Reaping as ye sow…

Perhaps you saw the Ars Technica piece on British doctors arguing for a total ban on fracking, calling it “an inherently risky activity that produces hazardous levels of air and water pollution that can have adverse impacts on health”. (The very brief letter can be found here). So, you might think, this means GG was really misrepresenting fracking in arguing that it, in and of itself, was not really the main problem.

Well, sorry, no, the British doctors have fallen into the same mental trap as many Americans, equating things like the noise and surface disruption with fracking specifically, which isn’t really correct (traditional drilling also has these things).  But the main thing to notice is the phrase the British doctors use: “inherently risky.” Given that there is a very limited (if not non-existent) experience with these things in Britain, just where does this perception come from?

It comes from the inexcusably sloppy practices of many, if not most, US producers.  Bad cement jobs, lousy management of production waters and leaky gas transport facilities are the main culprits in the pollution of the environment around oil and gas wells.  The combination of horizontal drilling and hydrofracing only really exacerbates the amount of produced water near the well head (and it does increase the duration of the drilling phase of a wellpad as many wells are typically drilled from one platform).  Fracking is not truly inherently risky, but industry practices have made it seem so, and the many attempts to camouflage such blunders, oppose oversight, and silence critics just amplify the sense that this is how fracking must be done.  So the industry has shot itself in the foot, an eminently predictable result.

As an aside, beyond complaining about pollution near the wellpad, the British doctors also indict this kind of energy development as contributing to global warming.  Well, compared to what?  Britain gets more than 30% of its electricity from burning coal, a process that produces more CO2/BTU than burning gas (the US still gets nearly 40% of its electricity from coal despite the massive inroads of natural gas).  When we see these doctors writing to stop the burning of coal (which also tends to produce more airborne pollutants than burning natural gas) and advocating a shutdown of offshore oil development, then we might accept this broader indictment of shale gas development as something more than opposing the unfamiliar. (That said, GG agrees that we should ideally be leaving a lot of burnable carbon in the ground, whether coal, oil or gas).

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