Another fracking melodrama

Claims that shale wells poison rivers are not all they seem.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

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For the first time, American scientists have published a paper showing that wastewater from a shale-gas well and a coalbed methane site, disposed of by injecting it into a deep well, has reached a surface stream. This has led the UK group Frack Off to claim that the ‘favoured method of frack-waste disposal [is] causing environmental harm’.

Given the US’s 36,000 disposal wells, and the growing volume of wastewater surrounding them, the news came as a relief to greens, who have long been hunting for proof of surface-level contamination as a result of fracking. But what did the research, conducted by the US Geological Survey (USGS), really find? Concentrations of iron in the stream, which is within the Wolf Creek watershed, exceeded the 1mg/litre standard specified by West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection. Levels of naturally occurring radioactive radium were up to four times what uncontaminated (‘background’) sites showed. Levels of chlorine, bromine and other iffy elements were high, too. These elements, the USGS reported, ‘can potentially’ alter ecosystems: in the deicing of roads, for instance, increases in salinity (dissolved salt content) ‘are associated with disruptions in nitrogen cycling, likely due to alterations of microbial communities’. Thus, in the sediment around Wolf Creek, alterations in microbial communities brought about by shale wastewater ‘could’ impact nutrient cycling there.

A tentative judgement. Still, a second, parallel paper, again written (mostly) by USGS scientists, reported that, among fish and amphibians in the stream, endocrine-disrupting chemicals at receptors for the hormones oestrogen, androgen, progesterone, glucocorticoid and thyroid were at ‘equivalent authentic standard concentrations [sic] known to disrupt reproduction and/or development’.

Now, the first group of scientists couldn’t say how the contamination of the stream had happened. They admitted that it could have come from storage ponds and tanks, or from fuel and motor oil from vehicle deliveries. They conceded that the iron, chlorine and bromine could have come from past coal mining, coalbed methane, or from activities around conventional oil and gas production, rather than shale. Meanwhile, the second group of scientists noted that the water in Wolf Creek only merges with flows into the New River, a drinking water resource, five miles away from the endocrine disruption they found.

Altogether, the response followed the usual climate-alarmist formula. First, scientists find just enough debatable evidence to call for further research. Then, greens throw all nuance to the winds and reduce the research – in this case, two papers, 16 closely printed pages of enquiry and more than 100 references – to the headline phrase ‘environmental harm’.

It is this kind of green hysteria that continues to dog the development of fracking.

Greens claim that the exploitation of shale: adds to CO2 levels (especially through emissions of methane); takes too long to develop to make a difference to UK energy; causes earthquakes; contaminates the geological faults that are more prevalent in Europe than America; causes explosions; causes subsidence, and so lowers property prices; diverts money and attention away from renewables; distracts from necessary changes in consumption behaviour and energy efficiency; hits agriculture, the food chain, wildlife, recreation and tourism; promotes unacceptable levels of vehicle traffic and damages roads; prompts water shortages; hooks drilling companies up in opaque and corrupt arrangements with Tories and regulators; and merely benefits shareholders of Britain’s Big Six energy companies.

But wait, there’s more. Greenpeace discovered that 40 per cent of UK drilling licensees hold money offshore. Many drillers in the US, one critic chortled, are bankrupt – so in the densely populated, and thus more heavily regulated, UK, the costs of drilling will be prohibitive. At the University of Oxford’s Institute for Energy Studies, an expert ruled out mass commercial development of shale in the UK on account of today’s tumbling gas prices.

This alarmism rages on in the US, too. Researchers at Duke University, North Carolina, report that, since 2007, no fewer than 3,900 spills of wastewater have been reported around fracking sites in North Dakota, generally ranging from 200 to 10,000 litres each. As a result, in soil, groundwater and surface water around spill sites, both heavy metals and corrosive salts are, Duke proclaims, ‘remarkably persistent’.

Duke says these chemicals can be preserved in spill sites for ‘at least months to years’ – up to four years, in fact, in the case of two exceptional spills, each of 48,000 litres, that occurred in 2011. But the bigger problem is radium, especially when, in wastewater, it is spilt on to soil. Yet North Dakota environmental-health chief David Glatt says the state has cleaned up the vast majority of its spills, removing contaminated soil and flushing it with fresh water. So the threat from radium can be dealt with.

All spills are lamentable, and investment in new, better technologies is needed to stop them. But the culprits in North Dakota, Duke says, are mainly down to poor storage and pipeline infrastructure, not drilling. Moreover, US federal law requires water to be treated before it reaches domestic taps, and Duke did not test tap water for contamination.

Nevertheless, hysteria about shale mounts. In May, a shut-off sensor failed in a tank of oil and drilling wastewater (again in North Dakota) and the tank spilt bad stuff on to pastureland the size of an American-football field. When reporting the incident, Frack Off conveniently forgot to mention that huge vacuum machinery sucked the muck up, and waterways and drinking water were unaffected. Again, in May, Frack Off reported that young children were ‘particularly at risk’ from fracking chemicals, which bring lung problems and infections. What they failed to mention was that the study in question said this was only a potential risk.

Environmentalists’ never-ending and exaggerated objections to shale simply reveal a hatred of modernity. But the new, economic attacks on UK shale also reveal something else: rank hypocrisy.

The journal Nature recently reported that Europe has so far failed to build a commercial shale well. Indeed, geologists know little about shale-rock formations in Europe because there’s been less onshore drilling than in the US. Why? Well, EU member states from Bulgaria to France have, like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, enacted bans on fracking. As a result, ‘England is home to some of the few remaining attempts to tap shale gas in Europe. A handful of companies have applied for permission to drill… But environmentalists have put up a strong fight, and permissions have been slow to emerge.’ Indeed, as another expert from Oxford’s Institute for Energy Studies intones, no EU member state is in any position ‘anytime soon’ to drill the 50-100 wells necessary to confirm or deny the possibility of forging ahead with shale gas.

There we have it. Authorised and (quite often) funded by anti-modern sections of the establishment and the state, greens encourage already-wary governments to stop experiments with shale across the EU. Then wise universities such as Oxford proclaim that, in the EU, we know nothing about shale, so it can’t go ahead.

This sorry state of affairs provides yet another reason for Britain to leave the EU. Then, perhaps, we might acquire the can-do, high-tech approach of US frackers. That said, we can also learn from their mistakes and malpractice. Indeed we might, just this one time, take a cue from President Obama. For the 16 per cent of US oil and gas sites that are currently not obeying the rules, Obama is insisting they use infra-red cameras and other state-of-the art methods to cut methane leaks and end the burning off of excess gas (‘flaring’, which loses the US $10 billion worth of natural gas a year).

It’s time to for Britain to follow America’s lead. Let’s dispel the fracking melodramas and embrace new energy technology.

James Woudhuysen is editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

Picture: Michael G McKinne /

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Topics Science & Tech


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