Fracking’s Known Unknowns
If the United States is going to help Western allies neutralize Russia's energy stranglehold, it needs to get to the root of why so many people fear fracking.
With Russia menacing Ukraine and Europe with its natural gas heft, the cry has gone out from British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Wall Street Journal, and even (implicitly) U.S. President Barack Obama: more fracking! If only the EU would stop importing a third of its natural gas from Russia, the argument goes, it would be easier to impose sterner sanctions and go beyond grandly booting Russia from the G-8. Fracking sounds like a simple and smart solution. Not only can the United States export liquefied shale gas to Europe, but Europe can also help itself diversify by embracing a technology that taps homegrown reserves. "You cannot just rely on other people’s energy," Obama reportedly told EU leaders.
The trouble, of course, is that much of Europe, especially the western half, doesn’t want to frack. France (which has considerable reserves) has banned it, Germany has effectively done the same, and Cameron’s enthusiasm has been slowed in the United Kingdom by not-in-my-backyard environmental protests. As Conservative MP Nick Herbert (who’s not reflexively against fracking) put it last year, fracking has sparked a "fear of the unknown."
Ah, those pesky known unknowns! Herbert actually nailed the problem. So, here’s a way to help spread fracking: Banish the unknowns. There is still so much uncertainty and hence controversy surrounding fracking, even in the shale-crazed United States, that other countries inevitably have qualms about adopting the technology even as they hanker for its benefits. Fracking, aka hydraulic fracturing, involves shooting water, sand, and chemicals beneath the earth to break rock and extract oil or gas. People living in shale-rich areas have raised concerns about air pollution, potential groundwater contamination, and even earthquakes. Here’s Herbert again: "People understand the national arguments about the need for secure and cheap energy, but they don’t know how much this is going to damage the local environment." Exactly.
Definitive, comprehensive, objective studies of fracking are needed to help both ourselves and our allies think rationally about fracking and how it stacks up to the alternatives, like renewable energy, nuclear power, coal, or the cheap-gas trough of Vladimir Putin. Alas, such studies are elusive — and those that exist are quickly challenged by one side or another. As ProPublica has written, "A long-term systematic study of the adverse effects of gas drilling on communities has yet to be undertaken." That’s a notable omission, given that shale accounted for one-third of U.S. natural gas production in 2011 and is rising quickly.
Fracking is a complex, multistage procedure that can affect the environment in many ways, each of which deserves careful independent review. From an environmental perspective, the key difference from conventional drilling is the amount of liquid involved. Fracking uses a mix of water, sand, and chemicals to blast rock and extract oil or gas. That liquid, often several million gallons or more per oil or gas well, must be acquired, transported, and used in the frack job. Leftover wastewater must be stored and then disposed of, usually by injection into an underground formation where it is supposed to remain in perpetuity. (Recycling of this excess liquid is still in its infancy.)
If a spill occurs or the liquid seeps into the ground during any of these steps, that’s a problem. Strange things can happen. An official who oversees groundwater in part of West Texas told me for a 2013 Texas Tribune article I co-wrote that in a few instances, salty water from underground has unexpectedly shot up out of abandoned old oil wells. What he describes is like something out of a sci-fi movie, only real. "They’ll be in a field where they are pumping some of these old wells," he said, "and they have an injection in one part of it, and all of a sudden something happens and there’s this big leak and it shoots up though the well, and the neighbor’s water well starts getting salty." It’s basically a mini-geyser of brine.
Other, more typical fracking concerns include air pollution from gas storage or well sites, as chemicals like hydrogen sulfide or benzene are released; methane leaks from natural gas infrastructure; wasteful flaring (i.e., the burning of excess natural gas that comes up with oil); and earthquakes that could be caused in a few areas by the underground disposal of frack water.
How often do things actually go wrong, things like brine shooting out of an old well or earthquakes resulting from underground injections? How many pollutants enter the air, and how dangerous are they? Frankly, we don’t know many of the answers. An eight-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News, and the Weather Channel found that in Texas, the top oil- and gas-producing state, the air-monitoring system in a major fracking region known as the Eagle Ford Shale "is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the [air] pollution" in the area.
Fragments of data on fracking do exist. For example, a new study by British and American academics in the journal Marine and Petroleum Geology calculates that 6.3 percent of 8,030 inspected gas wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale experienced structural problems between 2005 and 2013. That’s useful information, but it only takes account of one state and one type of problem (albeit an important one). In Europe, the researchers said, little equivalent public data exists on the structural problems of onshore oil and gas wells. (Because geology can vary substantially from place to place, data from as many areas as possible is needed in the public domain. This geologic variation also means that interested groups are sure to challenge studies as inapplicable to other regions.)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expects to complete a study of how fracking impacts water in 2016, two years behind schedule. It will include consolidated information on spills of fracking-related fluid, meaning problems like leaking storage pits and spills from trucks. This is material we need, but even the EPA is finding it hard to pull the data together, according to its latest progress report. For example, in frack-frenzied Texas no database exists on accidents related to hydraulic fracturing. Oil and gas regulators keep data on spills such as the recent Galveston barge collision, but they do not tally chemical spills linked to fracking, according to the EPA report. Wyoming and Colorado, among others, do not break out hydraulic fracturing data on accidents either. An industry website, FracFocus.org, contains some information about fracked wells (unrelated to accidents), but it is partial — especially as it relates to chemical disclosures — as well as voluntary and difficult to pull data sets from.
Case studies are needed too, and the EPA is performing some. But this is hard. For one thing, the geology is complex, and fracking cannot be studied up close without industry cooperation.* Both Ohio State University and the University of Tennessee have courted controversy by considering contracting with — and accepting fees from — drilling companies that would work on university lands.
The influence of oil and gas money has a long reach into academic institutes, not to mention state government. "’Frackademia’ has become the preferred term to describe the new partnerships forming between academia and the fracking industry," Cary Nelson, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, wrote in the Times Higher Education last year. (Similarly, the industry challenges studies in which academics are perceived to have an environmentalist bias.) When I covered oil and gas in Texas between 2010 and 2013, one of the hot topics was the amount of water used in fracking. Fracking can use 4 million to 6 million gallons of water per well, or more, so at a time when drought was hitting Texas hard, that naturally came under scrutiny. For journalists, it was frustrating that the major study on the subject (performed by University of Texas researchers with the imprimatur of the state government’s water board) was funded by an oil and gas association. The 2013 study found that less than 1 percent of annual Texas water use went into fracking. But a subsequent San Antonio Express-News analysis found that the figures for the Eagle Ford Shale, the major new formation in Texas, "far outpace[d]" certain estimates in the industry-funded study.
The benefits of fracking are clear. It has been a giant step toward energy independence for the United States, and it can be for the rest of the world. Everyone wants the jobs it brings, the wealth and tax revenues it produces, and the energy it provides. It’s cleaner-burning than coal, though the dynamic between those two fuels is complex. But it’s time for an honest, levelheaded conversation involving scientists, the federal and state governments, and the public about what we know and what we don’t know about its environmental impacts. We need to collect data and make it available, and we need to figure out how to get answers for the many remaining unknowns, so that countries can decide how to regulate fracking or indeed whether to allow it. Businesses hate uncertainty, as the saying goes — so ending these environmental uncertainties might just help the oil and gas industry by allowing it to make a clear case to the public in the United States and abroad.
This will require cooperation on all sides and, of course, money. In the ideal world, the public and disinterested groups would provide funding. Another suggestion comes from Nelson, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, professor, who has recommended a levy on drilling companies and the creation of a pool of independent resources for study grants.
"But there is no time!" the cries ring out as the Russian wolf stands on the doorstep, baying. The clock is ticking, yes, but it’s also true that homegrown shale gas in Europe cannot fill the gap in the near term; it may take a decade for it to be extracted in meaningful quantities. That’s plenty of time for study and analysis to lay the groundwork for long-term development of an extraordinary resource. My great hope is to get beyond the juvenile conversation we’re having now — the echoes of which are heard worldwide — in which environmentalists holler loosely, "Fracking contaminates groundwater!" To which the industry — taking the term "fracking" to mean the specific process of rock-breaking, perhaps the least of the risks — responds, "No, it doesn’t!"
Even with more information and continued pressure from Russia, Western Europe still may not be tempted by fracking. At its core, fracking is a mini-industrial operation that often takes place near homes. If the wealthy can avoid it, they will, because the disruption in their backyards will not be worth it. There are also other barriers to shale gas development in Europe, such as the cost of drilling, Europe’s relatively high population density, and the ownership structure of mineral rights, as my friend Russell Gold of the Wall Street Journal (and author of the forthcoming fracking tome The Boom) recently explained. The quality of European shales are still uncertain, though France, Poland, Norway, and the Netherlands, as well as Ukraine, are among the countries believed to have substantial reserves. But if Britain or Poland wants to proceed, they deserve to have as much information as possible about what lies ahead.
If those of us here in the United States don’t have all the information ourselves — and we (cue the chest-thumping) invented fracking — how are our allies expected to figure it out?
*Correction, March 31, 2014: A quote that originally appeared in this article — "Scientists simply don’t know how to drill and frack a well" — was incorrectly attributed as a direct quote by academics. The quote was a Columbus Dispatch reporter’s paraphrasing of two academics’ remarks. The quote has been deleted from this article. (Return to reading.)