Journalism in the Public Interest

Setting the Record Straight on Hydraulic Fracturing

Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublicaIn his Jan. 10 column in the Rocky Mountain News, Independence Institute analyst David Kopel significantly misstates the record on the environmental risks posed by the gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing.

Using carefully culled quotations and selected statistics, Kopel asserts "indisputably false facts" in ProPublica's reporting.

In fact, it is his column that is indisputably misleading.

Kopel quoted a press spokesperson for New Mexico as saying the state had never compiled "numbers about groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing" -- the actual forcing of water into rock. He cites a similar remark from a Colorado official.

These are classic examples of framing a precisely tailored question to elicit a misleading response, much as the tobacco industry used to ask scientists whether smoking could be conclusively identified as a cause of lung cancer.

Here are the facts.

State and federal officials have identified what several said was an alarming pattern of water contamination in and around drilling sites across the country. Until ProPublica began asking questions last year, few environmental officials had examined what role hydraulic fracturing may have played in this contamination.

Colorado records (PDF) cite some 1,500 cases from 2003 to 2008 in which drilling companies reported a hazardous spill, with 300 instances leading to what state officials determined was a measurable impact on water supplies. A tally of Colorado data was performed by the advocacy group Oil and Gas Accountability Project.

In New Mexico, Mark Fesmire, director of the Oil and Gas Conservation Division, said his state had documented some 800 cases in which water has been contaminated by oil and gas operations, half of them from waste pits that had leaked chemicals into the ground.

As ProPublica has reported, it's difficult for scientists to say which aspect of drilling -- the hydraulic fracturing, the waste water that accidentally flows into the ground, the leaky pits of drilling fluids or the spills from truckloads of chemicals transported to and from the site -- causes such pollution.

Here's why: The industry has adamantly refused to make public the ingredients of the chemicals it forces into the ground and later stores in the waste pits near drilling sites. Scientists say that information is crucial to tracing the source of pollution. Without those data, environmental officials say they cannot conclude with certainty when or how certain chemicals entered the water.

Ask officials in New Mexico and Colorado: Are there any cases in which we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that hydraulic fracturing caused water contamination? Answer: No, we've never studied that question.

Ask those same officials: Are there hundreds of cases of water contamination in drilling areas, the vast majority of which use hydraulic fracturing? Answer: Yes.

The drilling industry, echoed by Kopel, cites three documents when asserting the environmental safety of hydraulic fracturing. They are a 2004 EPA study (PDF), a 2002 survey of state agencies (PDF) by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and a similar survey in 1998 by the Ground Water Protection Council (PDF).

In its Nov. 13 article, ProPublica detailed flaws in the EPA study and reported that the two surveys were "anecdotal," meaning that they included none of the basic data required to qualify as a scientific study. The "results" were drawn from questionnaires sent to state officials. ProPublica did misstate the date on one of these surveys, referring to it as more than a decade old when it had been published in 2002.

In your November 13 story, you say “many of [Sublette County’s] 6,000 wells have undergone…hydraulic fracturing.”  Today you ask “Are there hundreds of cases of water contamination in drilling areas, the vast majority of which use hydraulic fracturing?”

Which is it?  Many, or the vast majority?  If the latter, what’s your source?

Kwo, you’re making a mistake. The “many” refers to Sublette county’s wells.  “Vast majority” refers to drilling areas around the country.

Abdul Abulbul Amir

Jan. 12, 2009, 11:54 p.m.

Did these state officials describe what “a measurable impact on water supplies” means.  Measurement devices are more and more sensitive almost every year, which means that “measurable impact” is caused by less and less each passing year. 

A measurement system may well one day be able to detect a rise in sea level if you spit in the ocean.  Just because that spittle has a “measurable impact” on sea level does not mean it hss a meaningfully significant impact on sea level. 

Without defining meaningful impact as opposed to measureable impact you give the appearance of committing the same offense that your article aims to rebut.

My response to this article is available here:
David Kopel

Kwo, you’re making a mistake. The “many” refers to Sublette county’s wells.  “Vast majority” refers to drilling areas around the country.

Sorry, but I think the mistake is yours.  Nowhere do you document the number of wells where hydraulic fracturing has led to water contamination.  You don’t even provide an educated estimate.  You’re assuming that the “vast majority” of contaminations are caused by hydraulic fracturing, but your own sources tell you there are other, equally likely sources.

BTW, you do realize that drillers have been using hydraulic fracturing since the 40’s, right?

Jan. 13, 2009, 4:25 p.m.


You are really stretching.  Guilt by association.  Most wells are fraced, some well operations cause “measurable” contamination, ergo, fracing contaminates groundwater.  You don’t need to know every chemical in a frac fluid to determine if it migrated from the underground formation.  Most fracs are ‘slick water’ fracs, in which KCl (potassium chloride) is, by far, the dominant additive.  Look for an increase in KCl first, if it doesn’t show up, then the frac job was not responsible.  Other chemicals added in smaller quantities are irrelevant.  Anyway, the new Colorado rule agreed to by industry will provide the analytes to the COGCC if there is a spill, release or valid contamination complaint.  The fact remains that there is not one single documented case of frac contamination of drinking water.  By the way, the Laura Amos case was comprehensively investigated and frac’ing was cleared.  Her well was shared with a neighbor who has continued to use it with no complaints.  The 2BE she complains about is found in window and oven cleaners.

The presence of a chemical, per se, is not a health risk without a complete pathway of exposure and a dose that results in a health risk.  What is the green endgame regarding fracing?  Prohibit it and make gas drilling in the US infeasible?  Dictate the composition of frac fluids a la Santa Fe County, to the same result?  Stoke public hysteria per the NoDOG playbook?

Without a doubt, fracturing fluids will contain salts and surfactants. The latter to ease the passage of water where the surface tension of water (72 dynes) is reduced very significantly to enter pores and capillary channels in the rock.That combination is not something I would care have in my drinking water for humans or animals, or even in irrigation water.
[As surface chemist I am acutely aware of methods needed to penetrate soils or rocks.]

This is just exactly like the tobacco industry. Everyone knows cigarettes can kill you but proving that against an industry with deep pockets is almost impossible.

About that oven cleaner in Laura Amos’s well: I have pictures of pallets piled high with bags of caustic soda stacked around the drilling sites. What do you think is in oven cleaner? CAUSTIC SODA! Of course oven cleaner is in Laura Amos’s well. They use it when they frack and drill.

In Texas, several wells suddenly turned up with toulene contamination so severe that livestock died from drinking the water. This happened after a blow out during fracking. The producer told the families that he would tie them up in court forever and they would never prove anything. And, he has the money to do it.

The man who drilled my well 14 years ago has been drilling water wells for 50 years. He said drilling mud came up in his well when they were fracking. Recently he drilled a well for some people and hit drilling mud at 220’.

Sure these are just a few stories and there is little PROOF but it won’t be much longer. It doesn’t take a rocket scientists to know pumping toxins near groundwater can’t have a happy ending.

Great work Abrham! We need all of this kind of reporting we can get!

I think that this Energy problem is more of a greed problem.

No 3 Dollar Fuel

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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