The Science Is Settled: Fracking Is Safe

The science is settled, as the climate change supporters like to say.  Only this time, science confirms the safety of hydraulic fracturing.  According to a new study published by the National Academy of Sciences, fracking is safe.  End of discussion.

Funded by the National Science Foundation and Duke University, a team of scientists at Ohio State and other universities conducted extensive research into the purported link between groundwater pollution and fracking.  (The full title of the report, available online, is “Noble Gases Identify the Mechanisms of Fugitive Gas Contamination in Drinking-Water Wells Overlying the Marcellus and Barnett Shales.”)  In an examination of 130 wells, the researchers found that, when properly conducted, no groundwater or aquifer pollution resulted from the practice of fracking itself.

Among the 130 wells studied, the researchers found only a subset of cases, including seven in Pennsylvania and one in Texas, in which faulty well construction or cementing was to blame for the seepage of gases into groundwater.  According to Professor Avner Bengosh of Duke University, “[t]hese results appear to rule out the migration of methane up into drinking water aquifers from depth because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing.”  That is to say, in the rare cases where it occurs, gases are entering the water supply from outside the borehead as a result of faulty well construction or poor cementing, both of which are manageable problems.

In their research, the scientists subjected the fracked well sites to a newly developed process of “geochemical forensics” using noble gases to determine whether pollution in proximity to a drilling site is naturally occurring or associated with drilling.  The process was also able to determine whether the release of gases resulted from fracking itself or from seepage around well casings – an uncommon and correctable problem.  As Thomas Darrah, the lead scientist in the study, stated, “most of the issues we have identified can potentially be avoided by future improvements in well integrity.”

While the new report answers the most important question, proving beyond doubt that fracking itself does not cause gas to seep into the water supply, it does not address several other important questions.  One of these is the frequency of contamination of water supplies by naturally occurring petroleum, methane, and other gases.

Natural pollution of this kind would seem to be extremely common, and in fact this natural process has been known for millennia.  At sites where petroleum seeped to the surface, as in the vicinity of the 19th-century Drake oil field in Pennsylvania, Native Americans had made use of the oily substance as a lubricant for hundreds if not thousands of years.  That oil, flowing naturally to the surface, was “contaminating” nearby streams and groundwater.

Similarly, at thousands of hot springs and other sites, methane and other gases, including ammonia and helium, are released naturally into the environment, as for example in Yellowstone National Park.  The release of methane from the ocean floor is also a pervasive feature of the natural environment.  In comparison with these widespread and perennial sources of methane contamination, the amount of gas released by faulty oil and gas wells is infinitesimal.  It would be helpful if some future researcher provided more precise data, but the ratio of man-made to natural release of gases is certainly miniscule. 

Even if the oil industry achieved a 100% safety record with the construction of casings and cementing of wells, or even if no drilling at all were to take place, vast amounts of methane and other “polluting” gases would seep into groundwater and aquifers as a result of natural processes.  The same is true of deepwater drilling: enormous methane emissions take place all the time in the seabed.  Earthquakes and volcanoes, both above ground and underwater, release huge quantities of gases into the environment on a regular basis.  A study of a single quake that occurred in Pakistan in 1945 proved that the event had released 10 million cubic yards of gas over a period of seven decades, and that the fracture resulting from the quake continues to emit methane.  

What humans add to natural emisions as a result of drilling is so minor as to be of little consequence.  If some future study confirmed this fact, it would help to counter the myth that oil and gas drilling is polluting an otherwise pure land and sea environment.  The reality is that wherever shale and other carbon-rich formations occur, natural leakage of petroleum and/or methane is inevitable.  Oil and gas are naturally occurring features that are constantly interacting with the environment and entering the water supply through natural processes.  As is so often the case, the idea that there once existed an environment free of all that modern intellectuals might consider unpleasant is simply a fantasy.

The NSF/Duke report is crucial to the debate over the safety of hydraulic fracturing.  The oil and gas industry has already achieved a near perfect safety record, given the handful of failed wells in proportion to more than one million that have been fracked.  The industry needs to continue working to achieve certainty that wells do not fail.  It also needs to do a better job of communicating its intention to do so to a skeptical public.

The oil and gas renaissance now underway is essential to the economic well-being of the United States.  By confirming the safety of hydraulic fracturing, the NSF/Duke study has done a great service to all Americans, whose prosperity and security depend on the maintenance of a strong economy.

And so “the science is settled.”  Now let’s put America back to work, expand the scope of oil and gas production, and reap the benefits of national security and well-being.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American politics and culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

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