Earlier this month, the group Kurzgesagt released a video full of factual errors on hydraulic fracturing. In a nutshell, the video implicates fracking in the United States as a dangerous practice, despite clear evidence to the contrary.
The truth is that hydraulic fracturing has been applied more than 1.2 million times in the United States over the past 65 years, and in that time the technology has compiled a very strong record of safety. It has also revitalized the American economy, creating jobs and spurring economic growth.
So let’s have a brief look at some of Kurzgegagt’s most egregious claims:
Kurzgesagt: “On average the fluid consists of 8 million liters of water which amounts to about the daily consumption of 65,000 people.”
FACT: Comments like these are designed to give the impression that hydraulic fracturing uses colossal amounts of water, leading to massive water shortages across the globe. This is simply not the case: more water is required for activities like agriculture and irrigation – even often golf courses use more water than oil and gas producers. In Colorado, where water supplies can be constrained, hydraulic fracturing accounts for less than one-tenth of one percent of the state’s total water demand.
Further, more and more companies in the United States are reusing and recycling wastewater in hydraulic fracturing operations. As Reuters recently reported, “oil and gas companies are increasingly treating and reusing flowback water from wells, which unlike freshwater is very high in salt, with good results.”
Kurzgesagt: “The primary risks consist in the contamination of drinking water sources […]. Even though the danger is known and theoretically could be managed, in the USA already, sources have been contaminated due to negligence.”
FACT: No they haven’t. In fact, when anti-fracking groups in the United States were asked in testimony before Congress to name a single confirmed case of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing, they could not do so.
Meanwhile Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz has said, “To my knowledge, I still have not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater.”
Ken Kopocis, President Obama’s nominee to be Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water (EPA), was asked recently in testimony before Congress if he was aware of any cases of groundwater contamination from fracking. His answer? “No I am not.”
Lisa Jackson, President Obama’s former EPA chief, said recently that “In no case have we made a definitive determination that the [fracturing] process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” This comment follows her previous testimony before Congress when she explained that she is “not aware of any proven case where [hydraulic fracturing] itself has affected water.”
Hydraulic fracturing has been extensively studied in the United States and found time and time again to be safe. The U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Ground Water Protection Council, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and dozens of state regulators have shown that hydraulic fracturing does not pose a significant risk to groundwater. Most recently, two peer-reviewed studies found that water contamination from hydraulic fracturing is “not physically plausible.”
Kurzgesagt: “No one yet knows how the enclosed water will behave in the future, since there have not been any long-term studies on the subject.”
FACT: This is referring to wastewater disposal. It’s also a demonstrably false statement. The U.S. EPA, which regulates wastewater disposal under its Underground Injection Control (UIC) program, has found that injection wells are a “safe and inexpensive” option for disposing of industrial waste.
It is important to point out that wastewater disposal and hydraulic fracturing are two completely different processes, and the oil and gas industry isn’t the only industry that uses wastewater injection wells. Several other sectors, including chemicals, manufacturing, agriculture, plastics and steel, use the process safely as well. There are literally hundreds of thousands of injection wells in the United States, and the process of wastewater injection has been used across the country safely for decades. (The EPA enumerates the different injection well types on its website.)
Kurzgesagt: “The chemicals used in fracking vary from the hazardous to the extremely toxic and carcinogenic such as benzene or frolic acid. The companies using fracking say nothing about the precise composition of the chemical mixture.”
FACT: Yes, they do. Producers in the United States disclose what’s in their fracking fluid through FracFocus, a searchable nationwide database, which has been praised by the Obama Administration for providing “transparency to the American people.”
Contrary to the frightening tale perpetrated by Kurzgesagt, more than 99 percent of the fluid used in fracking is made up of water and sand; only a small fraction is made up of chemicals, many of which are the same household materials that can be found under any kitchen sink. One of the largest additives by volume is guar – which is also found in ice cream. We eagerly await Kurzgesagt’s investigative report on the environmental apocalypse known as Haagen-Dazs.
Nonetheless, there are other chemicals used, many of which reduce bacteria and other growth to maintain well integrity. As with the cleaning products also found in homes, the real issue is all about safe management and handling. Federal laws, including the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, apply to various aspects of hydraulic fracturing fluid management.
Kurzgesagt: “Another risk is the release of greenhouse gasses. The natural gas recovered by fracking consists largely of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25-times more potent than carbon dioxide. Natural gas is less harmful than coal when burned, but nonetheless, the negative effects of fracking on the climate balance are overall greater.”
FACT: Kurzgesagt is parroting junk science here, plain and simple. The United States has seen a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, which can be attributed primarily to the development and utilization of natural gas. According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), even as global carbon dioxide emissions in 2012 increased by 1.4 percent, emissions from the United States dropped by 200 million tons or 3.8 percent – thanks to shale development. As IEA put it, the drop in U.S. emissions is one of the “bright spots in the global picture. One of the key reasons has been the increased availability of natural gas, linked to the shale gas revolution.” Such a feat would never have been possible without hydraulic fracturing.
Anti-hydraulic fracturing activists have tried to make the claim for years that methane emissions from natural gas development cancel out the climate benefits of natural gas – but this is simply not the case. The U.S. EPA’s latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory showed a dramatic decline in methane emissions from natural gas development since 1990, even as natural gas production in the United States increased by nearly 40 percent over the same period. EPA’s data indicated a leakage rate of just 1.5 percent, which is well below what is needed for natural gas to maintain its climate benefits. And even that level of leakage may be too high, given that EPA makes assumptions that are not in line with actual industry practice.
Research from MIT, the University of Maryland, multiple reports from the U.S. Department of Energy, and Carnegie Mellon have all found methane leakage rates that are far below the catastrophic levels that anti-fracking activists continually try to push.
It’s not for nothing that President Obama’s new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy recently said in a speech in Boulder, “Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change.”
The Real Picture
U.S. researchers are not the only ones to understand that the claims perpetrated by groups like Kurzgesagt are completely off the mark – many European institutions have come to the same conclusion. The Royal Society recently reviewed hydraulic fracturing and found that the risks can be managed. The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change has concluded that shale gas has greenhouse gas benefits over other fuels, and a report for the European Commission has also found that life-cycle emissions from shale gas are lower than coal. Further, the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam, German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research have determined that hydraulic fracturing is perfectly compatible with goals to protect the environment.
Not only does hydraulic fracturing have a record of environmentally sound development, it is also fundamentally transforming the American economy for the better. A report just released from IHS found that in 2012, the shale value chain supported 2.1 million jobs, $75 billion in federal and state tax revenues, and added $283 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). By 2020, these numbers will rise to 3.3 million jobs, over $125 billion in federal and state tax revenue, and more than $468 billion in annual GDP contributions.
The reality-based picture of hydraulic fracturing is one of environmental progress and economic growth – and that’s the picture anti-hydraulic fracturing activists in Europe don’t want you to see.