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Tom Kurth on the Facts and Science Supporting Fracking
02/16/2011
Thomas E. Kurth

In Support of Fracking: The Facts and the Science
Houston Chronicle

Condemnation of technology is misguided

For a technology that has been used for more than 60 years, "fracking" or more specifically, hydraulic fracturing, is attracting some alarmist headlines. The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Science has nominated Gasland, a vaudevillian HBO-funded "documentary," for an Academy Award. "Science"?! Even in Texas, where oil and gas are a part of the state's fabric and lore, fracking has attracted attention.

Some facts and science: Fracking involves the injection of fluids into deep underground gas-filled shale formations at very high pressures to create man-made cracks, or fractures, that allow natural gas to be collected and brought to the surface. The technology, along with horizontal drilling techniques, has opened a 100-year supply of natural gas from formations that stretch across the continental U.S. The drilling provides a domestic source of a significantly cleaner form of fossil fuel — as well as new jobs and revenues to states. It has been projected to raise natural gas domestic production by at least 20 percent over the next five years and help reduce imports by more than half within 10 years.

But as the headlines would suggest, controversy rages as fracking operations expand, particularly in regards to the fluids used in the process. Fracking fluids vary, but are generally more than 99 percent water and solids such as sand or ceramic pellets that prop the cracks open and allow gas flow to the well. The remaining additives promote the fluid's flow through pores in the rock. Some states, such as Wyoming and Arkansas, require energy companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking fluids; industry leaders are developing a voluntary registry to list the chemicals.

In 2004, an EPA study reported no confirmed instances of drinking water contamination by fracking fluids in the ground. Given that shale formations are thousands of feet below aquifers, the finding should not be surprising. However, spillage of fracking fluids has occurred and environmentalists criticized the EPA study. Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing fluids from the Safe Drinking Water Act in the energy bill of 2005 — a move that critics were quick to label the "Halliburton Loophole" to cast the statute negatively.

Before the exemption decision in 2005, diesel was indeed used for fracking — although its use has since been curbed. A congressional committee recently reported that between 2005 and 2009, fracking fluids with diesel were used in 19 states and more than 32 million gallons of fluids. During these years, complaints were filed with the EPA about well water contamination by fracking fluid. To my knowledge, there was no action undertaken by the EPA on those specific complaints, including the absence of any scientific analysis as to the cause of water contamination.

The EPA was recently goaded by environmental groups, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and an overabundance of junk science to study, again, hydraulic fracturing. First, the EPA conducted field hearings as a fact-gathering exercise. From my experience at the Fort Worth hearing, there was more heat (and noise) generated than light (facts). Those few who noted scientific findings discrediting alleged pollution or highlighted energy security issues were drowned out by the mob; it was mobocracy, not democracy.

Pushed by shouts, the EPA ignored its rule-making process and changed its rules this summer on the use of diesel fuel in fracking. Without public comment or a hearing, the EPA changed its oversight language and ruled diesel was subject to Safe Drinking Water regulations retroactively.

Congress has the authority to amend the law, and, as some of its members believe, enact oil and gas exploration laws governing intrastate activities. The EPA has undertaken the role, whether authorized or not, of evaluating the environmental impact of drilling operations and developing regulations. But the EPA's activities to date — based on headlines and populist noise, instead of scientific analysis — and regulating retroactively undermine the nation's energy planning and the land use rights of property owners around the country, not to mention the Constitution's requirements of due process of law and states' rights.

This article was published in The Houston Chronicle on February 16, 2011. To view the original publication, click here.