Fracking Study Links Pollution, Earthquakes to Drilling in Texas Shale
A new analysis of Texas' oil and gas development underscores how there really are two sides to the energy debate. We know that drilling has brought the state billions in wealth, but its vast impacts on the environment cannot be ignored.
The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST)—the state's top scientific community—has released a comprehensive, peer-reviewed report today analyzing the wide-ranging environmental, economic and social impacts of shale oil and gas production in the Lone Star State.
"This study aims to help us better understand what is and is not known about the impacts of shale oil and gas development in Texas and it offers recommendations for future research priorities," the report states.
The 204-page Shale Task Force report was compiled by representatives from academia, environmental organizations, the oil and gas industry, and state agencies with a focus on six key areas: seismicity, land, air, water, transportation and economic and social impacts.
Citing the report, the Houston Chronicle noted that the shale boom has contributed to the state's economic gains but has also "degraded natural resources, overwhelmed small communities and even boosted the frequency and severity of traffic collisions as workers and equipment rush to oil fields."
The report also reveals that people living in shale communities feel conflicted over the oil and gas industry. They like its benefits to local, regional and state economies but dislike the impacts on traffic, public safety, environmental concerns and noise. For instance, the report calculated that rural crashes involving commercial vehicles have increased more than 75 percent in some drilling regions in Texas. Also, road damage from oil and gas operations in Texas costs an estimated $1.5 to $2 billion a year
Although Texas has not experienced as many human-induced-earthquakes as Oklahoma, according to the report, Texas recorded only two earthquakes a year before 2008. Since then, there have been 12-15 a year. Some of the earthquakes have been linked to wastewater disposal from oil and gas operations.
As for water usage, the report's authors found that while hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses 1-5 million gallons of water per well on average, accounting for less than 1 percent of total statewide water use, it could still account for 90 percent of total water use in some rural counties.
"Even though the overall amount of water used for hydraulic fracturing processes in Texas is low, there are areas within the state where the amount used is much more important and will be of more concern," said Danny Reible, a professor at Texas Tech University and member of the task force.
EcoWatch reached out to Sandra Steingraber, a biologist, author and founding member of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, to get her take on the study. She said:
The findings of the exhaustive, 204-page analysis from the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science boil down to this: drilling and fracking operations bring temporary prosperity to a few and serious health and safety risks to many. The TAMES report makes clear that in Texas—as everywhere else—wherever fracking goes, it brings along toxic air pollution, depleted and contaminated water sources, earthquakes, traffic accidents, soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions. These results corroborate those of peer-reviewed reports from other independent expert groups, including Concerned Health Professionals of New York, of which I'm a member.
And yet, in its recommendations, the TAMES report is overly tame. Perhaps not surprisingly in a state so deeply invested in fossil fuel extraction, the academy's suggestions for further monitoring and data collection fall far short of what's needed to protect communities, wildlife and the climate from ongoing damage. The unstated assumption seems to be that gas and oil extraction is simply an unchangeable fact of life to which we all must accommodate. It's not. And monitoring harm is not the same as preventing it. Rachel Carson said it best, when she reminded us that, when confronted with evidence of senseless and frightening risks, "we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us." That course is 100 percent wind, water and solar power.
Renowned filmmaker Josh Fox also commented on the study. Fox told EcoWatch:
"This study is a typical oil and gas industry greenwash. There is no such thing as a sustainable approach to fracking because the very first thing that we need to do in creating a sustainable future is eliminate fossil fuels. Fracking is inherently contaminating and polluting to air and water and the practice perpetuates the use of climate change inducing fossil fuels.
"The oil and gas industry pours money into this kind of propaganda dog and pony show so that it can appear to be 'responsible' but no amount of PR can clean up the mess they have left in Texas and around the world. The only truly sustainable conclusion for such a report would be to ban fracking and phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible in favor of renewable energy."
Here are some key highlights from the report:
Geology and Earthquake Activity
The majority of known faults present in Texas are stable and are not prone to generating earthquakes. To date, induced earthquakes in Texas have been associated with wastewater disposal wells, not with hydraulic fracturing.
- Earthquakes have increased in Texas. Before 2008, Texas recorded about 2 earthquakes a year. Since then, there have been about 12-15 a year.
- Seismic monitoring stations in Texas will increase from 18 to 43.
Shale oil and gas development activities in Texas have resulted in fragmentation of habitat on the landscape. However, there is a lack of information and scientific data on what the impacts of fragmentation have been and are on landscape—vegetative resources, agriculture and wildlife.
- 95% of Texas lands are privately-owned, which limits data and studies on land impacts.
- Texas is the only major oil and gas producing state without a surface damage act to protect landowners. The state should study the advisability of adopting a surface damage act.
The production of shale oil and gas results in emissions of greenhouse gases, photochemical air pollutants and air toxics. Air emission sources from shale oil and gas development are diverse, have complex behavior and are distributed across a large number of individual sites.
- For most types of oil and gas emission sources, ~5 percent of emitters account for more than 50 percent of emissions.
- Recent federal regulations have reduced emissions.
The most common pathways for contaminating drinking water sources and causing environmental damage are with surface spills and well casing leaks near the surface. The depth and separation between oil-bearing and drinking water-bearing zones make contamination of potential drinking water unlikely.
- Hydraulic fracturing uses 1-5 million gallons of water per well on average.
- Water used for hydraulic fracturing activities accounts for less than 1 percent of total statewide water use, but it could account for the majority of total water use in some rural counties.
Transportation is one of the most far-reaching and consistent impacts of shale oil and gas development. Texas accounts for about half of the drilling activity in the country at any given time, and all of that activity requires a very large number of heavy truckloads, which have far greater impact on roads than typical passenger vehicle traffic.
- Road damage from oil and gas operations in Texas costs an estimated $1.5 to $2 billion a year.
- This damage also impacts the trucking industry in Texas: vehicle damage and lower operating speeds cost the industry an estimated $1.5 to $3.5 billion a year.
Economic and Social
For the most part, shale oil and gas development contributes positively to local, regional and state economies, with some unintended consequences, including impacts to local infrastructure such as roads and increased cost of living and not everyone within a community benefits equally from such developments.
Communities in shale regions:
- LIKE the economic benefits to property values, schools and medical services.
- DISLIKE the impacts on traffic, public safety, environmental concerns and noise.
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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.
For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.
"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."
To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.
"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."
So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.
Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
A Bug's Life<p>When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?</p><p>Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."</p><p>Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.</p><p>"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."</p><p>For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask <a href="https://www.colorado.edu/geography/peter-blanken-0" target="_blank">Peter Blanken</a>, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "<a href="https://amzn.to/2XN6FT8" target="_blank">Microclimate and Local Climate</a>."</p>
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale<p>It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/" target="_blank">climbing</a>; nine out of the <a href="https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-was-2nd-hottest-year-on-record-for-earth-say-noaa-nasa" target="_blank">10 hottest years on record</a> have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are <a href="https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf" target="_blank">facing extinction</a> due to human activities.</p><p>"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."</p><p>Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/urban-heat-island.htm#pt0" target="_blank">Urban heat islands</a> are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.</p><p>Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. <a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Microclimate_and_Local_Climate/LHUZDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=urban%20heat%20island" target="_blank">Vehicle emissions</a> don't exactly help the situation.</p><p>Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-we-turn-down-the-temperature-on-urban-heat-islands" target="_blank">within a single city</a> vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).</p><p>That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."</p>
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By Jeff Berardelli
Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020
If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.
<div id="ecf36" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c2dcc9d48a6cd61f247df1544539a783"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290959314132361216" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Naming heatwaves is a good idea—making the abstract concrete, the invisible visible. Why should hurricanes and wild… https://t.co/hDWgYb79Ob</div> — Ed Maibach (@Ed Maibach)<a href="https://twitter.com/MaibachEd/statuses/1290959314132361216">1596623660.0</a></blockquote></div>
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