What the Frack!: Can We Have Some Reasoned Discussion, Please?

I just saw an article about fracking that reminded me of a conversation I had on Facebook a couple months ago. (Yes, another one….) A liberal friend of mind had shared the anti-fracking image below from New Yorkers Against Fracking. It expresses a concern that isn’t usually highlighted in anti-fracking posts & rants. (At least, not in the ones I’ve seen/heard.) Feeling slightly mischievous, I left the first comment, “On the other hand,…” and a link to the article “Why Anti-Fracking Environmentalists Are Holding Back the U.S.”

anti-fracking poster

My friend, whom I’ll call “Stan”, responded with “For the sake of the argument, wouldn’t it be better to be safe with our limited water supply and invest in other energies with equal fervor?”

A fair question. Rather than delving into scientific details about the global water cycle, etc., I replied: “If the claims about the dangers to the world’s fresh water supply were valid, then yes. But those claims are HIGHLY questionable: “Scientists Discover Gassy Liberal Pseudo-Science

At this point, Stan’s friend “Annie” took over the argument from the anti-fracking perspective. I could tell by her tone that she was the activist type. Even though I was (and am still) not very well-read on the topic, I decided to wade in, anyway. (Maybe I’ll learn something?) In hopes that you find it interesting (or, at least, entertaining), here’s the rest of the exchange….

Annie: “^ This is a blog commentary about the safety of fracking, and has nothing to do with the availability or scarcity of water, or that water isn’t used in fracking. Show some science and you might have a leg to stand on to comment. Otherwise, regarding scarcity of water, you might try talking to some of the farmers in the Midwest who lost their livelihoods because of the extended drought last year. Or come visit Arizona, Nevada, California, Australia, China, etc. that has already been greatly impacted by water shortage.”

Me: “No need to get snarky, Annie. I was merely presenting some info from ‘the other side’, for a little balance.

Please re-read the first couple paragraphs. It references New Scientist and quotes British geologists. Do you have some reason to question their methods or integrity? And, no one said or implied that water wasn’t used in fracking, so I don’t know where that came from. Granted, the statement speaks to the question of contamination of water from hydrofracking rather than wastage of water. But, it’s all part of the same issue.

The initial statement [from the NYAF post], “Less than 1% of the world’s water is liquid fresh water,” is totally meaningless out of context. (For example, the saltwater oceans/seas are HUGE and cover most of the planet, so I’m not surprised that the percentage of liquid fresh water is relatively small.) Assuming it is correct, before becoming alarmed about the amount of water used in fracking, we should ask questions like:

1) Does the current fresh water supply adequately meet our needs? (I’m speaking in general. I *know* that some places go through times of drought. I *know* that some regions are more arid than others.) Taken in total, is there a LOT “left over” — even after shipping some from one place to another in need — or are we barely making do, or somewhere in between?

2) Do they ever use saltwater in fracking?

3) In areas where fracking is done, do the oil companies use up water that the local residents otherwise need? Or, is there plenty available? If not locally available, is it (or can it be) shipped in from elsewhere?

4) What actually happens to the water used in the fracking procedure? Is it all absorbed into the ground? Just some of it? How close are the fracking fissures to local wells & water tables? How much contamination has been conclusively traced to fracking? Is it really all “irreversibly contaminated… and untreatable”? If there are no good treatments now, are some being developed?

5) Assuming we aren’t desperately in need of it, if the water currently used in fracking wasn’t, what else would it be used for? Anything productive? Would it be shipped elsewhere to arid regions and/or to others in need of safe water for drinking, cooking, & farming? (I think that’s what you were getting at.)

I can’t answer these questions. Can you? Until we put things in context and get a better understanding of what’s involved (and not put too much stock in activist documentaries), I hesitate to get all riled up about supposed dangers and/or wastefulness of fracking. I don’t have time right now, but maybe sometime I’ll do some more digging (heheh!) on this….”

Sound like reasonable questions to ask? Annie didn’t think so, as you’ll see in a moment. But, meanwhile, I did a little research and came up with some relevant info, which I also posted:

“Here’s some info I came across on exploreshale.org:

Each drill site requires between 3 and 5 million gallons of water per frack. Based on approximately 1500 horizontal wells fracked in 2011, Pennsylvania used about 12-20 million gallons of water per day for Marcellus Shale drilling, which represents approximately .5-.8% of the 9.5 billion gallons of water the state uses daily.

Fun Fact: Five million gallons per day = average daily water usage of State College, PA (pop. 67,000), as per the State College Borough Water Authority.

Approximately 10% to 30% of the total water used per frack returns to the surface with the extracted gas. The remaining water remains deep underground. It is mostly absorbed by the shale formation, which is isolated from the water table.

The water that returns to the surface is called “flowback.” The water – which contains salts and other naturally occurring elements and may contain trace concentrations of fracking chemicals – is captured and stored for treatment or disposal.

Flowback may be treated through a variety of methods:

— Diluted with fresh water on site and used for another well.
— Treated on site and used for another well.
— Hauled off site for treatment and/or disposal in permitted deep injection wells.”

Hydraulic fracturing rig

Hydraulic fracturing rig

Annie then responded with a couple posts of her own:

Annie: I did read your link. My comment was not meant as snark; rather, I lost interest in your link after its repetitive snark (yes, it IS snarky in its tone of liberals), and can’t take it seriously when it seems that its agenda (highlighted by the final jab at Obama in the final sentence) is not to present the ‘other view’ but rather to dismiss and discount all views that aren’t in line with Mr. Stephenson.

Annie: It’s also easy to toss out a ton of questions to distract or take away from the original point. Your questions that are unanswerable should not preclude us from doing all the studies necessary to know if this is technology is safe in the long run. It’s new technology. The geology in England is different than it is in Pennsylvania. There is plenty of natural gas (the market is flooded with it); why are we in such a rush to flood the market even more? Besides, just because your questions can’t be answered doesn’t mean that we should just go ahead because we don’t know those answers. I think your questions are actually quite short-sighted and selfish (on behalf of humans). For example, question 5: who determines what a productive use of that water is? Keeping it in the rivers or wherever else makes it available to the local ecosystem, spawning fish, wildlife, etc. I doubt your blogger will deem that ‘productive’. Your comment regarding ‘hauling off site’, ‘disposal’, etc. makes me think of the whole nuclear waste debaucle… makes a few people rich right now, but is fraught with problems for in 10, 20 or 30 years when the storage leaks, the storage runs out, or the storage doesn’t work the way we thought it would.”

So, to sum up her response:

1) The article you posted was snarkier than me, so I don’t have to listen.

2) Don’t confuse me with the facts or pertinent questions.

3) We don’t need anymore cheap energy, if its production might possibly (contrary to all reputable studies) use too much water.

4) You’re a big meanie.

Rather than debate relative snarkiness, I conceded the point. Sorta…

Me: “I know the feeling. I have to wade through the snark & jabs from the Left all the time to find the relevant info and any actual argument (as opposed to whining, sneers, & unwarranted assertions). Cuts both ways, I guess. Still, do you maintain that there was no scientific basis for the comments? Also, do you agree that it would be good to have some of the questions answered that I listed? (My subsequent post touched on a couple.)”

She continued…

Annie: “Which really ties back to Stan’s most excellent observation in post#2: for the sake of the argument, wouldn’t it be better to be safe with our limited water supply and invest in other energies with equal fervor? And I’ll add one other thought: Why aren’t we investing in other energies with equal fervor? I think that question was answered last week amply with the failure of the gun control bill… our *leaders* are afraid of Big Money in Washington and don’t care what the people think or want. Anyway, I apologize that you read snark in my comment. It wasn’t intended.”

I was tempted to pursue the gun control thing but decided to stay on topic….

Me: “My intent was not to ‘toss out a ton of questions to distract or take away from the original point.’ Give me a little credit. (Very little?) They were meant to encourage careful thought about the validity of the ‘argument’ represented by the post. Sorry if I overwhelmed you, though it’s not as if I expected answers. But, ‘short-sighted and selfish’?! Gimmeabreak! I didn’t say or imply anything about what might be a ‘productive’ use. It was an open question. (And it had nothing to do with ‘[my] blogger’, by which I assume you are referring to columnist John Ransom.)

It’s not like this fracking technology/methodology is *brand* new. It’s been around 60+ years. Testing *has* and continues to be done. Improvements *have* and continue to be made. (Note from my previous post that there *are* treatments & other uses for the water used in fracking, which tends to put at least one claim in the OP in doubt.) You’re worried about the local ecosystem. Me, too. But, I’m not aware of conclusive studies that show fracking to be a big menace. Are you? Tell me, how many studies will be enough? How do you measure “safe enough”? And, yes, different regions of the world have differences in their respective geological composition. Some are also alike. I’m pretty sure the British geologists are smart enough to take these things into account in their studies. (Btw, I am not claiming that Stephenson’s remarks shut the door on further research, nor do I think Ransom was.)

graphic showing how fracking worksThe reason there has been a recent ‘flood’ of natural gas in the market is precisely because of the productivity of fracking, which (as Ransom mentioned) allowed them access to previously unreachable pockets of gas. This has driven the prices way down, which benefits the consumers. Us. (Is that what you meant by ‘selfish’?) And not just in the U.S. Energy is in high demand all over the world, and that will continue to grow. I have no problem with more research being done to develop alternative energy technology, but I do not think the government(s) s/b subsidizing it. It s/b pursued by energy companies and entrepreneurial start-ups; if the technology can be made reliable, productive, & efficient, they will continue with it. The profit motive is a wondrous thing! Meanwhile, I think we should concentrate on the proven resources. Natural gas (especially now with the benefits of fracking), for example, is less expensive and more reliable than alternative, ‘renewable’ energy sources, too. (I’m also pro-nuclear, which I think is not quite the danger you think it is. (Gasp!))

Btw, the perceived snark in your earlier comment was from the ‘Show some science and you might have a leg to stand on to comment,’ coupled with indignation(?) at my apparent ignorance or insensitivity to the plight of others. It was relatively minor. I can take it, but I appreciate the apology.”

While waiting for a response, I did a little more poking around and found another great article, which I actually thought Annie would like:

Me: “My final comment for the evening…

Since you’re still worried about the water, maybe this alternative method will help put your mind at ease? “A Better Way to Frack?

Regrettably, not only did she not respond that evening (it was rather late), she apparently decided it wasn’t worth continuing the discussion at all, ‘cuz the thread ended then & there. (Sigh!) Still, I learned some things, both from Annie’s evidence/reasoning and from the research I did. Sadly, I also found Annie’s arguments and attitude rather… stereotypical. (Though, to her credit, she did not go all psycho and start crying about killing “Mother Earth”.)

Oh! In case you’re wondering, the article I read that sparked this whole trip down memory lane was this one: “EPA Fails to Link Fracking to Water Contamination for the Third Time

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