking. What goes down may be unpalatable to folks other than Governor Hickenlooper, but what returns is worse--saltier than seawater, pregnant with metals, and often radiogenic. Goldstein thinks there is too much emphasis on formulas for fracking fluid and too little on what flows back, although, being from Pennsylvania, he envies our ability here in the West to insouciantly inject that nasty stuff back to the bosom of the earth. They can't do that there; geology won't let them. Geology might not let us do it anywhere, but it may take time to notice.
Flowback might be further complicated by what happens when chemicals are exposed to high underground temperatures. Toxicologies might change. Synergies might form and, gang-like, further imperil.
The doctor differentiated "accidents" such as a rig being hit by lightning or a raging bull and "incidents", which are accidents that would have been preventable had attention been paid. To prevent incidents, Goldstein allows, the industry needs vigorous oversight.
Speaking of which, there was a recent incident near Parachute, Colorado. It really wasn't so recent. It was some time around March 2013--it was not announced--that Williams Energy spilled over 240 barrels of a mysterious "liquid natural-gas product" into the ground. And speaking of oversight, the Environmental Protection Agency put the perpetrator, Williams Energy, in charge of the clean-up and of protecting surface water. Yet benzene levels in Parachute Creek have crept above levels that are safe to drink. However, the state doesn't consider the creek a source of drinking water (did someone tell the wildlife?), and no fines were levied. With oversight so vigorous, no wonder people chafe.Massage that message
Public-trust issues positively plague the natural-gas industry. Take the psychosocial effects of fracking--discomfiture induced, for example, when people receive false or incomplete pre-lease information, somewhat like the pledges of a swain that disperse once the ink is dry. Did I mix my metaphors? If nothing else, contradictory assertions breed confusion. You'll hear that fracking has been around for 60 years, and you'll hear about the fantastic new watershed of fracking. Now that the easy pockets of gas have all been had, changes to technology were necessary to extract gas from non-porous shale. So we have high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing, a new and unconventional twist to an old and conventional practice. Sixty years of experience with this technology the industry does not have. It is more like ten.