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Movie ‘Gasland’ Stirs More Controversy About Hydraulic Fracturing

Gasland is a film documentary about the dangers caused by hydraulic fracturing of gas wells being drilled in shale plays across the U.S. It won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year. It was filmed by Josh Fox, whose family owns land in Pennsylvania that is in the Marcellus Shale Play. Gasland is now being screened across the country.

Josh Fox was recently interviewed about his film on the PBS program NOW. The film asserts that frac’ing of wells has caused underground aquifers to be charged with methane in Pennsylvania and Colorado and poses severe risks of contamination to the water supply. Josh Fox notes that hydraulic fracturing is exempt from federal regulation, and he advocates for passage of the FRAC Act now before Congress that would give the EPA jurisdiction over hydraulic fracturing.

The comments about the NOW story posted on its website evidence the growing controversy over frac’ing.


A couple of examples:

From Gail Bloomer, PhD: Your coverage of “Gasland” and interview with Mr. Josh Fox was disappointing in it’s distortion of facts and anecdotal examples of malpractices on the part of a few oil and gas companies. “Fracking” of hydrocarbon reservoirs has been an accepted practice for more than a century. The technique does not represent a company’s desperate attempt to extract oil or gas, only a technique to optimize the benefits of the initial capital expenditure. There are so many distortions of the truth in this documentary it is difficult to know where to start. Mr. Fox represents the swarms of lawyers, politicians, PR people, personalities, economists and many other non-qualified people hi-jacking scientific studies with very few facts and a large vacuum of knowledge of the subjects on which they speak.The method of fracking commonly used today does not include the use of any strange, toxic chemicals. It uses the same water that is compatible with the reservoir water plus a simple surfactant (viscosity breaker or detergent). The fluids that contain the toxic chemicals are found in the drilling fluids prior to the fracking, and they are kept in EPA approved liner pits (leaks occur rarely and they are simply cleaned up with vacuium trucks for proper disposal). Today it is rare to find a well that is not fracked. Having done a geologic thesis in the subject reservoir formations in the Mohawk Valley and southward, I can call to mind the many farmers that had methane in their well waters long before drilling started in the area. They even used it to fuel local generators for their lights and milking machines. The water supply for the New York and Philadelphia metroplex is from the surface watershed found in the Catskill and Delaware Basins, not from subsurface wells. No contamination need be feared from drilling, perhaps from highways, fertilizer from farms, and other industrial activity, but those watersheds are well protected by New York’s DEP. Arkansas was mentioned as an area of fracing pollution and I can find no reference to that at all. Oklahoma, like many oil- and gas-rich areas have had hydrocarbons in their aquifers since th earliest settlers. No doubt, there are rare times when an aquifer is contaminated due to poor drilling and completion practices, and those operators should be required to fix the problem, and it can be fixed. As the co-founder of one of the earliest, if not the first, envrionmental consulting companies in the United States, I find Mr. Fox’s film suggestive of an agenda in which he or his sponsors are complicit. That is not unusual nor illegal, but the mis-use of facts is not what I would expect of PBS or Sundance. If that is what you like, I can make up all sorts of things and sprinkle them with anecdotal facts to weave a believable story involving the big bad wolf stalking the average citizen.

From TomL in Pa: Maybe Mr. Gail Bloomer should volunteer to go on ‘NOW on PBS’ ASAP to *PROVE* all his selectively-worded points on his “truths of fraking.” Think about this: That part of 2005 US Energy Policy Act that EXEMPTS gas drilling and fraking from the regulations and oversights of the national Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and various regulations on waste disposal is often called the “Halliburton Loophole”.

If the process is so clean, force the oil & gas industry to follow the same regulations based on the existing laws that apply to everyone else!

As far as drilling and fraking, it makes much more sense that if you:
A) punch a hole in the ground (and even through or near small aquifers and/or the surrounding groundwater saturation level), you create a draining point, then,
B) you drill the hole deeper to frak the rock stratas BELOW that drain by injecting millions of gallons of then “chemically-enhanced” local water under enormous pressures, and then,
C) pump that newly-contaminated water back out to “clean(?)” it up and put back into our water cycle (but it’s impossible to get all that tainted stuff out, or cleaned entirely)… that CAN’T be GOOD.

It becomes a point of contamination.

Even an occasional drilling/fraking “mistake” still may cause problems that have far-reaching (and long-term) bad impacts. If not now, then later.

A recent article in the Syracuse Times provides a good summary of the debate. The paper reports that a hydrology professor from Syracuse University and two retired colleagues expressed frustration that the debate fails to investigate the facts and weigh the risks against the benefits. The intensity of the debate is exacerbated by the recent events in Dimock, Pennsylvania, where groundwater became charged with methane from wells drilled by Cabot, causing a water well to explode and forcing residents to find alternate sources of drinking water. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has imposed heavy fines on Cabot.

There’s a saying in Texas: whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting. When citizens percieve a threat to their water resources, the debate is likely to be lively, and it is often not rational. Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake, spoke recently at Harvard. One of the questions to him was how many people Chesapeake had killed. He had to cut his speech short and was escorted off the campus.

The recent huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is not likely to quiet the debate over frac’ing. The industry has been arguing that federal regulation of fra’cing is not necessary because state regulation is adequate and the technique has been used for years by the industry without any proven resulting groundwater contamination – similar to industry arguments that deep-water drilling offshore has been proven safe.

In his interview on NOW, Josh Fox argues that our country should simply eliminate its dependency on fossil fuels and get all its energy from renewable resources. That, unfortunately, is not a realistic possibility. We must face the fact that, for many years to come, our nation will be heavily reliant on fossil fuels for a substantial part of its energy needs. Extraction of fossil fuels carries risks to human safety, human health and the environment. We can reduce but not eliminate those risks. One way to reduce the risks, in my opinion, is to reduce our dependence on oil by increasing our production of natural gas. While there are risks in natural gas drilling and production, those risks pale in comparison to the devastation now being caused by the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to the environmental costs of strip-mining and burining coal, and to the strategic and geopolitical risks caused by our dependency on foreign oil. The fact is that frac’ing of wells, when done properly, is a proven and safe process, and the technological advances in the field have unlocked huges reserves of natural gas in the U.S. Natural gas is indeed a fossil fuel, and a byproduct of its combustion is CO2. But it produces much less CO2 (and less other airborne pollutants) than an energy-equivalent amount of coal or gasoline. It is clearly a better alternative than coal or oil, from an environmental standpoint. If our nation wants to reduce its dependence on foreign oil and reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases, natural gas is a necessary and benefical alternative.

It will take a long time, a lot of science, and a many congressional hearings to restore our citizens’ confidence in the petroleum extraction industry. We cannot leave the decisions about if, when and how our resources should be exploited to fuel our cars, our factories and our homes to the experts; but nor can we ignore the advice of those experts and naively assume that wind energy, solar energy and/or nuclear energy can immediately replace our current dependence on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, reason and calm seem to be in short supply in these debates.

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