RALEIGH — How safe is fracking? Does it contaminate water? Use too much water? Use secret chemicals? As opponents of hydraulic fracturing continue to criticize the process, a new John Locke Foundation Policy Report turns to evidence to answer these and other common questions.
“Exploration for and recovery of natural gas in North Carolina holds the promise of job creation, wealth creation, revenue generation, and a new domestic industry in the state,” said report author Jon Sanders, JLF Director of Regulatory Studies. “Yet the process of hydraulic fracturing — ‘fracking’ — has raised several concerns. Some are legitimate questions informed by a reasonable skepticism. Others are fears fanned by activists and environmental pressure groups.”
Sanders’ report arrives as the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission prepares for a series of four public hearings about proposed state fracking rules. The first is scheduled Aug. 20 in Raleigh. An Energy Modernization Act, approved by the N.C. General Assembly and signed into law in June, extends a state rulemaking deadline for fracking and oil and gas exploration to Jan. 1, 2015.
Fracking has been around much longer than some might expect. “It isn’t new. The first well in which hydraulic fracturing was used was drilled back in 1947,” Sanders said. “Since then hydraulic fracturing has been used in over a million wells, and the industry has maintained an excellent safety record.”
Despite that record, critics have raised safety concerns. “Public debate over fracking has become unusually, well, fractious,” Sanders said. “That makes it hard to separate the facts from the noise. Several notorious examples of ‘fracking disasters,’ however, fall short of the mark upon closer examination.”
That includes the high-profile example of lighting tap water on fire, a feature of the anti-fracking “Gasland” movies from 2010 and 2013. Sanders details the deception and omissions used to mislead viewers of those films.
More credible sources offer a different story, Sanders said. “A 2004 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of hydraulic fracturing of coal-bed methane wells found no incident of contamination of drinking water wells from hydraulic fracturing fluid injection,” he said. “In 2009 state regulators tied to the Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission said they had found no cases where hydraulic fracturing had caused drinking water to be contaminated. The Institute of Energy Research reports that hydraulic fracturing is a safe process well-regulated by the states and that the industry has an excellent safety record.”
Critics who worry about well safety ought to examine a key factor other than fracking, Sanders said. “The primary, secondary, and tertiary issue with well safety is not the process of hydraulic fracturing, but well construction,” he said. “Stanford University geophysicist and Obama administration energy adviser Mark Zoback makes that point. A 2012 Wall Street Journal report also identified a growing consensus among energy companies, state regulators, academics, and environmentalists that the chief risks are tied to well construction, not hydraulic fracturing.”
Sanders highlights a comprehensive study from the state Department of Environmental and Natural Resources and Department of Commerce. It was issued in April 2012, during the administration of then-Gov. Beverly Perdue.
“The study concluded that natural gas production with hydraulic fracturing could be carried out safely in North Carolina, as long as the right protections are in place,” he said. “The Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative also concluded that North Carolina is in a unique position to incorporate experiences from other oil- and gas-producing states, including state-of-the-art technologies and best practices.”
The JLF report reminds readers that hydraulic fracturing has been used in more than a million wells “without a single confirmed incident of drinking water contamination,” and Sanders addresses the concern about fracking’s “secret chemicals.”
“The fluid used in hydraulic fracturing is between 98 percent and 99.5 percent water and sand,” he said. “Most of the additives used are chemicals found in typical household products, including soaps, makeup, hair care, and other personal-care products.”
While companies that use hydraulic fracturing have proprietary blends of additives that they regard as trade secrets, that doesn’t mean companies can hide those blends from regulators, Sanders said.
“That information is shared with the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, DENR, the state geologist, state health director, and Division of Emergency Management,” he said. “In the event of an emergency, the information must be disclosed immediately to first responders and medical personnel.”
Sanders devotes other sections of his report to flowback from wells, the amount of water used for fracking, the potential impact on air quality, even the charge that fracking leads to earthquakes.
“Despite a common misperception, the process of hydraulic fracturing is neither new nor insufficiently tested,” Sanders said. “A natural and reasonable disposition to be skeptical of new methods until proven, combined with a public campaign based on instilling fear through imbalanced reporting, sensationalized half-truths, and even outright lies has made this process more controversial than it ought to be.”
“North Carolina’s late entry to shale gas extraction offers the advantage of state regulators and drilling companies adopting the best standards, legal framework, technological innovations, and practices learned through the experiences of leading shale states,” he added.
Jon Sanders’ Policy Report, “Facts on Fracking: Addressing concerns over hydraulic fracturing coming to North Carolina,” is available at the JLF website. For more information, please contact Sanders at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or mko[email protected].