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Frac Exaggeration, Wind Blindness: Southern Environmental Law Center’s Double Standard

“Contrast West Virginia’s ridgeline wind turbines to a single fracking site hosting a dozen or more underground wells. Those wellheads produce ’round the clock, something that wind proponents cannot honestly claim. Not even all those the  lawyers of the Southern Environmental Law Center can make the wind turbines regularly spin.”

The City of Charlottesville, VA is home to some notable landmarks, which include Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, and his university, the University of Virginia. It is also home to the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), whose mission is “to use the power of the law to protect the environment of the Southeast.”

Under the Case Summary for “Fracking in the Southwest,” the SELC notes:

The drilling technique known as “fracking” is widely used around the country to extract natural gas from deep shale deposits. Notoriously linked to flaming water taps and contaminated streams and groundwater in the Northeast and out West, hydraulic fracturing has recently emerged as a looming environmental threat in the Southeast…As pressure mounts to tap into southeastern shale deposits, SELC is working on multiple fronts in our six states to prevent fracking in special natural areas like our national forests….

The latest SELC anti-fracking diatribe was authored by Carl Jaffe, director of the Charlottesville office, and published in the May 28-June 3, 2013 issue of the local weekly C-Ville. He mentioned–but did not specifically document–concern over drinking-water pollution, methane leakage, impacts on forests, and recreational opportunities. In response, I submitted the following letter-to-the-editor to C-Ville (V.25, No. 23, not online: scan available from author):

To the editor:

Cale Jaffe’s case for opposing drilling for natural gas in the George Washington Forrest is impassioned, but in raising fears of water contamination and methane gas leakage he appears uninformed of recent facts.

The Bureau of Land Management has issued new rules for such drilling dated May 16, 2013. The subtitle reads: “Commonsense Measure Will Support Safe and Responsible Production of America’s Domestic Energy Resources.” It states:

We know from experience that hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling methods can be used safely and effectively, employing many of the best management practices reflected in this draft rule,” said BLM Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze. “Our thorough review of all the comments convinced us that we could maintain a strong level of protection of health, safety, and the environment while allowing for increased flexibility and reduced regulatory duplication.

The press release continues:

The updated draft proposal maintains the three main components of the initial proposal: requiring operators to disclose the chemicals they use in fracturing activities on public lands; improving assurances of well-bore integrity to verify that fluids used during fracturing operations are not contaminating groundwater; and confirming that oil and gas operators have a water management plan in place for handling fluids that flow back to the surface.

Jaffe’s unspecified claim of methane gas leakage into drinking water wells has been refuted in one of the most publicized such claims. “Methane study, EPA Debunk Claims of Water Pollution, Climate Change from Fracking,” The Washington Times Monday, April 29, 2013. “After a 16-month investigation, state regulators Monday said that natural gas fracking, contrary to highly publicized claims, isn’t to blame for high methane levels in three families’ drinking water in a northern Pennsylvania town.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection now says there is no evidence to connect natural gas drilling with high levels of methane in private water wells in the small town, which sits within the Marcellus Shale region…” “Thus far, however, there have been no confirmed cases of fracking contaminating water supplies — an acknowledgment that Lisa P. Jackson, as EPA administrator, made twice to Congress.”

Jaffe laments the “clear cutting and bulldozing required to build wellpads, and access roads…” Has he equal outrage over similar operations on the Laurel Mountain Wind facility? See wind turbine installation pictures.

Perhaps not; this source of renewable energy is out of his sight in West Virginia.

Conclusion

When the EPA and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management both attest to the ability to do fracking safely with current technology and safeguards, the alarmist message needs to be countered with facts, facts, facts.

The SELC may never be convincingly satisfied, particularly if they are dogmatically opposed to fracking. If one does not like eating spinach, then no amount of rational argument is likely to change one’s taste. However, the general public can view factual rebuttals and then make informed decisions as to public policy.

Contrast West Virginia’s ridgeline wind turbines to a single fracking site hosting a dozen or more underground wells. Those wellheads produce ’round the clock, something that wind proponents cannot honestly claim. Not even all those the lawyers of the Southern Environmental Law Center can make the wind turbines regularly spin.

5 comments

1 JOHN JOHNSEN { 06.18.13 at 6:31 am }

I’m sure if the Southern Environmental Law Center has its annual picnic on Laurel Mountain the windmills will start spinning.

2 Peterk { 06.18.13 at 7:11 am }

… and don’t forget the hundreds if not thousands of birds and bats that are chewed up in the giant cuisinarts

3 Peter Moliterno { 06.18.13 at 9:25 am }

The “chemicals” used in fracking are nothing more than food grade thickeners. We do the industry a disservice by continuing to spread the fear that the mechanical fracturing process that has brought us such abundance in hydrocarbons is dependent on some toxic chemicals. It is not.

There are certain types of operations (that are called stimulations) that use acids to remove deposits that clog wells. This is not the process in hydraulic fracturing. In hydraulic fracturing, water and sand, called a proppant, is pumped into a small section of the well at extreme pressure to fracture the rock around perforations in the well casing. The water has to be thickened (with guar gum, a very common food thickener used in ice cream and salad dressing) so that the sand flows along with the water. After the water is forced into cracks, the sand that flows along with it (which requires a thickener so that the sand wont just fall to the bottom) props the cracks open. After a certain amount of time, there are enzymes in the water that break down the guar gum so that the water can flow back out of the cracks, leaving the sand behind to keep the cracks open and let hydrocarbons flow back out after the water flows back.

One of the major breakthroughs in economical hydraulic fracturing with horizontal well is the ability to install a well that can be as long as 10,000 feet in the productive zone. In addition to the challenge to drill a well that long and steering it to stay in the productive layer, the ability to fracture was very difficult in that many sections. Modern wells have as many as 32 separate fracturing operations. The operation requires fracture, flow back, drilling out the cement to connect the previous section, cementing the current section to prepare the next section, then repeating another 30 times. This is what has made the “unconventional” tight shales and siltstones so productive. That is the reason that operators are reluctant to share details of the chemicals that are used in the process. It is not because these chemicals are toxic. Those recipes have been very expensive to develop and are what give different operators competitive advantages.

This website could provide a great public service if more of this recent history was elucidated. It is a great story of one entrepreneur after another solving various problems to exploit the resource that we never even thought was possible.

Technology used in the Bakken, Marcellus, and Eagle Ford is a great story, and one that I have not seen told on this or any other website in any detail.

4 Donald Hertzmark { 06.18.13 at 2:51 pm }

Peter,
Thanks for idea about an article here. In many presentations and speeches here and overseas on shale and hydraulic fracturing (hey, how about “water stimulation” instead, doesn’t sound nearly as scary), I have pointed out that almost every chemical used is present in a modern kitchen or bathroom and that the proportion of the total mix comprised of chemicals is less than 0.5%. This argument falls flat more often than not, unless the audience has some technical smarts.

5 Jim C. { 09.15.13 at 11:43 pm }

Peter Moliterno, you are errant about fracking chemicals only being “food grade” stuff. You cherry-picked from a much longer list. Below is a good overview of at least 78 of the actual chemicals. Guar gum is included, but few people would put the majority of those substances on their food! Get real.

Search the web for “List of 78 Chemicals Used in Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid in Pennsylvania” (the benzene-related chemicals are often mentioned)

The sheer volume of water required is no small matter, either. I think fracking’s biggest issue is the quality and volume of water it uses, more so than methane seepage and other concerns. It’s what people are putting into the ground rather than taking out that worries me.

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