Why Colorado Should Embrace Fracking
Published June 13, 2013
By the Libertarian Party of Colorado
People like to solve problems, and in a market where ideas are free to be tested, the most beautiful process unfolds. As soon as people of any industry recognize the implications of solving one problem or another, professionals from all over will flock to ground zero and put their heads together. That is, if the process is allowed to happen at all.
Recently, the Commissioners of Boulder County voted against an extension to the existing moratorium on fracking, thus approving the drilling of a few wells northeast of the city of Boulder. The room erupted in fury when the vote was not extended to them. Had they been literally holding pitchforks, they would not have been out of place.
At first glance, the cause seems like a sympathetic one. The residents of Boulder are concerned about a new and dangerous-sounding process known as fracking – or, hydraulic fracturing. The drills would, after all, be in close proximity to schools and homes. It sounds reasonable to put your foot down over this, if in fact the concern levied is valid.
Despite having to rely on evidence that is largely anecdotal and, at times, entirely erroneous, these citizen activists have nonetheless sharpened their spears and will stop at nothing to see a ban on fracking here in the U.S.
The reality, however, is that natural gas is one of the safest fuel sources we have, is the safest and cleanest of the dirty fossil fuel sources, and is the only safe fuel source capable of meeting the demand for energy that the whole world – not just America – so desperately needs right now. Its critics who strive for a ban offer no sensible solutions, nor do they comprehend the gravity of the consequence of eliminating this option.
When the steam engine was first invented, many people believed that they would make cows permanently infertile. Had this myth persisted, none of the prosperity that followed would have been possible. So lets separate the fact from the fiction.
Though you wouldn’t think it by watching a film like Gasland and listening to citizen activists – most of whom lack any background into the esoteric science they profess to understand – hydraulic fracturing may prove to be the biggest success story in free market economics since the first oil boom itself.
Some of the concerns with hydraulic fracturing are well-placed and there is some amount of risk involved, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. Those benefits cannot be understated enough.
The dominant fuel source is still petroleum, but its days are numbered. Even countries like Saudi Arabia are moving into the much-more-costly offshore drilling, which is a good indication that their reserves may be running out. And even if peak oil wasn’t a very real threat to modern civilization, there is still the tangled web of regulation from an already-heavily-subsidized industry, and our continued reliance on the tempestuous exports of foreign companies will continue to make oil production an evermore costly and unreliable option.
Natural gas, unlike oil, also has the added benefit of not being tied to the hopelessly-flawed dollar. Right now, any country wanting to buy or sell oil must do so using the Petro Dollar. This has worked great for oil and for us as a nation, but it won’t likely stay this way for very long, especially if China has a say in the matter.
To put it another way, when natural gas production exceeds domestic demand and we begin exporting, it won’t be because other nations must buy that gas, but because they choose to, thus making the market more sustainable and solvent. Oil trade, on the other hand, is more like a house of cards that comes down the second the nations of the world decide to buy and sell with their own currencies. This would mean everything which uses petroleum in our daily lives – i.e. gas, tires, plastics, paints, pesticides and everything in between – will cost much, much more. It also means the U.S. Treasury Bonds that are keeping U.S. credit afloat would become next to worthless. Putting your eggs in this basket is very sketchy indeed.
Nevertheless, some energy source will need to step up to replace the edifice built by petroleum, and eventually that something will have to be renewable. There are dozens of alternative energy options out there, and many of them are quite sustainable. Renewable energies have an optimistic future, and it shouldn’t be but a few decades before these technologies advance to the point that everyone in the developing world has access to clean, renewable energy.
The issue, though, is time. We don’t have decades. Our energy crisis is imminent. It is not nearly as demanding here in the developed world, but in the third world, simply being able to heat your home is a matter of life and death. Climate change will continue to take its toll and the poorest places on the planet will suffer the most.
Already, some places on the globe have seen some of the coldest winters on record and Antarctic sea ice levels are at an all-time high. To quote a popular TV show, “winter is coming.” This is a very big reason why energy is so important.
In the event of a natural disaster, natural gas can be a lifesaver, just as it was in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Any community faced with a power outage for any reason can find immediate relief from back-up natural gas generators, and it is the quickest way to provide energy to poor and rural communities, or any location not on the grid.
The natural gas boom is also providing a way out of poverty for struggling, poor areas by providing employment and income. Some places refuse this boon, while others welcome it gratefully. In many instances, the financial damage dealt by Big Ag to small, family owned farms and by estate and property taxes, is mitigated by cash flow from oil and gas company supplements for drilling on or near their land. It has become a saving grace for some farmers.
Even many environmentalists realize the benefits, and when common sense regulations are adopted, even they get on board. They have the good sense to realize that while fracking has its risks, it should be treated no differently than the risks associated with elevators, microwaves, MRI’s, draw bridges, etc. And it should be respected for the positive environmental impact it has actually made towards curbing carbon emissions. It is now a matter of public record that national carbon emissions are at a twenty-year low – not because of the impact of renewable energy, which is still negligible, but because of natural gas.
Without a doubt, the benefits to natural gas production are many, but it does come with some costs. Some are painful lessons of a system that otherwise works just fine when common sense measures are taken, but in most cases, the hysteria surrounding hydraulic fracking is just a bunch of hot air.
Unknown to many in the anti-fracking movement, hydraulic fracturing has been around for over sixty years. The only thing new about fracking as a technology is the use of a pivotal drill that allows the drill to move horizontally, as well as vertically. This means that one drill can extract an amount of gas that would normally require a hundred drills or more.
The impression left by Gasland is that if fracking is allowed to exist, anyone and everyone nearby may explode at any moment. The famous combustible-tap-water scene in Gaslandbetrays the truth that such an event is possible in many places where fracking has not occurred. Filmmaker Josh Fox even knew that the specific area in the film where this flashy scene happens had a history of naturally-occurring methane pollution, but left this fact out of the film. The most alarming moment in the film, it turns out, is based on an intentional lie.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but relative to oil, coal, and nuclear, natural gas is much safer. It doesn’t seem that way, because fracking just sounds dangerous. Well, flying through the air at 10,000 feet in a 250,000 lb. steel boat we call an “airplane” sounds dangerous, but the success rate of this activity is so near perfect as to render any unsuccessful flight anomalous.
One of those counter-intuitive facts has to do with the link between fracking and earthquakes. It sounds plausible that fracking would lead to earthquakes, and indeed this can be technically true. But greater context and research reveals very surprising results in this area.
Anthropogenic seismicity is indeed a well-documented fact. One of the first extensive studies to link human activity to seismicity was right here in Denver. In 1961, the military drilled a 3600-meter well into the ground Northeast of Denver in what is now the ironically-named Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, and they injected the well with chemical waste. This lead to the now-infamous “Denver Earthquakes.” When the earthquakes started happening, no one could explain why at first, but experts zeroed in on the problem rather quickly: pressure from the waste well injections.
When it comes to fracking, almost all the cases linking hydraulic fracturing to “felt earthquakes” – those that are detectable to humans on the surface – have to do with this sort of waste disposal, not the fracking process itself. Chemical injection into underground wells happens in many different energy industries, not just gas. In fact, it is much worse in the others as thisstudy points out:
Hydraulic fracturing of sedimentary rocks for recovery of gas from shale usually generates very small magnitude earthquakes only, compared to processes such as reservoir impoundment, conventional oil and gas field depletion, water injection for geothermal energy recovery, and waste water injections.
The study looked at all 198 examples of induced felt seismicity from 1929 until now and found only three resulted from hydraulic fracturing itself. After explaining why these unusual events happened (usually involving proximity to an existing fault line), the study concludes, in no uncertain terms with this:
It should be noted, however, that after hundreds of thousands of fracturing operations, only three examples of felt seismicity have been documented. The likelihood of inducing felt seismicity by hydraulic fracturing is thus extremely small but cannot be ruled out.”
I’m sure the author of this study would conclude the same about airplane crashes. The largest earthquake, it should also be noted, was 3.8M.
Ignoring facts like these leads to the constant derision of Americans by environmentalists for not following suit with supposedly wise Europeans who simply ban the practice of fracking without bothering to understand it or improve it.
But this argument has always been specious and full of confirmation bias, and the proof is in the pudding. As recently as last December, even the UK has decided to lift its ban on hydraulic fracturing. It seems even the Europeans now suddenly feel comfortable with the risks of fracking.
The inefficient and wasteful use of water, as well as the lack of proper disposal of “produced water” – the chemical byproduct of fracking – are concerns that often get raised as well. The industry for many years had no real way of dealing with the waste, but thanks to free market economics, these are problems that are already being solved. In stark contrast to other dirty energy sources like nuclear, this is perhaps the most attractive thing about natural gas.
Riggs Eckelberry, founder of OriginOil, decided to solve the waste-water problem by finding ways to clean and re-use produced water. He adopted a process known as Solids Out of Solution (SOS) to remove the solid waste from the water so that it may then be used again in the very same well. Its initial test run on an oil-fracking well in California found that it was successful in removing 99% of the solids in the produced water. Here’s a video showing how it was done.
Add to this innovations in the use of what the industry calls “brackish” water – water that is non-potable and previously too costly and inefficient for use – and you start to see how the technology becomes cheaper and safer. Waterless fracking – a process that is more costly and less efficient than hydraulic – is nevertheless a less environmentally intrusive option, and one that is viable in areas where water is rare or depleted, as in many parts of Texas.
This also addresses the fear that fracking uses too much of our already-valuable drinking water. Other industries like geothermal, nuclear and the grossly inefficient Canadian tar sands consume far more water, and must do so continuously. Fracking, on the other hand, now only needs one large initial stock of water to get the operation going, then uses much less water throughout the life of the well.
Also, it may frustrate environmentalists to learn that the company that may be poised to reduce our carbon footprint in arguably the biggest way we’ve seen in a long time is none other than the evil Haliburton, which is unveiling a new technology that does just that right here at its Colorado-based Western Hemisphere headquarters.
The new technology is part of an overall push to make fracking more energy-efficient by fueling the process itself by natural gas. The new pumps – called Q-10 pumps – will be fueled by processed natural gas and, in the near future, will likely be fueled by raw natural gas from the well itself. In addition, the company will begin using a gravity-fed sand container to use in the sand-water mixture, instead of a generator fueled by diesel.
The goal is to have an entirely self-sufficient – or at least, more efficient – fracking operation, making natural gas even more attractive than it already is.
Of the arguments against fracking presented in Gasland, the strongest has little to do with water or drilling, but with air pollution. Fracking-related air pollution is well-documented, and is a much stronger case to make when it comes to assessing the risk of fracking. There is no doubt that areas where drilling has occurred have a much higher concentration of methane pollution in the air than elsewhere, and even former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson admits this. Drilling fields in Wyoming and Colorado have recorded pollutant levels to rival LA smog at its worst. This is mostly due to leaks, and solutions are being found to curb and mitigate the risk of what the industry calls “fugitive methane emissions.”
The jury is still out, however, on whether or not contamination of the water supply has resulted from hydraulic fracturing. The complexity of the data is addressed by this quote from scientists at Duke University, authors of several studies meant to evaluate this claim:
In summary, we agree with Davies that our “data showed that contamination had occurred, but the association with hydraulic fractures remains unproven”. Any assertion that hydraulic fracturing is unrelated to contamination remains equally unproven.
This sentiment is echoed by more recent studies from the same group. Methane is not known to affect the potability of water, but it can become a hazardous situation due to its flammability. The most definitive scientific statement that can be made linking contamination of the water supply with hydraulic fracturing is summarized thusly:
Based on groundwater analyses of 60 private water wells in the region, methane concentrations were found to be 17-times higher on average in areas with active drilling and extraction in non-active areas, with some drinking-water wells having concentrations of methane well above the “immediate action” hazard level.
But regarding contamination of the water supply by the actual chemicals used during fracking, it adds:
The study found no evidence of contamination from hydraulic fracturing fluids or saline produced waters.
It is as if gas is being leaked into the air and into the water supply, but because it is not being contaminated with chemicals used in the process itself, it cannot be said to be the cause. The extra methane might be related to fracking, and this is the single biggest concern to date about fracking.
We don’t know enough to say one way or the other regarding the extra methane, but we do know that chemical contamination of the water supply has never been found anywhere. Susquehanna County, PA, which was featured heavily in Gasland, has now been reviewed by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and its findings were corroborated by the EPA. After a 16-month investigation into the nature of its water situation, the DEP concluded that there was no link between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination in Pennsylvania.
WPX Energy, the company suspected of having the faulty well-casing that allegedly caused the methane contamination, was cleared of all wrong-doing when the DEP tested the well-casings and found no evidence to the claim. Yet despite the fact that the methane contamination was found to be naturally occurring, WPX is currently still venting and treating the water for local residents anyway. So much for the myth of the evil energy company that doesn’t care about the community.
The results have big implications. Pennsylvania was one of the nation’s leaders in fracking, so if the evidence against fracking is going to get any clearer, it would be there. Even the New York Times has admitted that much of the hysteria over fracking is probably over-stated, remarking, “In sum, the experience of fracking in Pennsylvania has led to industry practices that mitigate the effect of drilling and fracking on the local environment.”
If fracking saves us from nothing else, it can’t be understated the effect it will have on mitigating further need of coal. Coal is a much dirtier fuel source, produces way more greenhouse gases and pollutants, and is incredibly caustic to landscapes that have been strip-mined. Just look at the very same DEP study I just mentioned in Pennsylvania. You won’t find any lakes polluted with high-concentrations of methane, but notice how many are designated “impaired” due to mercury pollution – a main byproduct of coal-burning. If there was ever a more glaring example of toxicity of coal on the environment, Pennsylvania is surely it.
That is perhaps the biggest take-away of all, especially for the state of Colorado. Colorado is the seventh-greatest producer of coal in the US, but it has the fifth-largest proven natural gas reserves as of 2010.
Colorado has always had a respect for environmental concerns, and its national parks are among the best-maintained in the country. It is here you can expect the kind of common-sense regulation to be enforced at the state level, rendering the federal Clean Water Act exemption moot. That is just as well, too.
Standards on what is clean and unclean vary from state to state, but decades of federal regulation of coal have given a corrosive fuel source an unfair advantage, which likely would have been terminated even sooner in an environment of free enterprise.
Natural gas will not cure-all of our energy problems, but it is a sufficient stop-gap solution to the energy crisis we face right now. The technology for solar is in its infancy, and cannot have the immediate impact that natural gas can. This is even less true for wind and tidal.
Pursuit of alternative, renewable energy sources is a great thing. But the risk of reaching peak oil, the continued costs of drilling offshore and the never-ending unreliability of instability in countries with foreign oil have left us searching for an energy source that can meet our needs now.
The only other energy source that comes close in volume is nuclear, but this is even more hazardous than coal. The energy it generates is of the scale we need, but the cost is far too great. Already, facilities the world over are struggling to contain spent fuel rods, some of which are decades old. The solutions with which we’ve become content to the problem of nuclear waste would be laughable if they weren’t so hopelessly irresponsible.
There is a growing worldwide stockpile of nuclear waste that is waiting for reclamation technology to deal with it, and no one even knows how much of it there is. It is just sitting there, corroding the containers they sit in, awaiting the final long-term solution that has yet to come. A business person might have rejected the whole enterprise long ago upon asking the simple question of what to do with the waste, and only through heavy government subsidy is he incentivized to accept the answer: “We’ll figure it out later.” It is nothing short of criminal, and no further venture should be made into nuclear until there is an acceptable solution to this problem.
While fracking may have its problems, its solutions seem nearer to us than those surrounding nuclear. That is not to say those solutions might not be found, but experimenting with ways to deal with nuclear waste would likely take a good deal longer than the imminent gains of natural gas.
The other alternative energy sources are too numerous to count, and they may all likely play a vital role in the continued diversification of where we get our energy. No other fuel source can have such an immediate gain at relatively lower costs than natural gas. It is far from perfect, but rarely do we see as much expedient and meaningful innovation as we are seeing in the industry of hydraulic fracking. Colorado would be wise to jump on board, and can prove its own ability to regulate an industry without the need of the federal government.
To put it in another way, the inevitable decline of the federal government will hurt some states that depend on federal aid more than others. When its debts become too great, as they already have, it will begin downsizing and even parceling off its land, resources and services. As Libertarians, we know this is coming. Where is Colorado going to be financially and politically when this happens?
Colorado, and many other states, can be saved by fracking. The federal exemption on hydraulic fracture regulation means most states, including Colorado, Pennsylvania and Texas, already have regulations in place to deal with the growing industry. So rather than saving Colorado from fracking, we should save Colorado with fracking.