Debunking the Anti-Fracking Fearmongers

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

World events have made it quite clear to most Americans that we should develop more of our own energy sources. Reducing our reliance on foreign oil by exploiting the natural gas under our feet is not only smart foreign policy but also smart environmental policy: Natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil, and it has already lowered our CO2 emissions. Natural gas is a win for America and the planet.

But not according to anti-technology environmentalists, who have made all sorts of wild, unsubstantiated claims about the supposed harms of fracking. Three claims in particular are worth examining: (1) Fracking causes a dangerous leakage of methane into drinking water; (2) Fracking causes earthquakes; and (3) Fracking chemicals contaminate drinking water.

Claim #1 should be considered thoroughly debunked. The “documentary” Gasland, which depicted a guy lighting his tap water on fire, kickstarted the anti-fracking movement. The infamous scene, however, was built upon a lie: The methane in his tap water was due either to natural methane migration or to faulty well casings, not to fracking itself. And methane is neither toxic nor likely to cause your house to explode, so the note above the faucet, which read, “Do not drink this water,” was nothing more than theatrics.

Even if basic chemistry and physics do not constitute sufficient evidence against Claim #1, then a new study in the journal PNAS should provide the final nail in the coffin. The researchers closely examined eight instances of drinking water contamination associated with the Marcellus and Barnett Shales. Their analysis reconfirmed the emerging consensus: Fracking itself does not cause methane to contaminate groundwater, but shoddy construction work can. Specifically, the researchers blamed leaky annulus cement and production casings.

Claim #2, that fracking causes earthquakes, is also misleading. Anti-fracking activists,including Rachel Maddow, have ignored research that suggests a nearby existing fault is necessary for fracking to trigger an earthquake. And as Bryan Walsh reported in TIME, the earthquakes are relatively minor and caused not by fracking itself but by the wastewater injection wells. (It should also be noted that injection wells are used for other things besides the disposing of wastewater from fracking. These injection wells can also trigger earthquakes.)

Claim #3, that fracking contaminates drinking water with various chemicals, is the only one that might have legs. The EPA detected carcinogenic benzene in Wyoming groundwater, and other researchers found arsenic in Texas groundwater.

If it is true that fracking is responsible for various chemicals leaking into groundwater, then the next step should be to determine if the pollutants are at unsafe levels. If they are, then the government should tighten regulations. Alternatively, Mr. Walsh suggested that companies “work on ways to clean, recycle and reuse wastewater from wells, eliminating the need for the deep injection wells.” That’s a good idea. It would prevent both minor earthquakes and groundwater contamination.

The EPA is set to publish a comprehensive report on fracking, but it has been delayed until 2016. Until then, there will probably be a lot more fearmongering in need of nuance.

Source: Thomas H. Darrah, Avner Vengosh, Robert B. Jackson, Nathaniel R. Warner, and Robert J. Poreda. “Noble gases identify the mechanisms of fugitive gas contamination in drinking water wells overlying the Marcellus and Barnett Shales.” PNAS. Published online before print: 15-Sept-2014. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1322107111