Another Reality Check for Food & Water Watch

According to a new Food & Water Watch report, hydraulic fracturing is a “false solution” that will not have a material impact on U.S. energy security. The entire report, from the title to the footnotes and everything in between, is essentially a compilation of statements that are contradicted by the facts, credible experts, publicly available data, and even good old common sense. And although F&WW was able to secure some headlines upon releasing this booklet of debunked talking points, the public, as always, is much more interested in the truth – and deserves it, too.

Of course, it’s worth noting that none of this is surprising. Food & Water Watch is one of the most active and vocal groups opposing not just hydraulic fracturing, and there is no amount of hyperbole or duplicity that exceeds their standards of activism. For example, the group accuses the industry of living in a “fantasy world” where hydraulic fracturing does not contaminate groundwater – even though the U.S. EPA, state regulators from across the country, and experts at MIT and Stanford (among many others) have all affirmed that, in fact, hydraulic fracturing does not contaminate groundwater. But why let such details get in the way of a perfectly good fundraising appeal?

Food & Water Watch also changes its message on hydraulic fracturing depending on the audience involved. A petition from the organization calls for a moratorium “until it is proven safe for our environment and the public’s health.” That’s quite a bit different from the group’s website, which says hydraulic fracturing is “inherently unsafe” and cannot be made safe by any amount of regulation. Once again, the organization is simply looking for more members (and their donations, naturally), so the broader net they can cast – even at the expense of their own credibility – the better.

As to the report that F&WW just released, the organization reveals its true intent on the first page of the executive summary with the following passage:

“Hinging U.S. energy policy on fracking, and thus betting America’s future on the supposed abundance of oil and natural gas, would simply perpetuate America’s destructive dependence on the oil and gas industry. The only security that would be enjoyed is the security of the industry’s profits.” (p. 2)

In other words, the authors set the tone of the entire document by beginning with blatant demagoguery, even though they clearly hoped it would be received as a serious report.

Without further ado, let’s examine some of the specific inaccuracies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations that one would expect to populate a report issued by Food & Water Watch, and predictably appeared in its latest attempt to feign credibility.

F&WW: “The United States can and will achieve a transition off of fossil fuels through conservation and through the deployment of proven energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. The question is whether this transition will take place before or after the fossil fuel industry lays waste to the water we drink, the air we breathe, the communities we love and the climate on which we all depend.” (p. 3)

REALITY: Since the report has a stated mission of undermining the benefits of hydraulic fracturing, it’s reasonable to assume that the claims made here are also references to impacts supposedly due to hydraulic fracturing. Let’s examine each one individually.

“…lays waste to the water we drink…”

  • Lisa Jackson, current EPA administrator: “In no case have we made a definitive determination that [hydraulic fracturing] has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” (April 2012)
    • Jackson: “I’m not aware of any proven case where [hydraulic fracturing] itself has affected water.” (May 2011)
  • U.S. EPA: “EPA did not find confirmed evidence that drinking water wells have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing fluid injection…” (2004)
  • Carol Browner, former EPA administrator: “There is no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing at issue has resulted in any contamination or endangerment of underground sources of drinking water.” (May 1995)
  • U.S. Dept. of Energy and Ground Water Protection Council: “[B]ased on over sixty years of practical application and a lack of evidence to the contrary, there is nothing to indicate that when coupled with appropriate well construction; the practice of hydraulic fracturing in deep formations endangers ground water. There is also a lack of demonstrated evidence that hydraulic fracturing conducted in many shallower formations presents a substantial risk of endangerment to ground water.” (May 2009)
  • Center for Rural Pennsylvania: “[S]tatistical analyses of post-drilling versus pre-drilling water chemistry did not suggest major influences from gas well drilling or hydrofracturing (fracking) on nearby water wells…” (Oct. 2011)
  • John Hanger, Former Pa. DEP Secretary: “We’ve never had one case of fracking fluid going down the gas well and coming back up and contaminating someone’s water well.” (2012)
  • Dr. Stephen Holditch, Department of Petroleum Engineering, Texas A&M University: “I have been working in hydraulic fracturing for 40+ years and there is absolutely no evidence hydraulic fractures can grow from miles below the surface to the fresh water aquifers.” (Oct. 2011)

“…the air we breathe, the communities we love…”

  • Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection: “Results of the limited ambient air sampling initiative in the northeast region did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” (Jan. 2011)
    • Pa. DEP: “Results of the limited ambient air sampling initiative conducted in the southwest region did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” (Nov. 2010)
  • Texas Commission on Environmental Quality: “After several months of operation, state-of-the-art, 24-hour air monitors in the Barnett Shale area are showing no levels of concern for any chemicals. This reinforces our conclusion that there are no immediate health concerns from air quality in the area, and that when they are properly managed and maintained, oil and gas operations do not cause harmful excess air emissions.” (Aug. 2010)
  • Sue Mickley, M.P.H., and Uni Blake, M.S., Toxicology: “Health records indicate that while production increased, fewer residents were diagnosed with serious illnesses such as cancer, respiratory disease, strokes, and heart disease.” (Oct. 2011)
  • Associated Press: Critics of fracking often raise alarms about groundwater pollution, air pollution, and cancer risks, and there are still many uncertainties. But some of the claims have little — or nothing— to back them. For example, reports that breast cancer rates rose in a region with heavy gas drilling are false, researchers told The Associated Press. Fears that natural radioactivity in drilling waste could contaminate drinking water aren’t being confirmed by monitoring, either. And concerns about air pollution from the industry often don’t acknowledge that natural gas is a far cleaner burning fuel than coal. (July 2012)

**Be sure also to check out what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says about relatively low health risks from oil and natural gas development.

“…and the climate on which we all depend.”

  • Fatih Birol, International Energy Agency: “The replacement of coal by shale gas is a key factor and what happened in the U.S. could very well happen in China and other countries and could definitely help in reducing CO2 emissions.” (June 2012)
  • Fred Krupp, President of Environmental Defense Fund: “Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, emits less in the way of greenhouse gases, and avoids mercury and other pollutants from coal… We need to find a way to take advantage of this historic opportunity to cut back on burning coal, which is the worst energy option.” (Nov. 2011)
  • President Barack Obama: “The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.” (Jan. 2012)
    • President Obama: “By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all— and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.” (Jan. 2011)
  • Heather Zichal, White House energy and climate adviser: “The president has made clear that he believes this important, abundant domestic resource [natural gas] holds unique promise to fuel our energy sector, fuel our vehicles, as well as fuel job growth — all while reducing harmful emissions.” (May 2012)
  • Associated Press: “In a surprising turnaround, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in the U.S. has fallen dramatically to its lowest level in 20 years, and government officials say the biggest reason is that cheap and plentiful natural gas has led many power plant operators to switch from dirtier-burning coal.” (Aug. 2012)
  • Reuters (referencing U.N. energy expert): “Natural gas, including non-traditional shale gas, should play a major role in cutting greenhouse gases, protecting forests and improving the health and living standards of the world’s poor, the co-head of a U.N. sustainable energy program said on Monday. Without it, the U.N.’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative will have difficulty meeting goals of ensuring universal energy access, doubling the world’s share of renewable energy and doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030, Kandeh Yumkella, co-head of the initiative, told Reuters.” (June 2012)

F&WW: “As for global climate change, the growing scientific consensus is that natural gas is a false solution.” (p. 3)

REALITY: Fittingly, F&WW’s definition of a “growing scientific consensus” – according to the footnote associated with this claim – is two reports from the widely discredited Prof. Robert Howarth of Cornell University. A known commodity at “anti-fracking” rallies, Howarth’s arguments about natural gas from shale being worse than coal have been debunked by the U.S. Department of Energy, his own colleagues at Cornell, and even by a study that was paid for in part by the Sierra Club. Consider:

  • John Hanger, former Secretary of Pennsylvania DEP: “Professor Horwath’s conclusion that gas emits more heat trapping gas than carbon flies in the face of numerous life cycle studies done around the world.” (April 2011)
  • U.S. Department of Energy: “Average natural gas baseload power generation has life cycle GHG emissions 53% lower than average coal baseload power generation.” (Jan. 2012)
  • University of Maryland: “GHG impacts of shale gas are…only 56% that of coal. … [A]rguments that shale gas is more polluting than coal are largely unjustified.” (Dec. 2011)
  • Carnegie Mellon University: “For comparison purposes, Marcellus shale gas adds only 3% more emissions to the average conventional gas, which is likely within the uncertainty bounds of the study. Marcellus shale gas has lower GHG emissions relative to coal when used to generate electricity.” (Aug. 2011)
  • Cornell Prof. Lawrence Cathles: “[I]n their recent publication in Climatic Change Letters, Howarth et al. (2011) report that their life-cycle evaluation of shale gas drilling suggests that shale gas has a larger GHG footprint than coal and that this larger footprint ‘undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over the coming decades’. We argue here that their analysis is seriously flawed in that they significantly overestimate the fugitive emissions associated with unconventional gas extraction, undervalue the contribution of “green technologies” to reducing those emissions to a level approaching that of conventional gas, base their comparison between gas and coal on heat rather than electricity generation (almost the sole use of coal), and assume a time interval over which to compute the relative climate impact of gas compared to coal that does not capture the contrast between the long residence time of CO2 and the short residence time of methane in the atmosphere.” (Oct. 2011)

F&WW also cites the Pétron study from earlier this year, which focused on an operating environment in Colorado that doesn’t even exist anymore, but was nonetheless extrapolated to be somehow relevant to a discussion about the technologies and regulations in place today. Michael Levi, a climate change expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, even has a peer-reviewed paper that explains why that study’s findings are “unsupportable,” mostly because they hinge upon a methane leakage rate that doesn’t mesh with reality (inflated leakage rates are also at the core of Prof. Howarth’s conclusions, so it should not be surprising that experts have debunked both studies).

It is little wonder, then, why Food & Water Watch buried these details in a footnote instead of mentioning them by name in the body of the report: No one with any scientific credentials, outside of a handful of folks who are ideologically committed to shutting down oil and natural gas development, takes them seriously.

F&WW: “The uncertainty surrounding EUR calculations lies at the root of a June 2011 investigation by the New York Times, which was full of revelations, including, ‘An internal Energy Information Administration document says companies have exaggerated “the appearance of shale gas well profitability,” are highlighting the performance of only their best wells and may be using overly optimistic models for projecting the wells’ productivity over the next several decades.’” (p. 11)

REALITY: Those who follow the news would be surprised to see that Food & Water Watch, attempting to undermine the facts about America’s abundant natural gas supplies, is relying on a New York Times story that was criticized by none other than the New York Times’ own public editor. Why? Because the EIA information cited in that report – and used as evidence here by Food & Water Watch – was sourced to an intern at that agency. The Times inflated the importance of the “report” by keeping that information hidden from its readers. In response, here’s what that newspaper’s then-public editor, Arthur Brisbane, said about the story and its deceptive use of an intern as a source:

The “intern” was C. Hobson Bryan, a 2009 college physics-engineering graduate who E.I.A. said was hired as an intern in summer 2009 and upgraded to general engineer in March 2011. One of his e-mails was attributed to “one official” who said the shale industry may be “set up for failure.” Later, he was an “energy analyst” wondering, “Am I just totally crazy, or does it seem like everyone and their mothers are endorsing shale gas without getting a really good understanding of the economics at the business level?” Next he was “one federal analyst” who said, “It seems that science is pointing in one direction and industry PR is pointing in another.”

At the time of the first two e-mails, Mr. Bryan was a general engineer; at the time of the third, he was an intern. The document viewer included three other e-mails dating to his internship period in which Mr. Bryan was referred to as an “official.”

Can an intern be an “official”? It doesn’t sound right to me.

If F&WW had a leg to stand on in its claim that we only possess half the natural gas supplies that experts from across the board have determined we have, it wouldn’t need to deceive the public with a debunked New York Times story to support its thesis.

F&WW: “Such exports [of liquefied natural gas, or LNG] clearly belie the industry’s patriotic rhetoric on U.S. energy security and energy independence, revealing profit as the true motive.” (p. 12)

REALITY: If Food & Water Watch had approached this issue with a sober attention to detail – and if they weren’t so blindly committed to a narrative about “profits” and ulterior motives – they would have realized that shifting from being a net energy importer to a net energy exporter means a country has more control over its economy and its energy future. One might even say that it would make that country (gasp!) more secure.

And here’s some evidence to support that:

  • Brookings Institution: “As U.S. foreign policy undergoes a ‘pivot to Asia,’ the ability of the U.S. to provide a degree of increased energy security and pricing relief to LNG importers in the region will be an important economic and strategic asset. … The potential benefits of U.S. LNG exports relate to trade, macroeconomics, and geopolitics.” (May 2012)
  • International Energy Agency: The [2012 World Energy Outlook] finds that the extraordinary growth in oil and natural gas output in the United States will mean a sea-change in global energy flows. In the New Policies Scenario, the WEO’s central scenario, the United States becomes a net exporter of natural gas by 2020 and is almost self-sufficient in energy, in net terms, by 2035. North America emerges as a net oil exporter, accelerating the switch in direction of international oil trade, with almost 90% of Middle Eastern oil exports being drawn to Asia by 2035. (Nov. 2012)
  • Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate and Secretary of Energy: “Exporting natural gas means wealth comes into the United States.” (Feb. 2012)
  • Michael Levi, CFR: “Gas exports could help narrow the U.S. current account deficit, shake up geopolitics, and give the United States new leverage in trade negotiations.” (June 2012)
  • Baker Institute, Rice University: “The United States should focus squarely on setting the policies needed to ensure that shale gas can play a significant role in the U.S. and global energy mix, thereby contributing to greater diversification of global energy supplies and to the long-term national interests of the United States.” (July 2011)

F&WW: “If allowed to write its own policies, the oil and gas industry will simply extract as much as possible, as fast as possible, for maximum profit, while fighting to prolong America’s destructive dependence on fossil fuels. Then, once U.S. natural gas is gone, the global oil and gas industry will likely be well positioned to import foreign sources of fracked natural gas to feed this dependence; Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil, in particular, are invested in building a global natural gas supply chain. Their strategic plans for such a global supply chain serve as an illustration of how Big Oil sees an opportunity, not a threat, in using natural gas in addition to oil to fuel transportation.” (p. 14)

REALITY: The term “tin foil hat” comes to mind here, because the situation Food & Water Watch envisions here is nothing short of conspiratorial. According to F&WW, oil and gas companies are going to deplete domestic resources deliberately, all so they can force America to buy more imported energy to feed a “dependence” that the industry created. And all of this, according to F&WW, is being clandestinely planned as a way to boost profits.

Interestingly, the situation they envision would actually be less profitable. If a company has a market for its product, where does it stand to reason that the company would prefer to have the product made: close to the market, or farther away? The answer to anyone with even a basic understanding of economics is clearly the former, as that would reduce operational costs.

And what is F&WW’s only evidence to support its thesis? Energy companies with operations around the globe are thinking of energy … on a global scale. Food & Water Watch wants us to think of this as equivalent to Freemasonry or the Illuminati, even though all they have done is repackage a well understood economic situation in the most nefarious light possible, hoping the general public is ignorant of even basic facts.

F&WW: “The popular claim of a 100-year supply of natural gas is based on the oil and gas industry’s dream of unrestricted access to drill and frack, and it presumes that highly uncertain resource estimates prove accurate.” (p. 17)

REALITY: Food & Water Watch actually lays out a longer (not to be confused with “more credible”) version of this argument earlier in the report. The goal is to undermine the use of “technically recoverable resources” as a meaningful measure of available oil and natural gas. As repeated here, F&WW believes these are “highly uncertain” numbers, and, as such, should be treated with a high degree of skepticism.

What does Food & Water Watch leave out, though? History.

–In 1980, the United States was said to have approximately 30 billion barrels of oil in “proved reserves.” But over the next three decades, the United States produced nearly 80 billion barrels – more than two and a half times what experts had predicted we even had available.

–In the three most recent years for which data is available, EIA’s estimates of U.S. proved reserves of oil rose by more than 21 percent, thanks in large part to expanded development of “tight” formations such as the Bakken (North Dakota, Montana) and Eagle Ford (Texas).

–In 1995, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Bakken formation in North Dakota contained 151 million barrels of oil. In 2008, thanks to improvements in technology, the USGS had to upwardly revise its estimate to between three and 4.3 billion barrels of oil – an amazing 25 times more than they had estimated just 13 years earlier.

–In 2002, USGS estimated the Marcellus shale contained two trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas. But in 2011, USGS upwardly revised that estimate by 4,100 percent to 84 trillion cubic feet, as the industry had since proved it could affordably and efficiently develop natural gas from shale.

–In 2000, the EIA estimated the United States had 177 tcf of natural gas in proved reserves. Yet by 2010, that number had increased to more than 304 tcf – an increase of more than 70 percent. Also worth noting: over that same period, the United States produced more than 270 tcf of natural gas, or 100 tcf more than the EIA predicted we even had available in proved reserves in 2000.

How was all of this possible? Because “technically recoverable resources” were recovered in large numbers, thanks primarily to technological innovation, which in turn helped reduce costs (and environmental impacts). And in some cases, production over time exceeded even what was considered recoverable. But to hear it from Food & Water Watch, these facts mean nothing, because “technically recoverable” has uncertainties tied to it.

All estimates have uncertainties tied to them; that’s why they’re called estimates. But it’s also important – if not more important – to remember that history has shown time and again that “proved reserves” dramatically underestimate how much energy we can develop. So when Food & Water Watch conflates “uncertainty” with “unreliable,” it’s either an attempt to sweep the facts under the rug, or a reflection of a fundamental misunderstanding of the industry they’re trying to malign.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. After the release of this latest report, which rehashes the same tired arguments that opponents have been making for years, it seems the researchers at Food & Water Watch should conduct an introspective review of that statement.

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