Don’t Believe Thomas Pyle’s Hype That Misleads the Public on Fracking

Eco Watch – by Josh Fox

[Editor’s note: This op-ed by Josh Fox is in response to an op-ed by Thomas Pyle—president of the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-industry nonprofit organization—on Real Clear Energy.]

Industry’s denial of the dark side of natural gas fracking shouldn’t fool anyone. Thomas Pyle’s claim on Real Clear Energy that there is not one “confirmed case of groundwater contamination” from fracking is the big lie, repeated often. It’s like saying cigarettes don’t cause cancer. And industry’s intentional disinformation campaign comes from the same tobacco playbook (it even uses the same PR firm). 

After spending the past four years traveling the country and meeting people whose lives were wrecked by fracking operations at their doorstep, I’ve learned the oil and gas industry is willfully misleading the public. Let’s look at each of Pyle’s misrepresentations one by one:

“Hydraulic fracturing has been in use for more than 60 years without any confirmed cases of groundwater contamination.”

Fracking—when taken to mean the entire process of developing an oil or gas well—has conclusively been linked to water contamination by federal and state environmental authorities many times. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, for example, the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) determined that methane contamination of the local water supply was due to gas drilling, specifically finding that 18 drinking-water wells in the area were affected by the operations of Cabot Oil & Gas.1

Josh Fox, director of the anti-fracking, Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland testifies during a House Committee hearing on oil drilling, “fracking” legislation at the Illinois State Capitol Tuesday, May 21 in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests of Dimock water also clearly showed contaminants that could be traced to the fracking activities of Cabot Oil & Gas. Independent expert Dr. Rob Jackson from Duke University also analyzed EPA’s data and concluded that the water was contaminated by Marcellus shale gas fracked by Cabot.2

When oil industry spokespeople say “not one well” has been contaminated by fracking, it’s deeply and dangerously misleading. The claim itself requires the parsing of language so that “fracking” only refers to one step in the process, namely the point when a toxic slurry of water and chemicals is pumped at enormous pressure into the ground to fracture the shale rock and free the gas within.

Industry knows it’s the drilling and well construction stages where it all breaks down—literally. As the drill penetrates deep into the earth, it punctures different gas pockets that can mix together. The well around the hole is generally sealed with cement. But this thin layer of cement—the supposed barrier to gas and chemical migration into drinking water supplies—is notorious for cracking and leaking.

Industry’s own documents show that 5 percent of oil and gas wells leak immediately and up to 60 percent of them fail over a 30-year time period. Industry estimates that about 35 percent of all oil and gas wells are leaking now. These conclusions aren’t my own: They come from drilling giant Schlumberger, Archer Oil & Gas, Southwestern Energy, Society of Petroleum Engineers, and Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, to name just a few.3

Why do so many wells leak? Pressures under the earth, temperature changes, ground movement from nearby wells and shrinkage all crack and damage the thin layer of brittle cement that seals the wells. And getting the cement right as drilling goes horizontal is extremely challenging. Meanwhile, once the cement leaks, no one can go thousands of feet under the earth to repair it.

And it is not a question of stronger cement or better technology. Industry’s own documents say that “strength is not the major issue in oil well cementing under any circumstances … cement clearly cannot resist the shear stress that is the most common reason for oil well distortion and rupture during active production.”4 In other words, the great pressure underground will cause a significant proportion of wells to fail no matter what.

Fracking has got to be seen as the sum of all parts of the operation. While the gas industry is busy playing semantics, people’s health, lives and property is being compromised.

 “[W]hen water from a kitchen faucet is set ablaze … the stunt is completely unrelated to drilling; rather it’s the result of naturally occurring methane.”

The flaming faucets documented in Gasland I and II are the product of natural gas migration into water supplies due to fracking right next door. Numerous investigations have confirmed this fact, including studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and many others.5 When industry says no, that’s not true, it’s telling you to believe in some giant conspiracy theory—that families all across the country are lying in reporting that their wells never flamed before fracking.

Piling on the evidence, Duke University recently conducted a peer-reviewed study that links water contamination with nearby drilling and fracking, concluding that water wells near drilling and fracking operations were 17 times more likely to contain elevated levels of methane.6 Seventeen times!

“[S]hale gas drilling stands accused of methane contamination. But in April, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection concluded that naturally occurring shallow gas was responsible for contaminating well water of the three private homes in question.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Energy issued a consent order specifically concluding that 18 drinking-water wells in the area were affected by the drilling and fracking operations of Cabot Oil & Gas.7

“Even the Environmental Protection Agency’s groundwater studies cited by Fox were so deeply flawed that then-EPA administrator Lisa Jackson publicly disputed them.”

Here’s what Lisa Jackson really said, as captured in an on-camera interview with her for Gasland II: “We do have cases where we believe we see many cases of groundwater contamination and drinking water contamination that are, if not brought on entirely by natural gas production, were exacerbated by it. Not just methane, which is natural gas, but other contaminants as well.”

“Domestic energy production is leading to a more secure energy future and economic prosperity here at home.”

First, we don’t use gas to power cars—save a few niche city bus fleets—nor oil to generate electricity, so the “energy independence” hype is truly misleading. Much of the gas fracked in the U.S. will end up overseas. Currently gas in Europe costs about 3 times more per unit than it does in the U.S. Prices in Asia are even higher. These realities are leading to an explosion of permitting requests for the construction of Liquefied Natural Gas terminals on our coasts for the purpose of transporting gas overseas.

What’s more American prosperity will be gutted anyway if we continue to flood the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Some say gas is a bridge to get us over the climate hump because it’s cleaner than coal. But this ignores the leakage of methane—a heat-trapping gas up to 105 times as potent as carbon dioxide over 20 years. Experts have said anything more than a 2 percent leakage rate of methane means any climate benefits of gas over coal are voided.8 Results now coming in from the field show leakage rates between 7 and 17 percent9—making natural gas from fracking way worse than coal as far as climate is concerned.

The explosion of fracking across the American landscape is being painted by industry as a blessing to us all. But for the families I’ve met with, it’s the worst kind of curse. Lives upended, forced to move, health hanging in the balance—these are the “blessings” families I now know well are experiencing. Don’t believe the hype. See the film and judge for yourself.

6 thoughts on “Don’t Believe Thomas Pyle’s Hype That Misleads the Public on Fracking

  1. This Fracking crap is just that, a bunch of crap. It only benefits those in power. Not only that Fracking but just look at what they do to get all of that sand that they use – they ruin the rivers and trout streams, they destroy the air quality, and they absoluty destroy they land where they get all of that frack sand that they use for fracking, not to mention that they destroy the roads and all. I think they all should be shot and hung out to dry. Them SOB`s need to burn in hell for what the fracking industry does and that goes double for the frack sand industry. I know what they do because they have something like 30+ frack sand mines within 20 or so miles from where I live and they are destroying the land and everything else big time.

    1. You’re right. It benefits those in power. The gas and oil money got Tom Corbett elected as governor and Jim Cawley as Lt. governor, in Pennsylvania.

      The wells are already leaking highly toxic chemicals into the ground, water and air. People are getting sick and herds are dying. It will take twenty years to see the real destruction and by that time Corbett will be dead of old age and Cawley will be a retired and rich old man who remembers nothing. The people won’t recall who was in office when it all began. The deep aquifers drinking water will be totally destroyed and contaminated for thousands and thousands of years.

      Generations will suffer birth defects, dead children, and no water. Even trillions and trillions of dollars won’t be able to clean up the mess. Don’t forget to thank Corbett and Cawley, – the guys who got it all started!

    2. Yes digger, I agree. I drove by the frack sand mining facility just north of New Auburn, WI yesterday and they have train cars in what looked like giant spinning wheel circling the loading hopper. All of the surrounding area is a pile of dirt. Oh yes, jobs o’plenty in the land of frack sand along with barren wasteland. These rich Koch brother M’f@#kers care nothing about the world we live in. Unless we can stop the exploitation of our natural resources and stop this greedfest, we’re doomed to a world that will be a wasteland and have fun filtering your drinking water. Isn’t it a wonderful world we’re going to leave our children and grandchildren with.

  2. A good friend of mine works out West as an on-site geologist for oil drilling rigs, reading the rock strata to see if it looks promising enough to keep drilling. For years now, he says they’ve been doing ‘mapping and capping.’

    When they find a confirmed oil basin, the crew then ‘maps’ the location, then the wellhead is ‘capped’ and they move on to the next promising site and start over.

    He claims that no oil is being pumped out of the ground from these sites, which are regular wells and not shale oil.

    And that oil that will be brought to Houston thru the Xcel pipeline? It will be refined at the multi-billionaire Koch Brothers facility, then sold overseas. Money does talk.

  3. If Josh had presented in his movie the fact that water being lit on fire is not an uncommon occurence in some places and then went on to tell how it has become worse with fracking, then he would be believable but he didnt so he showed his bias and how he cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

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