Energy & Environment

Fracking on the defensive

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The once-booming hydraulic fracturing industry is suddenly on the defensive.

In recent months, the industry has suffered a $4.2 million jury award over alleged groundwater contamination from fracking, seen the two Democrats running for president argue over who would be tougher against the drilling practice and been embroiled in a public fight over the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) comprehensive analysis of fracking’s impact on groundwater.

{mosads}Meanwhile, polls indicate there is growing public opposition to the process of injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals into an oil or natural gas well to break up rock formations — the technique at the heart of fracking.

A March poll from Gallup found that just 36 percent of Americans support fracking, down from 40 percent a year earlier.

“The more folks learn about this, the more they realize what a detrimental effect fracking is having on our society and our planet,” said Seth Gladstone, spokesman for Food and Water Watch, which opposes all fracking.

The headwinds are coming at a perilous moment for the industry, with federal regulators working on sweeping new environmental rules for fracking and a prolonged price slump hurting profits like never before.

The oil and gas industry says the science is settled on the safety and environmental impact of fracking, but the public debate is far from over. That’s forcing the industry to wage a multipronged campaign aimed at convincing the public that the drilling practices are safe.

One of the principal players in that push is Energy In Depth, a program backed by the Independent Petroleum Association of America and run by FTI Consulting.

Steve Everley, a spokesman for the program and one of the authors on its blog, said it’s important to resist opposition to fracking.

“The reason this is important is because bad information can lead to bad policy, or just bad decisions,” Everley said. “You can see things like fracking bans or restrictions on fracking based on claims that have no scientific merit. You’ve put people out of work, you’ve destroyed economic opportunity based on a fiction.”

Since fracking is such an essential part of oil and gas production, shutting it down means shutting down the industry, Everley said.

Energy In Depth has worked with its industry allies to respond to each of the major developments against fracking, arguing that they’re not what they seem or that the source cannot be trusted.

For example, a federal jury in March awarded $4.2 million to families in Dimock, Pa., who said that Cabot Oil and Gas Co.’s drilling and fracking contaminated their well water.

“The verdict itself was based on a nuisance claim, not health or other contamination-related items, the latter of which require a much higher burden of proof,” said Everley, pointing to a 2012 EPA investigation of the Dimock case that found no health concerns.

Multiple industry groups responded forcefully in April when the EPA revised its previous estimates of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector and said the output was much more than it had thought. Methane is a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide, and the EPA will soon make final a major regulation mandating measures to cut down on the fracking industry’s pollution — something companies think is unnecessary.

“EPA’s inventory has consistently shown a downward trend in emissions even as oil and natural gas production has soared,” said Kyle Isakower, the American Petroleum Institute’s vice president for regulations. “Somehow, in this year’s inventory, using a flawed new methodology, EPA has erased that progress from its historic data.”

Gretchen Goldman, an analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said oil and gas companies are under a level of scrutiny that didn’t exist when the fracking boom started a decade ago.

“In the beginning, we saw that companies could operate under the radar without having to do a lot publicly. That allowed them to operate in a different way than they’ve had to now,” she said.

“They’re drilling in places with bigger populations. It’s become a bigger issue in some states in the Northeast and places where they’re meeting more opposition. It’s helped put it on people’s radars.”

Goldman said events like the April Democratic presidential debate in New York City, during which candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sparred over what to do about fracking, show the issue has gone national.

To Gladstone, the fracking fight entered a new phase in December 2014, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) banned the practice. It wasn’t the first state ban, but with New York’s spot over the lucrative Marcellus and Utica shale formations, it was a big win for environmentalists.

“Since then, more research has come out, more studies, new examples of the air contamination, the water contamination, new stories of public health consequences,” Gladstone said. “The news keeps coming.”

Fracking opponents think the tide has shifted in their favor.

“I think what we’re seeing is a growing shift in momentum, based upon the facts, based upon the science and based upon public awareness continuing to grow. And what we’re seeing now is a string of victories for the anti-fracking and pro-renewable energy movement,” Gladstone said, pointing to a fracking ban in Maryland and the failure of a pro-fracking bill in Florida this year.

But industry officials say the numbers tell a different tale. Oil and gas production has been growing in recent years in the United States, thanks mostly to unconventional drilling techniques like fracking and horizontal drilling.

“Has it really materially stopped the United States from proceeding with producing oil and gas? No,” Everley said.

“I don’t think, at the end of the day, they’ve had much of an impact beyond maybe a niche political element.”

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