Last week, anti-industry group CREDO Action held a conference call to tout a letter from less than a dozen California legislators calling on Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to use his executive power to put an immediate halt to hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). It is noteworthy that none of the signatories represent Kern County, where 97 percent of the hydraulic fracturing in the state takes place, away from population centers and sources of potable water.
During the call, which featured activist Cornell professor Robert Howarth, the author of a study on methane emissions what has been widely debunked by the academic and environmental communities, several claims were made about “fracking” in California that are objectively false:
- First, anti-industry activists routinely claim that hydraulic fracturing uses vast amounts of water. Howarth claimed on the call that this amount is five million gallons per fracking job. In fact, according to state records, the average fracturing job in California uses less than 200,000 gallons of water per well. Anyone who is tempted to take Howarth and CREDO seriously should be concerned that their claim was off by roughly 96 percent — a major error by any measure.
- But is 200,000 gallons a lot? For perspective, a fracturing job is a one-time occurrence, something that fewer that 600 times in California in 2012. The average golf course in California uses 320,000 gallons of water per day. Water used in hydraulic fracturing, according to the Groundwater Protection Council, accounts for less than one percent of the water used in areas where fracking takes place, and that includes the eastern U.S. where fracturing jobs use millions of gallons. In California alone, then, the water use borders on trivial (though water is never trivial in California).
- Howarth also suggested that hydraulic fracturing in California could exacerbate climate change, citing his own flawed report from 2011. Although CREDO offered him as an “expert” on methane, Howarth’s work is perhaps the most thoroughly debunked of any recent study. Not only did colleagues at Cornell criticize his scholarship, but his work was challenged or refuted by, among others, experts at the Clean Air Task Force, the Worldwatch Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University (in a study funded by the anti-gas Sierra Club!), and the Council of Foreign Relations. Additionally, Howarth’s work focused on natural gas wells, but in California, nearly all wells that are hydraulically fractured are oil wells.
- In fact, a recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences, authored by a University of Texas researcher and co-funded by the Environmental Defense Fund, found Howarth’s work totally off base. The study concluded: “Estimates of total [methane] emissions are similar to the most recent EPA national inventory of methane emissions from natural gas production.” The EPA estimate is well below the threshold that scientists say leaks must be kept under for natural gas to maintain its environmental advantage. Furthermore, the study did not take into account California’s strict vapor recovery regulations, which do not exist in other states and result in far fewer emissions from wells operating in California.
In addition, developing our energy resources here in California means that we will not be importing oil from countries with more lax environmental regulations, which has a carbon footprint of its own. The Obama Administration has credited natural gas (produced by hydraulic fracturing) as being a key factor in helping the United States reduce its CO2 emissions. In fact, the United States leads the world in carbon emissions reductions because of affordable natural gas supplies, which are made possible through the safe use of hydraulic fracturing.
The California legislature passed SB4 last session, the most sweeping law on hydraulic fracturing in the United States, and the state Department of Conservation is now holding hearings across the state on the regulatory implementation of this act. The Governor and the legislature explicitly rejected a moratorium or a ban on hydraulic fracturing, a technique that has been used safely in California for decades. A moratorium bill in the Assembly last year only garnered 24 votes out of 80, so that issue has been settled. Furthermore, a 200-page independent study of the Inglewood Oil field from the County of Los Angeles showed no adverse environmental impacts from hydraulic fracturing — in line with the conclusion of dozens of other analyses.
Sadly, CREDO has rejected science in favor of its anti-development ideology.
So, the call and the letter it was promoting were based on disinformation that CREDO had to have been aware was inaccurate. It would be much easier to make sensible public policy that is responsive to the public’s needs if activists on the ideological extreme had any sense of embarrassment.
Rather than listening to nine legislators, Governor Brown would do better to heed the advice of 21 scientists – actual experts– who recently encouraged him to stay the course and ensure that SB4 is implemented as intended: to protect the health and safety of Californians and to ensure that responsible energy development continues to spur economic growth, job creation and energy security.