Fracking is not a threat

I would like to thank The Hill for the opportunity to address statements made in “Wake-up call on fracking,” published on August 18. There is no doubt hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” is a contentious subject, but there is one point on which we must all agree with the author: we ought to base our opinions and public policy regarding hydraulic fracturing on the best-available science.

Unfortunately, the best-available science is not always easy to understand, and as a result even the most well-intentioned people can become misinformed on the facts of hydraulic fracturing, which is why it is important to set the record straight on a series of inaccurate scientific claims the author makes in her article.

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First, it is important to note the costs and benefits of hydraulic fracturing have been studied extensively, and the author’s assertion that there has been “little if any honest consideration of the consequences” of hydraulic fracturing has no basis in reality. On the contrary, in addition to much private research, the federal government and state agencies have conducted numerous studies on fracking, including a large study by the Department of Energy that declared there was no evidence that chemicals from hydraulic fracturing have ever contaminated groundwater.

In contrast to the author’s claim that “independent science is beginning to catch up to this new technology and it’s all bad news,” numerous peer-reviewed, scientific journal articles have been overwhelmingly positive about fracking, finding the rapid upward flow of hydraulic-fracturing fluids and naturally occurring radioactive materials and heavy metals found in the shale rock is not physically plausible, meaning the process poses no realistic threat to drinking water (Flewelling and Sharma 2013). This is good news for everyone, because it means we can benefit from more oil and natural gas production while protecting the environment.

Additionally, the study cited by the author from the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) has been widely discredited by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) because of several flaws. Among those mistakes are outdated emissions data that did not account for new, stricter regulations on oil and natural gas producers, an overestimate of exposure times (the study estimated a well development period of five years when the process can take as little as six months), and did not include any baseline testing, meaning the researchers never considered outside factors that may have resulted in health effects, such as drinking and smoking.

As a result, science does not support the study’s claims that air-pollutant levels near fracking sites were sufficiently high to raise the risk of cancer, neurological deficits, and respiratory problems. Dr. Larry Wolk, the chief medical officer at CDPHE, stated, “With regard to this study, people should not rush to judgment,” a nice way of saying it’s not much use.

Returning to the subject of water, the author says numerous studies have linked fracking activities with water contamination, leaving the reader with the impression that faulty well casings would result in more than 40 percent of shale fracking wells drilled after 2009 leaking into the groundwater or atmosphere. The statistic, if true, would be incredibly alarming. Fortunately, the author was likely confused by the wording of the study and did not have the necessary background information to understand the significance of its findings.

Oil and gas wells have several layers of cement and steel casing that are designed to protect groundwater, soil, and the atmosphere from contamination by oil, natural gas, and other fluids associated with the extraction process. If one layer fails, the other layers remain in place to protect the environment. The study cited by the author has a very specific definition of well failure: zonal isolation along the wellbore is comprised due to a structural integrity failure in one or more of the cement and/or casing barriers (Ingraffea et al 2014).

Other studies confirm it is highly unlikely the failure of one of these layers will result in environmental contamination. In fact, oil, gas, or injection wells have an overall leak rate of just 0.005 to 0.03 percent, meaning environmental damage from well-casing failures occurs at rates two or three orders of magnitude lower than with single-barrier wells (King and King 2013).

This scientific information should prove useful to the author of the original piece and state officials in New York , who clearly have not been using the best-available science to guide their decision-making. Perhaps it will even make them reconsider their positions on hydraulic fracturing, which is a safe and environmentally responsible practice. New York would do well to model its policies after those of Colorado, with strict regulations and responsible energy development, instead of keeping its head in the sand.

Orr (iorr@heartland.org) is a research fellow for energy and environmental policy at The Heartland Institute, a conservtive and libertarian think tank.

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