environment & politics

The Fracking Song

Well, they’ve missed about 500 toxic chemicals off the list, but I guess the heart of whoever did this is in the right place. However, if music is not your thing, could just watch the Gasland trailer instead. This is an incredible film, one of the best environmental movies I’ve seen:

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

5 replies on “The Fracking Song”

Hey Mark,

Mostly I agree with the enviornmentally oriented posts you do around here, though I have to say that you (and pretty much every member of the media and the Gasland documentery) really get fracking quite wrong and show little understanding of the issue. As for background – I am an engineering geologist with quite a bit of experience working with various drilling technologies, though never directly in the world of fracking for natural gas. I’m am also an elected officer in an international technical society representing the practice of geology.

First, the issue of toxic chemicals in fracking fluid is a red herring. It simply doesn’t matter. The vast majority of fracking fluid (I would guess 99.9%, though I don’t have an exact number) is water and sand. Anything else simply doesn’t have the volume to be of any concern – especially considering that the fracking fluid is being injected at relatively high depths far from any drinking water aquifer in an enviroment that typically has natually bad water content full of toxic stuff.

The real issue is the potential mobilization of the natural gas and/or other toxic stuff that is naturally occuring within the subsurface shale. The whole purpose of fracking is to create permeability to allow for recovery of the gas in an environment that otherwise has very little effective permiability.

With the advent of horizontal drilling, these unnatural fractures ‘fracks’ are now verticle. There is a possibility that the fracks can propogate through the shale formation and create an effective connection with a more permeable layer above. This could then allow for those fluids to migrate into an area where drinking water supplies occur. However, the vast majority of fracking occurs at thousands of feet of depth and the vast majority of drinking aquifers are only a few hundred feet in depth. With such a difference, the distance is too great to matter.

Where you have the issue of obvious contamination (water that can be lit on fire) the issue causing the problem is almost certainly bad well construction at wells in relatively close proximity (probably no more than a few 1000 feet). Decent regulation of drilling practices and smart planning on which shale gas deposits to actually go after really can set up a proper and safe way to get at these important depsosits – espcially considering the realities of energy in our world an the geopolitical consequences of our current energy issues (and of course climate change issues as well).

Hi neth on holiday but will argue when I get back. Firstly can you provide evidence to back up anything at all? Much of what you say seems pretty wishy washy to me and is demonstrably so in some cases.

I’ve an env sci degree, so peer reviewed facts if you can, please! I’ve been following the scientific debate for some time. Have you watched Gasland?

Ahhh…well peer reviewed facts are the crux of the issue – there pretty much aren’t any on either side of the issue. There are certainly some examples where contamination has been shown and the contamination has been linked to gas drilling operations, but the actual pathways and mechanisms for getting the contamination from point a to point b are not well understood at all. And anything definitive has not been published in any peer-reviewed fashion that I’ve seen. It’s all mostly policy statements and ideas for various regulatory agencies, articles in popular science publication (which generally aren’t peer reviewed and don’t have solid facts), or very specific studies that don’t really shed light on what’s actually happening.

My thoughts above come from my extensive experience in a related field, conversations I’ve had with many professionals directly involved in the industry (mostly geologic and engineering consultants who find themselves on both ‘sides’ of the issue), my involvment as a leader in a professional organization that looks hard into these sort of things, and in many discussion on organizing confernces/symposia on the subject of fracking (a very popular thing these days in the states).

The consensus I’ve garnered from experts actually working within the issue (not the politicized stuff that media graps on to) can basically be summed up as:

-fracking is a big deal and needs to be properly regulated
-fracking and its influence on drinking water aquifers and other contamination is not well understood and should be studied more
-fracking is a technical issue that should not be politicized
-the media gets it completely wrong
-enviromental groups get it nearly completely wrong and hurt their legitimate concerns
-dont’ get started on politicians
-academia is generally hopeless when it comes to the real world and applied geology/hydrogeology/etc.

-overall, when the the shale formations are deep (such as several thousand feet below ground) and the area drinking aquifers are shallow (just a few hundred feet). There isn’t really an issue. The issue is in proper well construction and in a booming environment, lots of unqualified drillers and and drillers happy to cut corners to save costs and increase profits don’t properly install wells.

As for Gasland – I gave it a shot. But it didn’t take long for me to become really fed up with the one-sided view and obvious (to me as someone who has spent much time behind drill rigs) ommissions of things. So, I didn’t finish it and don’t really plan to do so. I know that’s the way of documentaries, but I found it really frustrating.

I’m most upset by seeing how things are being so mis-portrayed that it hurts the case. I suppose in this world you need to make wild accuasations to be noticed and actually gain some amount of incremental change, but that frustrates me to no end, regardless of it being left or right. I guess it really angers me to see the left to it too since I’d like think it’s above that sort of thing. It’s becoming like some mini version of global warming – now that it’s political and in the media, there’s no chance of anything smart, logical or science-based to come of it.

I will say this – I know a lot of colleagues in places like Pennsylvania that are loving it all. They are making lots of money in otherwise tough times – whether it’s helping with the drilling, doing environmental studies for the gas companies, doing enviromental studies for people opposing the gas companies, testing water quality in wells, etc… They hate to see how wrongly it get protrayed in the media, but are happy to have the business.

So, your argument is that your mates in the industry think it’s great and are making lots of money, so the media has it ALL wrong and academic scientists don’t know what they’re doing?! Neth, surely that way lies madness…?

I’ve found dozens of scientific papers on the damage caused by fracking in just a 5 minute web search. But that’s not what I want to argue about here – if you want them, I can pass them on, and am happy to do so, but even a cursory internet search can bring them up.

The most important thing, If you watched Gasland all the way through you would see what they were after: primarily, regulation. Exactly what you also say. 

Why are they interested in regulation? Because Dick Cheney removed fracking from being liable for polluting groundwater supplies. There is simply little or no accountability. The environmental movement is there to protect people, first and foremost, and it goes across the political spectrum, no matter who is involved. Environmentalists and honest, hard-working Americans are uniting to stop people and animals from dying; as well as trying to prevent damage to fragile agricultural economies. In Gasland, the message is not to simply say no fracking full stop – it’s core message is: this is the damage that’s being caused and ignored; so who’s protecting millions of vulnerable, hard-working people who can’t afford lawyers?

As a matter of fact, the second half of Gasland neatly highlights a common problem with relying on engineers (no offence!), and which even undergraduates are taught early on: the failure to recognise what the term ‘environment’ genuinely means. It’s wide-ranging. 

It is not just the contamination from the hundreds of toxic chemicals (some carcinogenic, some radioactive) that wash back from the injected fluid; that there is no known way to control the effects of fracking as the gas follows the path of least resistance; that the water-use is INSANE; that hundreds of trucks carry water and chemicals across vast swathes of land causing vehicle pollution on a profound scale; that fracking methane emissions have a far greater impact on climate change than natural gas or even coal; the vast number of chemical air pollutants on fracking sites… I could go on. (I do have sources, should you wish to examine them.)

Also, I really don’t think you did your argument any good by saying that ‘academia is generally hopeless when it comes to the real world’. Let’s put aside the inherent weirdness of that statement; with regards to fracking, academia, in particular, is the only thing that’s exploring the impacts throughly – thanks to a government-weakened (and pretty useless) EPA. It’s the universities who have been exposing the jaw-dropping nature of the environmental damage. It’s the universities who are fighting the corporate PR that suggests fracking is the answer to all the world’s problems. 

Just to add, here’s an excellent piece on the Fracking Industry’s war on truth:

“Superb investigative journalism by the New York Times has brought the paper under attack by the natural gas industry. That campaign of intimidation and obfuscation has been orchestrated by top-shelf players like Exxon and Chesapeake, aligned with the industry’s worst bottom feeders. This coalition has launched an impressive propaganda effort carried by slick PR firms, industry-funded front groups and a predictable cabal of right-wing industry toadies from cable TV and talk radio. In pitting itself against public disclosure and reasonable regulation, the natural gas industry is once again proving that it is its own worst enemy.”

Written by someone who once wrote in the Financial Times in favour of fracking. 

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