Researchers from the University of Alberta released a new study this week that finds exposure to fracking flowback water “can” cause health problems in fish, specifically liver and gill damage.
Not surprisingly, the study garnered a few alarmist and misleading headlines, including the National Oberver’s “Alberta research shows fracking fluids cause ‘significant’ harm to fish.”
But as is the case with most studies of this nature, context and clarification are key. And — quite refreshingly — lead author Greg Goss, professor at University of Alberta Department of Biological Sciences, provided some of the former. In an interview with the Edmonton Journal, Goss emphasized that the research was not intended to be blown out of proportion and support a “ban fracking” agenda,
“I don’t believe it (fracking) should be banned,” Goss said. “I think what we need to do is have both an improved environmental practice and a firm awareness of the understanding of the impacts where you can make those value judgments.”
That is the reason the Canadian government funded the research, which focuses on spills of fracking flowback water — including fracking fluid and naturally occurring formation brine — and not just fracking fluid, contrary to what the numerous headlines have suggested.
Such spills were included in the U.S. EPA’s comprehensive final study on fracking and groundwater, which found no evidence of widespread contamination. Former EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Thomas Burke even clarified that the number of instances in which groundwater was affected was “small,” and in a recent CBS This Morning interview he repeated that that finding, noting, “The overall incidence of impacts is low.”
Here is a look a couple important things to keep in mind when reading the coverage of this report.
Researchers provide proper perspective on the goal of their research
The researchers exposed juvenile rainbow trout to water containing fracking flowback water concentrations ranging from 2.5 percent to 7.5 percent and determined there was evidence of endocrine disruption, biotransformation and oxidative stress in the fish:
“The overall results suggested HF-FPW (hydraulic fracturing flowback-produced water) could cause significant adverse effects on fish, and the organic contents might play the major role in its toxicity.”
Apparently cognizant of the fact that anti-fracking activist would likely blow this study’s topline conclusion out of proportion, two of the study’s authors have gone on the record to emphasize that their findings are intended to contribute to efforts to mitigate risks posed by fracking wastewater disposal.
Goss told the Edmonton Journal,
“I’m a big believer that you can have industrial activity that’s good environmental management and that the trade-offs are being adequately managed. Hydraulic fracturing is a process that’s got tremendous economic and social benefits in terms of its provision of relatively inexpensive energy.”
Natural resource development happens to represent one-fifth of Canada’s GDP and provides almost 1.8 million jobs. These are realities that study co-author Daniel Alessi alluded to prior to the study’s release in an interview with The Gateway,
“It’s easy for people to jet up here to the oil sands and criticize Albertans for extracting that resource. But then the question is, ‘What is your carbon footprint and what are you actually doing?’ Are you really willing to live a life style that is petroleum-free, for example and do you know the implications of that?’”
Along with the fact that this is first study to use samples of actual fracking flowback water supplied by the oil and gas industry (Encana Corp., Canada’s largest natural gas producer, provided the samples), the researchers’ pragmatic stance on fracking gives this study far more legitimacy than other similar studies conducted by activist researchers.
Lowest concentrations studied are still relatively high
To the researchers’ credit, the exposure levels to fracking flowback water the fish were subjected to were much more realistic than other studies that have subjected test subjects to very large doses of chemical cocktails that they would never reasonably be exposed to in the real world.
Still, the 2.5 to 7.5 percent concentration ranges used in this study are quite high.
The Globe and Mail reported that even at dilutions as low as 2.5 percent — 2.5 litres of process water to 100 litres of fresh water — fish showed significant impact on their livers and gills. But even though that 2.5 percent concentration level may sound low, it would take a fairly large spill into a relatively small body of water to reach 2.5 percent concentration. For example, a spill would have to be roughly 200 barrels (8,100 gallons) to achieve a 2.5 percent concentration in a one-acre farm pond (325,851 gallons/7,758 barrels).
As the EPA’s final report on fracking’s impacts on drinking water shows, fracking wastewater spill volumes are typically much smaller than 8,100 gallons. Of the 225 documented spills identified in the EPA report, the median volume of the spills was 990 gallons. And EPA notes that just eight percent of those spills reached surface or groundwater.
This is not to say such concentrations as the result of spills haven’t happened or cannot happen. But as this EPA data shows, large spills are infrequent and rarely reach surface water.
Spills are unfortunate and can occur in any industry. For perspective, although Vermont produces no oil or gas, the state’s spill database shows about 650 to 900 spills a year of oil, propane and industrial wastewater.
There is certainly no risk free form of energy, but as we’ve seen in the case of oil and gas development, the risks can and are being managed. And, as the lead author of this study points out, fracking has “tremendous economic and social benefits” that far outweigh the risks presented by the type of fracking wastewater spills evaluated in this study.
That is why the ultimate goal of studies such as this — contributing to efforts to develop mitigation measures aimed at limiting the adverse effects of spills as much as possible — are a breath of fresh air considering the onslaught of activist studies that use unrealistic assumptions to push a predetermined agenda.