Industry Word Games Mislead Americans on Fracking
By David Manthos
Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, and other drilling practices have unlocked previously inaccessible reserves of oil and gas across the U.S. and the world. However, some of the debate over fracking is distorting public understanding of these practices and interfering with good decision-making about this recent boom in unconventional oil and gas production.
The track record of modern fracking is shrouded in incomplete information, a misleading history and distorted by semantic arguments. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
We often hear statements like this from industry and pro-drilling politicians:
America has drilled and fracked more than 1 million wells over the past 60 years, and in all that time there has never been a proven case of groundwater contamination caused by fracking.
This statement, in some form or another, is repeated from the kitchen tables of ordinary citizens to the halls of Congress, as landmen use it to try to secure mineral rights from private landowners and legislators advocate for more drilling on millions of acres of public land. Even environmentalists, scientists, and regulators, when pressed, reluctantly confirm this statement is technically correct. Upon closer examination, however, this claim is a half-truth that muddles the debate on whether natural gas can be a bridge fuel to a cleaner energy future, or a dead-end.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these claims.
America has drilled and fracked around 1.3 million wells over the past 60 years…
First, has fracking really been around for over 60 years? That depends on what you mean by fracking.
In 1947, Stanolind Oil—now Halliburton—completed their first conventional hydraulic fracturing operation using 1,000 gallons of water, chemicals and sand to frack a shallow Kansas well. Instead of dropping explosives down the well like the early Pennsylvania oilmen, drillers used a spare WWII aircraft engine as a pump to pressurize the fracking fluid and apply hydraulic force to the methane-bearing limestone. According to a patent filled in 1953, the first fracks used pressures as low as 700 pounds per square inch (psi). This accounts for much of fracking’s history, with small operations that were barely noticeable once they were completed.
In 1997, Mitchell Energy completed their first high-volume, slickwater hydraulic fracture operations using an average of 800,000 gallons of fracking fluid and 200,000 tons of sand on horizontally drilled wells in the Barnett Shale of Texas. This 16-year-old practice much more accurately represents the procedure that has recently unlocked natural gas from formations like the Marcellus Shale and oil from the Bakken Shale. We refer to this type of fracking as “modern fracking.”
Unlike their humble origins, modern fracking operations use millions of gallons of fluids pumped into bedrock at pressures as high as 15,000 psi to break open shale and tight sandstone formations. This is more than 20 times the pressure and 800 times the volume of the first fracking operations. Modern fracking has as much in common with early fracking as an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane has in common with the Wright Flyer. Yet advocates of modern fracking cite those decades of old-fashioned fracking as proof that modern fracking is also safe.
…and in all that time, there has never been a proven case of groundwater contamination…
Unconventional drilling and modern fracking was one of SkyTruth’s first projects, because satellite images and aerial photography revealed a spider’s web of roads, wellpads, pipelines and other infrastructure transforming massive tracts of western public lands. But as the practice spread from relatively uninhabited wilderness to the more populated eastern U.S., media coverage of modern fracking and fracking-related accidents began to increase. Journalists and academics began to investigate claims that modern fracking had caused health problems and water contamination. Then a documentary filmmaker from Pennsylvania ignited one of the biggest environmental movements in several generations: by lighting water on fire—again.
The truth about proven cases of contamination remains elusive for a number of reasons. For one, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has repeatedly backed away from completing research on claims of polluted groundwater in Pennsylvania and Texas, and stopped short of finalizing a report that blamed modern fracking for groundwater contamination in Pavillion, WY. Also limiting our knowledge about contamination cases is the growing number of contamination claims settled out of court with strict non-disclosure agreements. One settlement with a Pennsylvania family went so far as to prevent a family, including their children aged 7 and 10, from ever publicly speaking about the issue of fracking.
What we do know is that a growing list of individuals are coming forward with reports of illness and contaminated drinking water in the immediate vicinity of wells that that have been fracked. Is drilling and modern fracking the cause? In many cases we just don’t know because pre-drilling water quality and public health studies don’t exist, and the information is simply not available to the public.
...caused by fracking.
On these three words hinges a delicate and disingenuous argument about the safety of modern fracking. Watch congressional hearings on this subject and you will hear this qualifying statement tacked on to nearly every remark about the safety of drilling and modern fracking—but what does it mean?
Proponents of drilling use the term “fracking” in a very narrow (and technically accurate) way—referring exclusively to the well stimulation process known as hydraulic fracturing. Period. Based on this definition, only contamination caused by subterranean fractures that occurred during the process of hydraulic fracturing counts as contamination “caused by fracking.”
By this criteria:
- If the cement job on a well fails when it is subjected to the high pressures of modern fracking, like in Dimock, Pa., Colorado, and Ohio, the cause is bad cementing, not fracking.
- If a pond containing fracking fluid fails and dumps contaminated waterinto a stream, or a truck carrying fracking chemicals loses control on a narrow West Virginia road and overturns into a creek, fracking itself is not the “cause” of the contamination.
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By 2030, almost a third of all the energy consumed in the European Union must come from renewable sources, according to binding targets agreed in 2018. Sweden is helping lead the way.
Sweden is a world leader in renewable energy consumption. Swedish Institute/World Bank
Naturally Warm<p>54% of Sweden's power comes from renewables, and is helped by its geography. With plenty of moving water and 63% forest cover, it's no surprise the <a href="https://sweden.se/nature/energy-use-in-sweden/#" target="_blank">two largest renewable power sources</a> are hydropower and biomass. And that biomass is helping support a local energy boom.</p><p>Heating is a key use of energy in a cold country like Sweden. In recent decades, as fuel oil taxes have increased, the country's power companies have turned to renewables, like biomass, to fuel local 'district heating' plants.</p><p>In Sweden these trace their <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank">origins back to 1948</a>, when a power station's excess heat was first used to heat nearby buildings: steam is <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/district-heating-system" target="_blank">forced along a network of pipes</a> to wherever it's needed. Today, there are around 500 district heating systems across the country, from major cities to small villages, providing heat to homes and businesses.</p><p>District heating used to be fueled mainly from the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140" target="_blank">by-products of power plants</a>, waste-to-energy plants and industrial processes. These days, however, Sweden is bringing more renewable sources into the mix. And as a result of competition, this localized form of power is now the country's<a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> home-heating market leader.</a></p>
Sweden is using smart grids to turn buildings into energy producers. Huang et al/Elsevier
Energy ‘Prosumers’<p>But Sweden doesn't stop at village-level heating solutions. Its new breed of energy-generation takes hyper-local to the next level.</p><p>One example is in the city of Ludivika where 1970s flats <a href="https://www.buildup.eu/sites/default/files/content/transforming-a-residential-building-cluster-into-electricity-prosumers-in-sweden.pdf" target="_blank">have recently been retrofitted with the latest smart energy technology</a>.</p><p>48 family apartments spread across 3 buildings have been given photovoltaic solar panels, thermal energy storage and heat pump systems. A micro energy grid connects it all, and helps charge electric cars overnight.</p><p>The result is a cluster of 'prosumer' buildings, producing rather than consuming enough power for 77% of residents' needs. With <a href="http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1232060/FULLTEXT01.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high levels of smart meter usage</a>, it's a model that looks set to spread across Sweden.</p>
<div id="d7bf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8757b138d5570bec9d6aad18074a429a"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1273556364263071744" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Read more about Western Harbour and book a visit: https://t.co/ujSmVs9rNK 🏡🌳🌊 https://t.co/C5PuPziqIM</div> — Smart City Sweden (@Smart City Sweden)<a href="https://twitter.com/SmartCitySweden/statuses/1273556364263071744">1592474473.0</a></blockquote></div>
Scaling Up<p>A recent development by E.ON in Hyllie, a district on the outskirts of Malmö, southern Sweden, <a href="https://www.eonenergy.com/blog/2019/February/sweden-smart-city" target="_blank">has scaled up the smart grid principle</a>. Energy generation comes from local wind, solar, biomass and waste sources.</p><p>Smart grids then balance the power, react to the weather, deploying extra power when it's colder or putting excess into battery storage when it's warm. The system is not only more efficient, but bills have fallen.</p><p>Smart energy developments like those in Hyllie, Ludivika, and renewable-driven district heating, offer a radical alternative to the centralized energy systems many countries rely on today.</p><p>The EU's leaders have a challenge: how to generate 32% of energy from renewables by 2030. Sweden offers a vision of how technology and local solutions can turn a goal into a reality.</p>
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