How Anti-Fracking Activists Deny Science: Well Integrity

“When you create doubt, no matter how specious your argument is…it doesn’t matter if you go out and say something ridiculous. … The whole purpose is to create inaction and create a feeling that we do not know what is happening when we actually know exactly what’s happening.”

Josh Fox, director of Gasland and Gasland Part II

In the past week, we’ve covered three separate issues where anti-fracking activists categorically reject any scientific conclusion that differs from their preconceived ideology: air emissions and methane leaks, groundwater contamination, and public health. In this latest installment, we’ll look at activist claims on well integrity, “leaky” wells, and failure rates.

To be sure, we’ve covered this issue extensively before (see here, here, and here). But we continue to see activists claim excessively high failure rates as a means of scaring the public and, by extension, trying to shut down development altogether.

Without a doubt, the most commonly cited source of this claim is anti-fracking activist Tony Ingraffea, who has claimed frequently that “industry documents” reveal astronomical leakage rates from existing wells. Yoko Ono penned a letter to the editor in the New York Times leveraging Ingraffea’s “research,” and we all know about Josh Fox’s short film “The Sky Is Pink” that relied heavily on that same information. The Sierra Club has encouraged its members to read Ingraffea’s work on failure rates, and Food & Water Watch similarly claims that 50 percent of “fracking wells” will leak over a 30-year period.

The reality, however, is that these anti-fracking activists are deliberately misleading the public about well integrity and failure rates.

One of Ingraffea’s “industry documents” is a decade-old chart from the now defunct Minerals Management Service. You probably haven’t heard much about MMS in the context of hydraulic fracturing, because its jurisdiction was offshore, not onshore where the big shale plays are actually located. In fact, the chart was an assessment of deepwater oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico, and the caption explicitly stated that “land locations” were excluded.

The situation gets even more embarrassing for so-called “Godfather of Cement” Tony Ingraffea and his activist following, though. The data presented in that chart were not examples of leaks, but rather instances of what’s known as sustained casing pressure (SCP). Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the oil and gas industry knows that SCP is the accumulation of pressure in a well; it’s not the same thing as a leaking well, nor does it necessarily indicate the well is leaking.

There are also a variety of tools and processes to address SCP. How do we know that? Because the same article that included Ingraffea’s bombshell chart was written entirely to explain how the industry can prevent, reduce, or address SCP.

The entire basis for claiming “half of all shale wells leak” is data that refer neither to shale wells nor leaks.

What a properly cased and cemented well looks like.

What a properly cased and cemented well looks like.

As it turns out, activists claiming high leakage rates have such a dubious case that they can’t even get their own stories straight. In a column for USA TODAY, Josh Fox argued that five percent of wells experience “an immediate failure of the concrete casing.” Eight months later that figure climbed eight-fold, when Fox told DemocracyNow! that “casing that protects the groundwater cracks in 40 percent of the cases.” That same month, Fox told Al Jazeera the failure rate was closer to “50 percent” (20:16). In his short film “The Sky Is Pink” (09:23), Fox established a new number: 16.7 percent. Finally, during his media tour for Gasland Part II, Fox told Platts that the rate is actually 35 percent worldwide, citing the Society of Petroleum Engineers.

The last point is noteworthy, because Fox and many others have tried to establish their credibility by saying the Society of Petroleum Engineers is their source. But SPE denies that it ever made that assessment. In July 2013, a spokeswoman for SPE told the Daily Kos:

“Neither SPE, nor anyone representing SPE, has ever made the claim that 35% of the world’s [oil and gas] wells are leaking. We have no basis for making such a determination.”

If we look at real data, we can see why opponents have had to resort to such raw and deliberate deception.

An August 2011 report from the Ground Water Protection Council examined more than 34,000 wells drilled and completed in the state of Ohio between 1983 and 2007, and more than 187,000 wells drilled and completed in Texas between 1993 and 2008. The data show only 12 incidents in Ohio related to failures of (or graduate erosions to) casing or cement – a failure rate of 0.03 percent. In Texas, the failure rate was only about 0.01 percent.

Most of those incidents, by the way, occurred before modern technology and updated state regulations came online over the past decade.

Granted, a failure rate of anything above zero percent leaves room for improvement, and there have been casing failures in different basins across the country. These are serious issues, and strong rules and regulations are in place to address and minimize those risks. In fact, major producing states like Texas are moving forward with updated regulations on well construction to make sure these and other potential risks are managed properly. Pennsylvania, which is on track to become the second-largest gas producing state in the country, updated its regulations in 2011.

The industry has also adopted and published a series of recommendations and best practices. The Marcellus Shale Coalition has a document outlining responsive actions, and the American Petroleum Institute has a lengthy list of well construction and integrity guidelines, which include actions designed to minimize or, more often, completely eliminate the risk of well integrity failure.

The activist talking point on well casing failures is not based on science or hard data. It is purely a manufactured story line; a series of misleading or outright false claims designed to instill doubt in the public’s mind about the safety of shale development. It is not a discussion of risk or even risk management, much less an attempt to have a reasonable dialogue about safety.

Simply put, opponents hope the public is too stupid to do its own research to discover just how divorced from reality their claims are.

 

Comments

  1. JB Evans says:

    Thank you for the detailed research! It is so difficult to overcome public misconceptions, but the numeric and sourced information you provide make it achievable.
    JB

  2. Bill says:

    Another great article in this series! The one other piece that would really drive the nail in the coffin of this issue would be to have data on what the real world manifestation of a well casing failure is. Obviously it’s not a major catastrophe; we have no rampant water contamination. My guess it that it’s just a matter of increased methane leakage or something that, while serious, is no disaster. And which is something that can be corrected or mitigated.

  3. Lorraine Gudas says:

    How much are you paid by the gas companies to write this? Why are the fracking technologies exempt from EPA regulation? Why don’t the gas companies that use hydrofracking voluntarily disclose all of the chemicals they use to dissolve and shatter the rocks? Why don’t the gas company employees drink the waste water from hydrofracking if they say that it is so safe? Pipe the water into the companies drinking water systems!!! Germany is now getting almost 50 % of its energy from non-fossil, renewable sources. That is what the gas companies are really afraid of-that they will soon become obsolete. And I bet you won’t post this comment…

  4. Leom Smith says:

    I will offer that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. having worked in the concrete industry, concrete does fail, but not always. Your above picture doesn’t show the issues that lie below that can cause concrete to cure improperly, water seapage, air entrapment. etc.

    Also, all concrete cracks. As it is well known the earth is continuously moving. if you don’t believe concrete cracks, you just have to look at ant concrete structures and see for your self. the groung around the well moves and creates stresses and the concrete will crack. the concrete itself goings will shrink as it cures, and it will crack. (sure there is non shrink concrete, that will minimized but not eliminate shrinkage)

    Let face it, there will be seepage.

  5. Watch says:

    Alarmism is only necessary when there is something to be alarmed about.

    Over-extremes are damaging to the message.

    The number of leaking land-based wells appear to number in the 6-7% range in some regions according to other studies. While not in the alarmist 50% and up range, when dealing with thousands of well heads, 6-7% is definitely something to take very seriously.

    The subject is discussed here in more detail, (where the MMS chart is fully disclosed for what it is; offshore data) here:

    http://frackwire.com/well-casing-failure/

    http://frackwire.com/well-casing-failure/

  6. homunculus says:

    Well, I could trust legitimate third-party studies showing failure rates to be around 5%, nationwide, or I can trust an astroturf website that is, according to your own “about” page: “Launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) in 2009, Energy In Depth (EID) 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’ formations across the country.”

    So, yeah, excuse me if I don’t trust your obviously biased sources. Especially when you can’t even seem to understand that the different figures Fox cited are for different failure rates for different time periods. You conflate all of those percentages as if Fox is giving different numbers for the same thing, but he’s not. You’re distorting his statements.

    Nearly 50% of wells are estimated to fail within 30 years, worldwide. 5% of wells fail within the first year, worldwide. The “new” 16.7% is failure rates only for the USA. At no point did Fox make up new numbers nor change anything. You just can’t seem to follow basic comprehension.

    • Thanks for your response. The numbers cited above are not generated by a “website,” but rather the result of data compiled by state regulatory officials and analyzed by the Ground Water Protection Council. Notably, an AP investigation of drilling incidents and failures more or less corroborated the low leakage rates. Based on AP’s data, the failure rate in Pennsylvania, for example, is about one-third of one percent. In other states, including Texas, the rate is significantly lower. More on that here: http://energyindepth.org/national/ap-drilling-story-underscores-safety-shale-development/

      As for your claim that 50 percent of wells are estimated to fail within 30 years, did you not read the blog post? That number refers to incidents of “sustained casing pressure” (which is not the same thing as a leak) in deep offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico, not shale wells as Josh Fox and fellow activist Tony Ingraffea were suggesting. The data supporting that claim are also more than a decade old, and thus were aggregated before modern containment mechanisms were developed, not to mention stringent new offshore regulations.

      The real question is: If anti-fracking activists like Josh Fox had the facts on their side, why do they need to mislead the public?

      Once again, thanks for your response. Hopefully all of this clears things up.

      Best,
      -Steve

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  1. [...] goes on to cite his usual litany about high methane leakage rates. That’s interesting because Ingraffea developed his figures using, among other things, old off-shore drilling data of little or …. Is it ethical for fracking opponents to use irrelevant data to make their case? Clearly, it is [...]

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