Seamus McGraw at Popular Mechanics recently took some time to set the record straight on natural gas production and hydraulic fracturing, a welcome change of pace from the baseless doom-and-gloom narrative that comes from opponents of American energy. While a few facts still fly under the radar, McGraw’s overall take represents another quality fact check on natural gas development.
Here are the claims as laid about by PM, followed by the magazine’s response and EID’s additional comments.
CLAIM 1: “We are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” –Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., May 2010
- Popular Mechanics: Natural gas is abundant in the U.S., but PM thinks Sen. Kerry may have exaggerated. “According to Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State, the vast formation sprawling primarily beneath West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York could produce an estimated 493 trillion cubic feet of gas over its 50- to 100-year life span. That’s nowhere close to Saudi Arabia’s total energy reserves, but it is enough to power every natural gas—burning device in the country for more than 20 years.”
- EID: The Marcellus is only one of many shale gas reservoirs in the United States, although it is a big one. Other shale plays such as the Barnett in north Texas, the Haynesville in Louisiana, and the Fayetteville in Arkansas contribute tens of trillions of additional cubic feet to America’s available energy resources, and new areas are being discovered constantly. Increased understanding of America’s natural gas potential combined with the advanced combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have opened the doors to over 100 years of domestic energy supply. As the need for global energy increases and OPEC’s reserves come under increased demand, America’s domestic natural gas potential provides energy security at a critical time, as well as an enormous economic boost in the form of hundreds of thousands of new jobs across the country.
CLAIM 2: “Hydraulic fracturing squanders our precious water resources.” –Green Party of Pennsylvania, April 2011
- Popular Mechanics: False. In fact, “of the 9.5 billion gallons of water used daily in Pennsylvania, natural gas development consumes 1.9 million gallons a day (mgd); livestock use 62 mgd; mining, 96 mgd; and industry, 770 mgd.”
- EID: Agreed with PM! While hydraulic fracturing does require a seemingly high volume of water, it’s comparatively small when put in context of broader public demands. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NY DEC), for example, concluded that high-volume hydraulic fracturing in New York, at the industry’s peak operating capacity, would increase fresh water demand in the state by only about 0.24%. Furthermore, tight regulations guarantee proper use and disposal of all water that is used, and operators particularly in the Marcellus are already recycling large quantities of water used for hydraulic fracturing.
CLAIM 3: “Natural gas is cleaner, cheaper, domestic, and it’s viable now.” —T. Boone Pickens, September 2009
- Popular Mechanics: Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, but PM unfortunately references Cornell Professor Robert Howarth’s “data” on the loss of methane during production and transport to suggest its clean reputation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
- EID: Unfortunately, PM did not get the memo that the Cornell Study by Robert Howarth has been panned by the scientific community. Howarth’s colleague at Cornell, atmospheric sciences professor Lawrence Cathles, referred to the study in a paper submitted for publication as “seriously flawed,” while John Hanger, former head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection stated that “Professor Howarth’s conclusion that gas emits more heat trapping gas than carbon flies in the face of numerous life cycle studies done around the world.” Hanger continued: “Bit by bit the Howarth study is being consigned to the junk heap.” See EID’s full debunking of Howarth’s study here.
CLAIM 4: “There’s never been one case—documented case—of groundwater contamination in the history of the thousands and thousands of hydraulic fracturing [wells].” —Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., April 2011
- Popular Mechanics: The claim is true; basic geology prevents the potential of groundwater contamination. Unfortunately, PM also toys with some sketchy facts related to the town of Pavillion, WY, and surface contamination to dilute the facts.
- EID: There are zero confirmed cases of the process of hydraulic fracturing affecting groundwater. Fluid use and transportation are highly regulated processes, and any potential cases of harm to surface waters related to accidental spills are rectified and proper fines are levied. As for Pavillion, Wyoming: chemicals found in three of thirty nine wells tested are also found in common cleaning materials. While methane was found in eight water wells, previous records indicate the presence of methane in the groundwater prior to natural gas drilling in the area. See Encana’s letter to the residents of Pavillion here.
CLAIM 5: “The Gas era is coming, and the landscape north and west of (New York City) will inevitably be transformed as a result. When the valves start opening next year, a lot of poor farm folk may become Texas rich. And a lot of other people—especially the ecosensistive New York City crowd that has settled among them—will be apoplectic as their pristine weekend sanctuary is converted into an industrial zone, criss crossed with drill pads, pipelines, and access roads.” –New York magazine, Sept. 21, 2008
- Popular Mechanics: PM notes the concern surrounding the pace of natural gas development and whether regulation can keep up. The article also suggests a strong discrepancy in opinions between upstate and downstate New Yorkers.
- EID: The truth is that the oil and gas industry is regulated from initial paperwork to the final plugging of the well; no action can be taken without proper permitting and clearance. The impressive safety record of the industry should also give further comfort that all drilling action is occurring appropriately. As for the difference in opinion: A recent Quinnipiac poll found that among voters in the upstate region and in the state’s suburbs, natural gas production enjoys majority support, with 75% saying drilling will produce much-needed jobs. As the NY DEC concluded in its assessment of hydraulic fracturing, gas production could create more than 46,000 jobs (17K direct + 29K indirect) statewide.
CLAIM 6: “Natural gas is affordable, abundant and American. It costs one-third less to fill up with natural gas than traditional gasoline.” —Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., March 2011
- Popular Mechanics: Probably true. “In fact, buses in several cities now rely on it, getting around the lack of widespread refueling opportunities by returning to a central terminal for a fill-up. The same could be done for local truck fleets. But perhaps the biggest contribution natural gas could make to America’s transportation picture would be more indirect—as a fuel for electric-generation plants that will power the increasingly popular plug-in hybrid vehicles.”
- EID: Economical, domestic, clean, abundant — Natural gas has the potential to provide domestic energy for the next 100 years.
CLAIM 7: “Do not drink this water.” —Handwritten sign in the film GasLand, 2010
- Popular Mechanics: False. “A Colorado man holds a flame to his kitchen faucet and turns on the water…But Colorado officials determined the gas wells weren’t to blame; instead, the homeowner’s own water well had been drilled into a naturally occurring pocket of methane.”
- EID: Methane migration often occurs naturally, and such was the case in this instance. Anywhere biogenic processes are occurring, methane is being created. While improper cementing of a well could lead to methane migration, it is imperative to understand the origin of the methane before assuming that the drilling process is to blame. Interestingly enough, GasLand producer Josh Fox was well aware that methane occurs naturally, but he deliberately withheld that information in his film, leaving viewers with the impression that gas drilling could be the only culprit. More on debunking GasLand here.
CLAIM 8: “As New York gears up for a massive expansion of gas drilling in the Marcellus shale, state officials have made a potentially troubling discovery about the wastewater created by the process: It’s radioactive.” —ProPublica, 2009
- Popular Mechanics: False. “Tests conducted earlier this year in Pennsylvania waterways that had received treated water—both produced water (the fracking fluid that returns to the surface) and brine (naturally occurring water that contains radioactive elements, as well as other toxins and heavy metals from the shale)—found no evidence of elevated radiation levels.”
- EID: As PM duly notes, shale has a radioactive signature which is used by geologists to understand the organic content and gas potential available in the formation. This does not mean, however, that the generated flow back water is “radioactive” like the green ooze at Homer Simpson’s nuclear plant. The NY DEC has concluded that the radioactivity of produced water “does not present a risk” because the radiation levels are so low. Nonetheless, continual testing of flow back water to determine any risk ensures proper treatment is carried out.
CLAIM 9: “Claiming that the information is proprietary, drilling companies have still not come out and full disclosed what fracking fluid is made of.” –Vanity Fair, June 2010
- Popular Mechanics: “Under mounting pressure, companies such as Schlumberger and Range Resources have posted the chemical compounds used in some of their wells, and in June, Texas became the first state to pass a law requiring full public disclosure.”
- EID: A simple Internet search will yield the composition of fracturing fluid. States like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York, along with the U.S. Department of Energy (and Energy in Depth) maintain these listings, and they have been publicly available for some time. It’s also important to note that 99.5% of the fluid used in hydraulic fracturing consists of water and sand. The majority of the chemicals used are benign and necessary as antibacterials and lubricants. Some harsher chemicals are involved in the process, however, and are regulated thoroughly. For more disclosure on fracturing fluid see www.FracFocus.org.
CLAIM 10: “The increasing abundance of cheap natural gas, coupled with rising demand for the fuel from China and the fall-out from the fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, may have set the stage for a Golden Age of gas.” —Wall Street Journal, Summarizing an International Energy Agency Report, June 6, 2011.
- Popular Mechanics: “There’s little question that the United States, with 110 years’ worth of natural gas (at the 2009 rate of consumption), is destined to play a major role in the fuel’s development.”
- EID: Natural gas has the potential to meet America’s energy needs while creating jobs and economic growth today, and through the safe and continued use of hydraulic fracturing, these enormous opportunities will only grow. As new discoveries are made and technology advances, U.S. natural gas supplies will only increase, and allowing responsible production will unlock additional opportunities and provide numerous benefits for decades to come.