Environmental Working Group’s “Report” on Fracking Chemicals Rehashes Tired Talking Points
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an activist organization ideologically opposed to hydraulic fracturing (fracking), has released a report with the alarmist title “California’s Toxic Fracking Fluids: The Chemical Recipe.”
The “report” is simply a repackaging of information about the possible constituents of hydraulic fracturing fluid (99 percent water and .5 percent sand) that is readily available from the State of California. In fact, this is information that has been widely accessible from many sources (including Energy In Depth) for many years. This “report” is intended to scare Californians by discussing chemicals found in everyday products out of context, using over-the-top adjectives, loaded language, and appeals to discredited studies.
The good news for Californians is that science is way ahead of the EWG, and it has spoken clearly on the safety of fracking. Let’s look at the claims made in the EWG report and compare them with the facts.
CLAIM: “All citizens, and especially those living near fracking operations, have a right to understand the risks posed by fracking chemicals. In the absence of a moratorium or ban on fracking, California should make public safety its primary goal, not increasing the production of hydrocarbons.” (Page 3)
FACT: The public has had access to information about the chemicals used in fracking fluid for years. Despite attempts by groups like EWG to scare Californians, industry best practices coupled with strict regulations have ensured that there has been no danger to public health as a result of fracking. To claim otherwise is science-denial.
In response to increased public concern generated by anti-energy activists, California’s oil and gas industry supported the mandatory disclosure of chemicals used in the fracking process. In fact, producers in the state voluntarily provided this information to the national FracFocus.org database even before the passage of SB 4, the state’s toughest-in-the-nation regulations on fracking. The more scientifically sound information the public has, after all, the better it will understand why fracking is fundamentally safe.
Activist groups also supported mandatory disclosure, and got what they wanted. Indeed, EWG acknowledges:
“California’s fracking disclosure law is the most comprehensive in the nation. The data in the reports submitted to the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency provide the most detailed accounting available of the chemical makeup of fracking fluids, at least for one state.” (Page 3)
What EWG fails to acknowledge is that California – the third largest energy producing state – has a more than 100-year tradition of robust energy development coupled with stringent environmental and public health protections, and there have to date been no reported instances of harm to public health from chemicals as a result of the fracking process. This is confirmed time and again by scientists and regulators, including those in the Obama Administration.
CLAIM: “The oil and gas industry has long maintained that fracking chemicals are not a threat to drinking water, but evidence to the contrary is growing.” (Page 5)
FACT: Untrue. Recent landmark studies have confirmed that fracking is a fundamentally safe process that does not pose a serious risk of contaminating groundwater.
While fracking has been extensively studied and regulated for years, within just the past two months, three studies – two specific to California — have confirmed that the process itself has not directly contaminated drinking water aquifers.
California Council on Science and Technology
A few weeks ago, the independent California Council on Science and Technology recently (CCST) released a 2,300 page peer-reviewed report looking at the body of knowledge on fracking. CCST is a non-profit organization created by the legislature and sponsored by the major public and private postsecondary institutions of California and federal laboratories in conjunction with leading private-sector firms.
According to CCST:
“The study found no releases of hazardous hydraulic fracturing chemicals to surface waters in California and no direct impacts to fish or wildlife.” (Page 35) [Emphasis added]
“We found no documented instances of hydraulic fracturing or acid stimulations directly causing groundwater contamination in California.” (Page 52) [Emphasis added]
Environmental Protection Agency
In June, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a 1,000 page peer-reviewed report – easily the most extensive study on fracking in the United States yet conducted. EPA clearly concluded:
“[Fracking has] not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.” [Emphasis added]
According to EPA’s Thomas Burke, in a press release about the study,
“It is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports.”
The EWG authors actually cite the EPA report to suggest that it found inherent danger to groundwater from fracking, when in fact it merely noted that mechanisms which are not fracking –like surface spills or well casing issues — could “potentially” impact drinking water sources. But this rings hollow, as a recent Stanford study concluded:
“Several recent reports examining hydraulic fracturing have concluded that surface activities, particularly spills, and near-surface activities via well integrity provide the greatest potential risks for groundwater, but their risks could be managed with proper safeguards.” (Page B)
These studies bolster what state and federal regulators (Democratic and Republican appointments alike) have been saying for years.
Even Stanford Professor Rob Jackson, whose debunked scholarship on methane is regularly touted by anti-fracking activists, has confirmed what CCST and EPA found in a study released last month. As the press release for the report notes:
“Using innovative techniques such as isotopic “tracer” compounds that distinguish the source of chemicals in well water, Jackson has not found evidence that frack water contaminants seep upward to drinking-water aquifers from deep underground.” [emphasis added]
This study, it should be noted, is designed to generate concern and fear about “shallow” fracking, which is why depth is mentioned in the quote above. However, Jackson, too, only notes “potential” for impacts without citing a single instance of water contamination from fracking — at any depth.
Contrary to the EWG authors’ claim, then, having three studies (two of them massive in their scope) released on this very topic released recently means that the evidence supporting the safety of fracking is growing, not the other way around.
CLAIM: “Researchers have also documented health hazards from air pollution for people living near fracking sites.” (Page 5)
FACT: Air quality is dramatically improving over time, even as shale development increases.
In an attempt to support its claim of potential air pollution, EWG cites a Yale study that simply hypothesized that certain symptoms were the result of oil and gas wells impacting private water wells and air quality, but it produced no evidence – none – linking those symptoms to energy industry activity.
Because the Yale researchers did not rule out other likely possibilities to account for the subjects’ symptoms, as a more rigorous scientific effort would have as a matter of course, a Yale author was forced to concede the limitations of the study. The New Haven Register reported:
“The study does not claim that the wells cause the health problems, which requires further investigation to determine. ‘It’s more of an association than a causation,’ [author] Rabinowitz said. ‘We want to make sure people know it’s a preliminary study. … To me it strongly indicates the need to further investigate the situation and not ignore it.’” [Emphasis added]
So much for EWG’s attempt to convince us about air pollution.
Happily, there is growing evidence that shale development is protective of air quality and public health. According to a recent study led by Drexel University researchers, has found low levels of air emissions at well sites in the extensively fracked Marcellus Shale in the northeast.
According to the study:
“Most notably, we did not observe elevated levels of any of the light aromatic compounds (benzene, toluene, etc.) that have previously been observed in oil and NG [natural gas] operations. With the exception of CH43OH, which was observed at one compressor station and has been observed at NG well pads, all of the other VOCs [volatile organic compounds] detected have been attributed to on-road engine exhaust.” (Page E; Emphasis added)
Closer to home in California, the CCST’s extensive study noted that, while oil and gas production makes some contribution to the notoriously difficult air pollution problems in the San Joaquin Valley, and in more urban parts of Southern California, its contribution is relatively small:
“Eliminating emissions from oil and gas production would reduce, but not eliminate the difficult air pollution problems in the San Joaquin Valley. Oil and gas facilities also emit significant air toxics in the San Joaquin Valley. They are responsible for a large fraction (>70%) of total hydrogen sulfide emissions and small fractions (2-6%) of total benzene, xylene, hexane, and formaldehyde emissions is a major air quality concern in the San Joaquin Valley, and agriculture is the dominant source of dust in the region. The amount of dust generated by oil and gas activities (including hydraulic fracturing) is comparatively very small…
“In the South Coast air district (including all of Orange County, the non-desert regions of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County, San Bernardino County, and Riverside County), upstream oil and gas sources represent small proportions (<1%) of criteria air pollutant and toxic air contaminant emissions due to large quantities of emissions from other sources in a highly urbanized area.” (Pages 60-61; Emphasis added)
CLAIM: “EWG’s analysis reveals that because fracking is heavily dependent on the use
of chemicals known to harm human health and the environment, it is by its very nature a toxic threat.” [Emphasis added]
FACT: If fracking is “by its very nature” a threat because it uses chemicals known – in certain concentrations – to harm human health, then so are many of the items we use, and even the food we eat, every day.
We are surprised that even EWG thought it could get away with such a lazy and anti-scientific statement.
The use of the word “toxic” is simply argument by adjective. Everything around us is composed of chemicals, and many chemical compounds are “toxic” or not depending on their concentrations. For example, hydrochloric acid (HCI), is so potentially dangerous that rubber gloves are required when working with it, but millions of children swim in pools containing small amounts of it every day — and they live to tell the tale. Water (H2O), on the other hand, is relatively harmless in everyday use, but even it can be toxic taken in certain doses. (The American Chemical Society says that it takes only six liters of water, ingested over a short period of time, to kill a 165 lb. person.)
While the EWG authors provide the long list of chemical additives sometimes found in fracking fluid that they got from the State of California, they conveniently do not identify are the common applications for many of these chemicals, which would hinder their narrative.
As EID showed six years ago, the chemicals used in fracking are not only used to help make the process safer and more effective, but are in fact regulated and found in a variety of produces we use in our everyday lives.
For instance, we know that swimming pools contain acids. Sodium chloride, of course, is table salt. Crystalline silica is sand. “Petroleum distillates,” which sound particularly scary, are found in candy, make-up remover and laxatives. Guar gum is a thickener used in ice cream and toothpaste. Ethylene glycol is powerful stuff used in automotive antifreeze, deicing agents and household cleaners. Powerful, but not “by its very nature” dangerous if used properly.
Of course, as noted above, regardless of the chemicals used, and contrary to activist claims, hydraulic fracturing fluids have not “migrated” upward (against gravity) through impermeable rock to contaminate drinking water aquifers. And it is extremely unlikely that they could. This point was made clearly in a 2013 report by Gradient:
“[I]t is implausible that the fluids pumped into the target formation would migrate from the target formation through overlying bedrock to reach shallow aquifers.”
“[T]here is no scientific basis for significant upward migration of HF fluid or brine from tight target formations in sedimentary basins.”
“No scientific basis.”
CLAIM: “There are estimates that well casings fail in up to 12 percent of new wells within the first year of operation (Ingraffea et al 2014). These failures may result in underground contamination of aquifers well outside of the immediate production zone.”
FACT: EWG undermines all credibility by citing research that has been thoroughly debunked by scholars and environmental organizations.
There is probably no activist or scholar who has been as thoroughly rebuked by his colleagues in and out of academia – and even by the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog — as Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University.
Ingraffea, who calls his reports “a form of advocacy,” is famous for his reports claiming high methane age rates from shale development. But his studies have been debunked by a number of scientific reports and even by the former Secretary of Energy, and his colleagues at Cornell.
On the important issue of well casing failure, Ingraffea’s work is also deeply flawed. In 2013, the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) said:
“[A]ctual well integrity failures are very rare. Well integrity failure is where all barriers fail and a leak is possible. True well integrity failure rates are two to three orders of magnitude lower than single barrier failure rates.”
Moreover, the Associated Press analyzed the data and found that well failure rates for oil and natural gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania is about one third of one-percent (0.33 percent). In Texas and Ohio, a 2011 Groundwater Protection Council study found a well failure rate of less than 0.01 percent and 0.03 percent respectively.
More information about well casing failure rates can be found in the EID infographic: Well Casing Failure Rates: Myth vs. Fact.
We understand why EWG is attracted to Ingraffea’s work. After all, he is a fellow activist who founded an anti-fracking group and acts as “Incredible Hulk” actor Mark Ruffalo’s ventriloquist when it comes to fracking. As Ingraffea has explained: “Mark Ruffalo has a couple million twitter followers…So, every once in a while Mark emails me or calls me and says ‘What have you got?’ And I give him 144 characters and he tweets it. He is my megaphone.”
But reliance on Ingraffea’s work proves that EWG is interested only in grasping at any straw to build a case against fracking, not in sound or responsible scholarship that advances understanding of the process.
All Californians benefit from in-state energy production and fracking — which current Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said is “environmentally safe and economically stimulating.” It’s a routine, well-understood and heavily regulated aspect of that production. If it was not safe, it would not be employed.
EWG has attempted to generate doubt about fracking’s safety record with a report about “toxic” chemicals. It does so, however, without reference to their concentrations, everyday use, or the 50-plus year history of safe fracking in California. Calling things like salt and sand by their chemical names is a clever rhetorical device, but it does not make fracking inherently dangerous.
This, of course, is good news for everyone in California who values jobs, economic growth, the public services supported by tax revenue and environmental protection. It is bad news only for activist groups who want to close the curtain on California’s rich history as a leader in energy production.