Friday, November 18, 2011

Gas extraction hurts

Regarding the issues and controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing and gas extraction in the US Northeast, it often seems as if I'm looking at two different worlds. I've been trying to make sense of what the information both types of sources are telling me, and cut through the emotional controversy to figure out what, exactly, is happening.

On the one had, I read stories from mainstream publications that give an overwhelmingly negative perspective, most using only anecdotal evidence and bringing out a "human element" in the stories.

In the mainstream, hydraulic fracturing reports are invariably filled with a parade of horrors. This overwhelmingly negative coverage emphasizes the "human element" of people's stories and pays only lip service to claims of people who benefit from drilling leases. The general method of investigative journalism has given weight to the negatives rather than the positives. This article is an excellent example. More than three times the column space is devoted to negative coverage and anecdote than is devoted to positive coverage.  The farmers and landowners with mineral rights that have not been affected by water contamination or other disasters are portrayed as greedy and money-grubbing, while those affected are portrayed as helpless victims*.

On the other hand, industry publications are positive and, in many cases, almost clinical about the process, showing new studies and evidence and leaving hard-luck stories out of it. I have seen two types of reporting. The first is best exemplified by the Oil and Gas Journal. (I asked a coworker the other day, "Does OGJ seem excessively far-right to you?", to which she replied, "Do birds fly?") These partisan engineering publications venture into politics a lot. The general attitude to hydraulic fracturing processes is to assume that they are supreme arbiters of progress, and then adopt a haughty attitude. In a recent article about dealing with risks during fracking (they steadfastly refuse to use that colloquialism, referring to them as "frac jobs"), they devoted all of one paragraph to community engagement.

The other side of industry publications seem to have taken a more neutral tone. I think this is indicative of a more technical audience with mixed views. Deep down, a lot of oil and gas wo/men are actually a brand of practical environmentalists and conservationists, and the technical publications reflect that. Either way, they tend to report a series of very interesting studies that have been published that have allowed for an objective technical view of the processes. The recent preliminary, reported here, is a good example.

So what's going on, exactly?

The process of hydraulic fracturing itself does not contaminate aquifers. Although environmentalist groups publicly doubt any study showing this, and attempt to discredit all such studies by pointing out authors' links to the oil and gas industry**, it is important to note that there has been no study that has directly linked hydraulic fracturing with contamination. What has been linked to environmental contamination is the operation as a whole. The process of fracking itself is not all that's involved in gas extraction. What is also involved is the drilling process itself, and extraction, and finally capping.
  • Drilling involves the use of highly specialized, viscous fluid around the wellhead, called, er, drilling mud (believe me, it's actually tailor-made). Wells must be lined with casings and extraction pipes are set with concrete to prevent contamination.
  • Extraction involves the use of basic facilities to refine the gas so that it's transportable and then transport that gas.
  • Capping is the process of decomissioning a well, usually by filling it with concrete.
I think what is extraordinarily important to note is that most of the impact of hydraulic fracturing comes from the drilling itself. Water contamination (which, as I noted, has most definitely occurred),  appears not to come from the fracking process itself but from poor drilling practices. This includes cracked well casings leading to methane contamination, leaking wastewater and drilling mud, and overall environmental impact from heavy machinery. Improperly capped wells also seem to be a problem.

All of this information seems to point to one face: the damage is not coming from the fracturing process itself. Instead, it is coming from sloppy engineering practices.

Tellingly, most of the energy companies exploiting the Marcellus are independent players with little to no track record of environmental best practice. It has become obvious that these companies are cutting corners.

The important distinction between general drilling operations and the fracturing process has yet to be made by many communities and those in the media. To make things worse, gas companies on the other side have steadfastly refused, thus far, to explain the difference, or admit to any wrongdoing, instead sticking to the one correct thing they have to say, "fracking is safe," while ignoring that containment breaches, poor well casings, and other issues might be causing obseved contamination.

To be clear, then, there needs to be regulation, but not of hydraulic fracturing in general. What I see from the reports that I am reading is that there is a systematic culture of poor engineering best practices, meeting communities that have never experienced hydrocarbon extraction before. Similar things are happening in the Bakken shale extraction and with the Keystone XL pipeline's local resistance in Nebraska. The regulation that should be in place, thus, should be government soil and water monitoring, spot checking, and other methods to make the public informed about changes - and yes, that means prior baseline monitoring too - to their environment due to drilling operations as a whole. What also should happen is that lawsuits for environmental contamination should be made easier. Heavy handed, top-down regulation tends to pidgeonhole companies' operating practices into an unworkable mess; better to simply make their potential liabilities clearer and force them to shape up.

It seems as if my overall opinion on the Marcellus shale extraction is still the same: it's too big of a resource to not use, but for chrissake, the companies working it should shape up.

Regardless of the facts, it appears that "fracking" has become cemented a banner word for badly practiced gas drilling operations. Several months ago, I warned against the continued bad PR and ignorance of best practices by gas companies, and those warnings still stand. In the face of six months of continued industry intransigence, I've become a regulation advocate, but not one for banning drilling altogether. Let's hope that these companies shape up, and that it won't come to that.

* In reality, having spent a good deal of time talking to farmers in the area and contrasting them with the townies in Ithaca, most of them are truly marginal small businessmen. Everyone in the area works multiple jobs in order to get by, since a great deal of the land in the area is held by smallholders with much less mechanization and scale than in other areas of the country. Additionally, although the New York Times article is heavily biased, it does well in quoting a landowner who terms it as townies vs. farmers. Much of the opposition to drilling in upstate New York is led by former city dwellers and retirees who want to preserve their bucolic environment but do not understand the pressures of farming, since they brought their wealth with them from the cities. It's an attitude that was especially prevalent in Ithaca, a locus of city dwellers that fell in love with an idealized country life and were unwilling to make the hard choices to preserve it.

** This fits their general PR strategy. Many environmental NGOs have a nasty habit of claiming that any organization that has ever worked for industrial stakeholders will be naturally biased in favor of those industrial stakeholders - even if, as is commonly the case in consulting, the firms have worked with stakeholders on both sides of the issue. This strategy is tantamount to claiming that nobody with any experience or qualifications in the field is sufficiently neutral to perform a study - bearing in mind, of course, that the same accusations could be easily adapted regarding consultancies that have worked with environmental groups, exclusively or non-exclusively. Predictably, this anti-independent consultancy smear is therefore only selectively applied to studies against environmental interests. Nothing gets me more mad. There are situations in which people should be willing to discredit corporate studies - particularly if they uniformly contradict the conclusions of independent studies - but that circumstance does not describe our current situation.

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