Fracking makes you ill…or not

Reading about fracking certainly will make you ill…or grumpy…

So here’s an update on the ongoing attempts to understand what oil and gas development is doing.

First, a new study in PNAS (thanks to Ars Technica for pointing this out) takes a rather clever approach using noble gases to determine just where the stuff showing up in water wells near some gas wells is coming from.  Doing this reveals that all the failures are in the well area and have nothing to do with fracking (basically, there is no evidence that fracking deep below shallow aquifers permits gas to leak up from those deep source areas).  This is no surprise to anybody who really has been paying attention, but it again underscores the mistaken impression made both by detractors and defenders of unconventional gas and oil recovery.  Fracking is NOT the issue.  What is the issue is the commonplace ineptitude in sealing wells properly (remember the Deepwater Horizon?) and the vastly increased density of wells associated with unconventional development.  This kind of leakage has gone on for a long time but is probably a lot worse with the rapid increase in drilling (hard to imagine that there aren’t more than a few fly-by-night operations trying to seal wells with little or no experience), so it is easy to imagine that the shear number of troublesome wells has increased greatly.

On a separate front, another recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives that made news in several corners surveyed folks living near gas wells and using water wells in areas with recent gas development. It found that these folks were generally sicker than folks not near wells. Oddly, the conditions that were reported to be worse were skin and respiratory problems.  Now as is usually the case with such studies, there is no direct connection between this and whatever is going on in the gas wells.  Is this from pollution of the well water? Too much dust from all the truck traffic to the wells? Stress from problems with well water, or even stress worrying that the well water might go bad? Could it be hydrocarbons being released from poorly sealed gas wellheads and pipelines?  Given the previous bit of news, this doesn’t mean that fracking itself is the problem but again the proliferation of wellheads.

OK, on to a third aspect of all this (its been a busy week).  Remember all the earthquakes in Oklahoma and then Greeley Colorado?  The Greeley area seems to have quieted down, suggesting that the actions of the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission were warranted and, so far, have prevented a new seismic hotspot from emerging.  So we now have a template for how to deal with this (huzzah).  But this was not the first place in Colorado where waste water injection wells were seen as a likely culprit in creating seismicity.  Aside from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal (we discussed before) in the 1960s, seismicity near Trinidad in the southern part of the state developed about 2001 and has been hotly contested.  Unlike Greeley and Oklahoma, there has been some historic seismicity in the region, though some of that may well have been induced by coal mining in the past. Unlike Greeley, regulators and disinterested parties were slow to study this area until a M5.3 in 2011 rattled residents.  Several meetings yielded no consensus on what was the cause and so, unlike in Greeley, the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission sat on its hands.  Well, the US Geological Survey finally studied the whole thing and their report, published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, comes down hard on the side that the seismicity was caused by some high volume injection wells in the area (from coal bed methane production–a predecessor to the current spate of horizontal drilling and fracking style of unconventional oil and gas recovery). (There is an interview online at Colorado Matters from Colorado Public Radio and a brief story from 9News in Denver). Basically, seismicity near the wells is shallow, increased dramatically once injection started, and the surrounding region remains nearly aseismic.  We shall see if the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission will feel emboldened by their success so far in Greeley to rein in the injectors near Trinidad.

So what is the take home message here?  First, quit making the wrong arguments.  Arguing over fracking per se is, by and large, the wrong argument.  With the exception of use of freshwater in places where water is scarce and the very rare triggering of relatively small earthquakes from fracking, fracking itself is unrelated to all the problems people are reporting.  The argument is over pollution of the air and shallow water from vastly increased numbers of wells, a fraction of which are poorly constructed (and this is an old problem that in the past affected those with little political voice; the new twist is the impact on more vocal populations).  Second, it is time for government to demand responsible behavior from oil and gas developers.  This means that we need to stop the shell game of the deep-pocketed major producer from blaming some local driller or cementing company who goes into bankruptcy.  Maybe something similar to Superfund is needed: all oil and gas producers kick in some money to a government-supervised fund that will reimburse residents who are harmed without having to go through the extremely difficult process of finding the right guys to sue and then dogging them through a multiyear court battle.  Or (or better yet, and) the state needs to start truly regulating this activity, demanding proof that wells are properly sealed and monitoring air quality to identify problems and get them fixed, fining those responsible in a timely manner (Colorado has started to make moves in this direction).  The example from the Greeley injection well suggests that it is possible for something like this to actually work; the key is to identify the problem early on when it is easiest to associate the problem with the cause and to hold the state responsible for doing this right.

Would this shut down oil and gas development?  Hardly; the kind of money spent per well is extraordinary and so there is plenty of room to absorb these costs.  What the oil and gas industry wants is a clear set of costs; like most businesses, it is uncertainty that they hate the most.  Right now they are victims of their own bullheadedness: had they worked with state legislatures some time ago to head off problems like these, there wouldn’t be citizen petitions and local bans on drilling and the like.  They may hate that there is that opposition, but they clearly have some cash to play with (we in Colorado have been inundated with print and TV ads claiming that fracking (and oil and gas development) is harmless, which is clearly BS.  Accepting that they are causing harm and accepting their role in a reasonable way will be, in the long run, a far more sensible business plan than the current trend to simply dig in and try and continue with business as usual.  But then again, the long view hasn’t been a popular one for most US companies.

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