Fracking, drilling, and the natural gas bonanza

Why  the rush to drill here, drill now

when so much is yet to be proven?

by Allen Best

Josh Fox, the Pennsylvania filmmaker, was in Colorado recently to premier his second production, called “Gasland II.” If it’s anything like his first film, “Gasland,” where one lingering image was of Fox in a gasmask playing a banjo, this new film is a gonzo-giggle in its storyline. That first film was also casual in its fact-checking but ultimately truthful in its challenge to the prevailing narrative about natural gas.

A pump jack and a drilling rig along the Front Range of Colorado, north of Denver.

A pump jack and a drilling rig along the Front Range of Colorado, north of Denver.

Our national narrative goes something like this: We’re so smart! Through hydrofracturing and other techniques, we have now unlocked a vast store of natural gas and petroleum from microscopically tight shale and sandstone formations. We can now shelve dirty coal, have a newly invigorated plastics industry, and maybe even arrive in the holy land of energy independence that every president since Richard Nixon has talked about.

It’s a compelling storyline, but from the start there have been the impolite questions from the back rows about whether this is just too good to be true. The most common doubt is about the supposedly benign impact to public health.

Bernard D. Goldstein, a professor emeritus and dean of the University of Pittsburg Graduate School of Public Health, took the long view in his recent appearance at the Center of the American West FrackingSense series. A physician, Goldstein has worked in the realm of environmental health for 47 years.

“Are there public health risks effects?” he asked rhetorically. “I don’t know.”

Goldstein was assistant director of the Environmental Protection Agency for two years during the Reagan administration. His responsibility, he said, was to “get the science right.”

The key challenge now is to get the science right on potential impacts of drilling.

The common response of the industry has been that hydrofracturing techniques have been used since 1947, so if there was anything bad, surely it would have turned up by now.

Not your grandparents’ fracking

But the fracking of our grandparents involved 50,000 gallons of water, sand and chemicals. Fracks now can push five million gallons down a hole. Pressures are much different. It is, he says, like the difference between a firecracker and a hand grenade.

Bernard Goldstein

Bernard Goldstein

The additives used in fracturing have also been controversial. Field service contractors have become more open about the chemicals used. On its website, Halliburton says that 96.3 percent of the fracking fluid used in wells in northeastern Colorado is water, and other 3.39 percent sand and similar proppants, to prop open the rock to allow the gas to flow. That leaves just 0.29 percent for fluids designed to expedite the flow of gas and oil from the rock.

Companies are willing to disclose the chemicals. Additives include chemicals such as ammonium chloride, an inorganic salt used in hand wash and shampoo. Some, such as trimethylbenzene, are hazardous. But companies refuse to divulge their secret, sauces. It is, they insist, proprietary.

Goldstein will have none of that argument. The concentrations of what’s in that 1 percent matter entirely, he says. What if benzene is everything of the 1 percent? The legal limit is 5 parts per million. This would be hundreds of thousands of times over the limit.

What also matters is the native context for the fracking. Temperatures deep underground where fracking occurs can hit 400 degrees. Chemicals can react differently when heated, he said at his presentation in Boulder. Too, these formations have their own deposits.

What goes down the hole in a frack may not be the same thing that emerges. The mixing of chemicals introduced and native could matter greatly.

“Mixture is always an issue in environmental health,” he said.

Given the many uncertainties about the safety of the new technologies, and the scale of deployment, we should wait, said Goldstein. Or, as he put it: stall. He argues that we need improved monitoring of water and air both before and after drilling. Only with these measurements can we understand change.

“Why is that we’re in such a rush to do this so quickly?” Oil and gas companies continue to improve their techniques, improving safety. A slower, more methodical rollout would allow drillers to continue to improve their operations and allow public governance to minimize impacts to water and air.

“Industry is hurting itself, we as a society are hurting ourselves, by not doing the sort of things that we know are the right thing to do in these sorts of situations,” he concluded.

Consequential converation

Earlier in the evening, Patty Limerick, the historian who heads the Center of the American West, had explained the intent of the FrackingSense series was to provide a “more robust and consequential conversation.”

Of the dozen or so presentations in the series, I attended three, and all lived up to Limerick’s goal of rich, analytical conversations blanched of sloganeering. The take-homes from all three tended to confirm my biases. Many questions remain to be adequately answered, and state governments, including that of Colorado, have been hesitant to be fully in charge. I bristle a bit at the not-in-my-backyard elitism that I find on the edges of this discussion. The shrill voices that were probably at the Josh Fox premiere that same night in Boulder also annoy me. But clip off these edges and there are still solid reasons to wonder about the mess we might be creating.

We’re still paying the cost of messes from our past. If you drive up I-70 from Denver, they’re left and right. Just one of them, the Eagle Mine superfund site in Minturn, cost upwards of $90 million to clean up and the cleanup is far from over. A plant to treat water coming from the mine is expected to operate into the distant future.

Are drillers evil people? Certainly not, but with the size and scale of drilling that is now getting underway, we’d better get this right. We need rigorous science, robust regulation, and a strong culture of safety in the operations. There’s just enough evidence to suggest worrisome gaps in all three.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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