By Dave Quast
California Director of Energy In Depth
In recent days, it has been disappointing to see activists dismiss the findings of a major study on the Inglewood Oil Field completely out of hand, and in some cases, before the results were even released.
This was, after all, a study that environmental and community organizations requested. It was required as part of a 2011 legal settlement that included Plains Exploration & Production Co. (PXP), L.A. County, Culver City and activist groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community.
The activists along with all the other parties agreed to the process for conducting the study. They demanded that PXP pay for it. But now, a year later, some of the same critics who demanded the study are criticizing it on the basis that PXP paid for it.
Apparently they forgot they were in support of PXP paying for the study before they were against it.
I May Know Why
Maybe that is because the study makes it much harder for the activists to argue that hydraulic fracturing is an unsafe technology that must be banned. Among the report’s many findings, it concluded that hydraulic fracturing is being safely used at the Inglewood Oil Field, takes place 1.5 miles below the designated base of fresh water, has no impact on groundwater quality, and did not cause earthquakes.
For people who have genuine concerns and want a constructive discussion about the safety of oil and gas development, the release of the study is good news. But for the activists whose real motivation is force an end to domestic oil and gas production tomorrow, any report that doesn’t give people reason to fear hydraulic fracturing must be attacked.
The problem for the activists, though, is that even though the conclusions of this study are site-specific, they aren’t exactly new when compared with the scientific findings that have been of other experts on the topic of hydraulic fracturing in other parts of the country. In fact, they just reinforce what scientists, the state regulators who oversee most of the nation’s oil and gas development, and senior officials of the Obama administration have said for years – hydraulic fracturing is a safe technology.
For example, earlier this year, President Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told Congress that “there’s a lot of hysteria that takes place now with respect to hydraulic fracking, and you see that happening in many of the states.” Salazar added: “My point of view, based on my own study of hydraulic fracking, is that it can be done safely and has been done safely hundreds of thousands of times.”
In 2009, the U.S. Dept. of Energy and the Ground Water Protection Council issued a report on the use of hydraulic fracturing in deep shale formations to produce natural gas. It concluded that hydraulic fracturing is a “highly controlled process” and groundwater is protected “by a combination of the casing and cement that is installed when the well is drilled and the thousands of feet of rock between the fracture zone and any fresh or treatable aquifers.” These billions of tons of rock, which have kept oil and gas trapped in place for millions of years, “also act as barriers to vertical migration of fluids upward toward useable groundwater zones.”
State regulators have attested to the safety of hydraulic fracturing. This year, Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer told Congress: “There has been a misconception that the hydraulic fracturing of wells can or has caused contamination of water wells. This is false.”
Former Pennsylvania DEP Secretary John Hanger, who served under the administration of Gov. Ed Rendell, concurs. “We’ve never had one case of (hydraulic fracturing) fluid going down the gas well and coming back up and contaminating someone’s water well.” Mark Zoback, a Stanford University geophysicist and adviser to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, explained why last year: “There have been fears that hydraulic fracturing fluid injected at depth could reach up into drinking water aquifers. But the injection is typically done at depths of around 6,000 to 7,000 feet. Drinking water is usually pumped from shallow aquifers, no more than one or two hundred feet below the surface. Fracturing fluids have not contaminated any water supply and with that much distance to an aquifer, it is very unlikely they could.”
On earthquakes, the National Research Council issued a major report earlier this year that debunked the misinformation peddled by some environmental activists about hydraulic fracturing and seismicity in general. The report found “[t]he process of hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented … does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events.” The report noted that geothermal power plants in Northern California, which environmental activists don’t oppose, are linked to hundreds of “felt induced events” every year. The NRC also included an important reminder: “Most earthquakes, whether natural or induced, that are recorded by seismometers are too small to be noticed by people.”
Here Is the Reason Why
Once again, Stanford’s Mark Zoback explains the reasoning behind the NRC’s conclusions. In testimony to Congress this year, Zoback said “extremely small microseismic events occur during hydraulic fracturing operations.”
According to Zoback, these microseismic events “affect a very small volume of rock and release, on average, about the same amount of energy as a gallon of milk falling off a kitchen counter.”
These are just a few examples of the mainstream (and bipartisan) opinions held by scientists, regulators and policymakers across the country. While the Inglewood Oil Field study is site specific, it does provide further evidence of the widely held view among experts that hydraulic fracturing is a safe technology with a track record going back more than six decades. Debates about appropriate regulatory conditions for conducting hydraulic fracturing are appropriate and should be held. When activists argue this technology is inherently unsafe, and should be outlawed, however they are staking out an extreme position and occupying the fringes of the debate over energy and environmental policy in this country.
In reality, the responsible use of hydraulic fracturing has helped create more than a million jobs so far, boosted our economy and bolstered our energy security. Furthermore, without this technology, President Obama could not have said at last month’s Democratic Convention in Charlotte that “the United States of America is less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in the last two decades,” or challenged the country to “develop a hundred-year supply of natural gas that’s right beneath our feet.”
Mr. Quast, California Director of Energy In Depth, may be contacted at email@example.com
Launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) in 2009, Energy In Depth is a research, education and public outreach campaign focused on getting the facts out about the promise and potential of responsibly developing America’s onshore energy resource base – especially abundant sources of oil and natural gas from shale and other “tight” reservoirs across the country.