The Case Against Fracking Is Anecdotal and Overstated

Critics of hydraulic fracturing often cite inaccurate and exaggerated claims.

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Michael Lynch is the president and director of global petroleum service at Strategic Energy & Economic Research.

To continue the discussion on risk in the petroleum industry, the rather heated debate over the safety of hydraulic fracturing of shale has seen moratoriums imposed, regulations proposed, and regulators imposed on. Fears that the mix of chemicals used have contaminated ground water and that natural gas (methane) has leaked into families' and communities' water supplies are widespread, with one popular documentary, Gasland, highlighting this in dramatic, cinematic detail.

But not much useful detail. People are shown complaining that their wells were contaminated and that they are dissatisified with the drillers' response, and some show tap water that burns when methane evaporates from it. The narrator assumes all this pollution must arise from hydraulic fracturing, and that all health problems described are due to the pollution. Yet various analysts have noted many errors and exaggerations in the film which severely undermine its credibility, such as blaming a fish kill due to a leak from a coal mine on gas drilling.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

For its part, the industry points to many years and thousands of wells fractured without major problems as evidence of its safety, and notes that the shale levels are typically far below water reservoir levels. This is generally logical, but can the industry be trusted? 

That is actually irrelevant: the industry doesn't need to be trusted. The truth should be fairly easy to establish through simple chemical analysis of wells and streams that are supposedly contaminated, and more broadly in areas with fracking operations. To date, there have been no reports of fracturing chemicals found in water supplies, but some of methane, which highlights the dangers of relying on anecdotal evidence. The one clear case where chemicals have been found, in Wyoming, has been described by the EPA as still preliminary, and different from most shale wells.

This has not impressed opponents, and a recent Vanity Fair article and a follow-up on the Huffington Post provide some insight into the quality of the debate. A casual reading provides the following information: The industry uses lots of chemicals to fracture the shale; Dimock, Pa. has people with health problems; and tests of the water supply have revealed contamination. Sounds awful.

[Read the U.S. News debate on fracking.]

But a careful read (i.e., actually checking the links) reveals that the contamination was of iron and aluminum. Ahem. These were not mentioned as chemicals used in fracking, and none of the chemicals listed as used in fracking were apparently found in the water supply. Iron and aluminum are common minerals whose presence is hardly a surprise (think "hard water"). But the impression given was that fracking chemicals were in the water.

Methane contamination has been found in a number of cases, some of which could come from natural sources, but there is possibly some leakage at the wellhead. While hardly desirable, methane is not a carcinogen and tends to dissipate very quickly. Still, the industry should be required to produce better seals at the wellhead to minimize leakage.

[Read Mort Zuckerman on fracking.]

The primary complaint appears to be that the drilling activity has disrupted the idyllic life in Dimock because of the presence of trucks and drilling rigs. This is a social issue, however, not an environmental one, and opponents of fracking should be more honest about this. Even in liberal Massachusetts there is significant opposition to wind, solar, and biomass projects, suggesting that the choice to be made is between having energy or a pre-industrial lifestyle.

That the opposition to fracking seems unrelated to the bulk of the arguments would seem to imply that the risks are being overstated, the heavy reliance on anecdotal evidence, and the conflation of all problems and pollutants with fracking, even in contradiction of the facts, raises the suspicion that the claims of fracking dangers will prove to be another case of bad science rather than a serious environmental risk. Hopefully, the real science will inform us in the near future.

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