Contaminated Water: The Myth That Will Not Die

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K.J. Rodgers
Crownsville, Maryland  

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Despite numerous studies and the EPA Science Advisory Board’s general approval, the myth that fracking contaminates ground water will not die.

Water contamination from fracking is a myth. It is, nonetheless, a myth that won’t quite seem to die. The very first point of opposition that anti-gas activists use is that fracking causes unsafe drinking water. They all use this argument first and foremost, but they couldn’t be more distant from the truth.

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Hydraulic fracturing operation in process – Pennsylvania

After five full years and $31 million, the EPA’s draft study on the Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources, released last June found there is no real correlation between fracking and ground water contamination. Of course, this is what we have known for years already. Extremist environmentalist groups, of course, blame oil and gas companies for refusing to provide key data but the data speaks for itself.

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The Science Advisory Board (SAB) said the report was “comprehensive but lacking in several critical areas” and the keep-it-in-the-ground activists latched on it as if they had a case. The Sierra Club hailed the Science Advisory Board critique, saying it “called out” the agency with nonsense such as this:

“Instead of blindly allowing destructive fracking to continue in our communities, we should extend statewide fracking bans and moratoriums that will keep dirty, climate-polluting fossil fuels like fracked gas in the ground.”

I guess they didn’t read past the headline. What the 30-member panel really wanted was a few more numbers to quantify some of the EPA’s findings. Some 26 members backed the EPA’s study and the dissenting four panel members said that the main conclusion was clear and didn’t need to be modified. If the study could be defended against critique, then they would like to see more quantifiable analysis included.

It is one thing to have the reluctant findings from the EPA, but at least 12 other sources have come to the same conclusion, from MIT to the US Department of Energy. It makes you wonder why we spent $31 million when so many other people have already done the legwork.

Erik Milito, Director of Upstream and Industry Operations for the American Petroleum Institute states that no documented contamination has occurred in 65 years.

“No cases of drinking water contamination have been documented in the Marcellus, Utica, Barnett, Permian, Eagle Ford, Woodford, Fayetteville, Haynesville, Bakken, Denver- Julesburg, Piceance, Raton, or any other shale plays where hydraulic fracturing has been used.

The only real concern of contamination involved fracking-related activities that “have the potential” to affect drinking water rests with possibility of spills of wastewater stored above ground and the leaking of pollutants from poorly constructed well heads and casings. “A truck carrying wastewater could spill, or a release of inadequately treated wastewater could have downstream effects,” the report said. In that case we should be more concerned with the spillage of anything being trucked, of course.

ImageIf you think “slick water” fracking fluid is a big concern, you should get yourself a copy of the Emergency Response Guidebook for looking up chemicals based on truck placards. Nothing is more scary than playing the long road trip game, “Guess What that Truck is Carrying.” You may never want to be on the open road again with some of these trucks carrying “1689” Sodium cyanide.

When it comes to the dangers of the fracking fluid and surface spills, you probably have a greater chance at contaminating your well water with your household cleaners. The industry is evolving too. Green fracking fluid is on its way in and soon enough, activists will have to find something else to claim.

Editor’s Note: KJ makes a great point here. Fracking is attacked not because of any evidence of real pollution but, rather, as part of ideological opposition to oil and gas. Fractivists have played a game that, although successful at first, has now run its course. What they did was deliberately conflate hydraulic fracturing with anything and everything else connected with oil and gas development. That way they could proclaim “fracking” had caused a methane problem, for example, that had zero to do with hydraulic fracturing. It could have just as easily been a natural condition or have resulted from drilling a geothermal well, for instance. It was a very cynical, but profitable, move that, itself, muddied the waters for a long time.

The SAB recognized some of the same muddying of the waters existed in the EPA report. The agency, like many fractivists, too often conflated hydraulic fracturing and other aspects of oil and gas development in what was supposed to be a study of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing. The SAB, accordingly, asked for more definitive statements, Unfortunately, its calls were no more clear than the original language, reflecting a bigger problem with our language and, more specifically, political correctness. Too many of us are afraid to speak plainly today. We tend to prefer muddied waters, artificial politeness and “wiggle room.” Both the EPA and its SAB should have been more precise.

Hydraulic fracturing is not causing water pollution. That’s what the EPA proved and should have simply said. The EPA tried to soften that conclusion, knowing it would offend its natural constituencies, by blending in comments on methane and the like. The SAB, in turn, should have simply told the EPA that it was confusing the public by suggesting “fracking” was something more than hydraulic fracturing. Instead both fudged and this is why we are where we are. Notwithstanding this, the evidence speaks for itself and fractivists have plainly, after many long years, simply failed to prove the process results in contaminated waters. The myth survives but only among an ever-shrinking band of extremists and ideologues.  

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4 thoughts on “Contaminated Water: The Myth That Will Not Die

  1. This is a concern, but not about location location location geology drilling phases, surface releases, storage pre-existing hazards,, and managing waste. Baseline testing is critical get the know your H20 phone app.

  2. Of course, what is left out is that the EPA study referred to tells a large part of the story: “We do not address other concerns raised about hydraulic fracturing specifically or about oil and gas exploration and production activities more generally. Activities that are not considered include: acquisition and transport of constituents of hydraulic fracturing fluids besides water (e.g., sand mining and chemical production) outside of the stated water cycle; site selection and well pad development; other infrastructure development (e.g., roads, pipelines,
    compressor stations); site reclamation; and well closure. A summary and evaluation of current or proposed regulations and policies is beyond the scope of this report. Additionally, this report does not discuss the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on other water users (e.g., agriculture or industry), other aspects of the environment (e.g., seismicity, air quality, or ecosystems), worker health or safety, or communities. Furthermore, this report is not a human health risk assessment. It
    does not identify populations that are exposed to chemicals, estimate the extent of exposure, or
    estimate the incidence of human health impacts.”

    Plus the report states: ” water withdrawals could potentially impact the quantity and quality of drinking water resources at more local scales.”

    And this: “Of the 151 spills characterized by the EPA, fluids reached surface water in 13 (9% of 151) cases and soil in 97 (64%) cases. None of the spills of hydraulic fracturing fluid were reported to have reached ground water. This could be due to an absence of impact; however, it can take several years for spilled fluids to infiltrate soil and leach into ground water. Thus, it may not be immediately apparent whether a spill has reached ground water or not…The EPA characterization of hydraulic fracturing-related spills found that 8% of the 225 produced water spills included in the study reached surface water or ground water. ”

    Plus: “The scope of this assessment excludes potential impacts to drinking water from the disposal of hydraulic fracturing wastewater in underground injection control (UIC) wells.”

    CONCLUSION: “The number of identified cases where drinking water resources were impacted are small relative to the number of hydraulically fractured wells. This could reflect a rarity of effects on drinking water resources, or may be an underestimate as a result of several factors. There is insufficient pre- and post-hydraulic fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources. This inhibits a determination of the frequency of impacts. Other limiting factors include the presence of other causes of contamination, the short duration of existing studies, and inaccessible information related to hydraulic fracturing activities.”

    So, per usual, rather than give an accurate description of what this EPA report actually came up with, the author here negates all of the cautionary aspects repeatedly addressed in this report to paint a rosy picture of the industry even as he paints those opposed as being unreasonable and less than honest.

    K.J. Rogers should look in the mirror and ask if manipulating public opinion on behalf of the Fracking industry and to the detriment of the people of these United States is a something to which he should be devoting his life.

  3. USEPA’s Environmental Evaluation of Hydraulic Fracturing

    On March 24, 2013 the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] Science Advisory Board has now announced the creation of a 31-member panel that will peer review the draft report of results due out in late 2014. Leading up to the peer review, the SAB Panel will provide scientific feedback on EPA’s research in an open and transparent manner.

    On 6/4/15 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its “Draft Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources” for public comment and peer review, along with nine final peer-reviewed “EPA technical reports” completed as part of the study. While the study found that certain mechanisms in the fracking process—from water acquisition to injection of wastewater—have had impacts on drinking water, the report notes the number of reported cases is low compared to the amount of operating wells. The message provided fodder to industry officials who for years have contended the practice is safe, but also to environmentalists who show that breaks in the process can lead to contamination
    For the study, mandated by Congress, the EPA analyzed more than 950 sources of information, including previously published papers, state reports and the agency’s own scientific research, but found no clear evidence that the fracking process itself could cause chemicals to flow through underground fissures and contaminate drinking water. When the agency took a broader look at the entire water cycle around fracking — from getting water supplies to disposing of fluid waste — it documented instances where failed wells and above-ground spills may have affected drinking water resources.
    Members of the EPA Science Advisory Board [SAB], which reviews major studies by the agency, says the main conclusion — that there’s no evidence fracking has led to “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water” — requires clarification, David Dzombak, a Carnegie Mellon University environmental engineering professor leading the review, said in an e-mail.

    On Aug. 11, 2016 the SAB peer review of the agency’s June 2015 draft of the its study on potential impacts from hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on drinking water supplies. generally found that the agency’s approach of focusing on individual stages of hydraulic fracturing water cycle (HFWC) processes for oil and gas’s potential impacts on drinking water sources “to be comprehensive but lacking in several critical areas.”
    “The SAB observes that the statement has been interpreted by readers and members of the public in many different ways. The SAB concludes that if EPA retains this conclusion, [it] should provide quantitative analysis that supports its conclusion that [fracing] has not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.”

    Statistical Review of Hydraulic Fracturing to Total Industrial Regulatory Violations

    The SAB’s final review recommends additional data to support the non-systemic impact of Hydraulic Fracturing to water resources. To assess the existence of wide-spread environmental [groundwater contamination] problems related to Hydraulic Fracturing, consider Hydraulic Fracturing regulatory violations as a proxy for empirical field results.

    Consider the comparison to Hydraulic Fracturing to other industrial processes – using regulatory violations as a bench-mark matrix. As of August 2014 there were approximately 24000 unconventional wells in USA. the US House of Represenative Natural Resources Committee’s in their 2012 report found that from 1998 to 2011, there were a total of 2,025 safety and drilling violations that were issued to 335 companies in seventeen states between February 1998 and February 2011, 549 of which were classified as “major.” The percent of violations for all unconventional [horizontal drilling – hydraulic fracturing] is less than 10% or 8.4%. On an annualized basis unconventional well violation rate equals about 155 notices per year or 0.6% per year.
    Compare these annualized figures to the national rates of industrial regulatory violations. Per USEPA in FY2015, approximately 2,360 civil judicial and administrative cases were concluded. Unconventional well violations represent 6.6% of the overall industrial regulatory violations.

    Peer review data suggest that for unconventional wells, the violation rate in the northeast was 9.8% for wells drilled from 2000 to 2008 compared with 9.1% for 2009 to 2012.

    Nationally the violation rate of frac wells are slightly less than in northeast. Such extensive data supports the USEPA position, per their draft study, that found no ‘widespread, systemic’ impacts to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing”.

    Dr. Richard W. Goodwin PE 9/5/16

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