The reaction to my column on shale gas drilling in the Karoo was overwhelming. The comment section alone contains over 70,000 words in more than 400 comments (counting my own responses), and it sparked several columns in response.
Among the counter-arguments that were raised, the most damning appeared to be a study, published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, by a group of researchers from Duke University.
Although it had not been published when my column appeared, a great many journalists, judging by the headlines on their stories, seem to have taken the study's title as its conclusion: “Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing”.
Few, I'll wager, bothered to read much more than the abstract. Had they delved a little deeper, they would have found the study sorely deficient, and not at all in support of the argument that hydraulic fracturing in particular, or shale gas drilling in general, contaminates drinking water.
The study inspected water from 68 water wells. The wells were not selected by random sampling, as one might expect from a scientific study. In fact, there was no basis for well selection at all, other than proximity to, or distance from, known shale gas drilling operations. No baseline studies had been done to establish the chemical profile of the water before gas drilling began, so any conclusions about their prior condition could only be based on anecdotal tales. Moreover, the error margins in the results are suspiciously large, in one case even exceeding the absolute value of the data.
The study found that the majority of wells contained methane – the infamous gas that appears to make tap water flammable – regardless of their proximity to gas drilling operations. This just seems to be something that happens in the region. The only substantive finding was that the concentration of thermogenic methane – the stuff that originates from deep rock – was higher near to active gas drilling operations. However, it occurred in lower concentrations in most of the other tested wells too, along with the more common biogenic methane, which is generated from bacterial action in decaying organic material.
This sniff of a lead prompted the researchers to speculate fruitlessly about the origin of this gas.
They concede that methane is highly unlikely to penetrate through two kilometres of rock strata to the surface, a belief which they share with the gas drilling companies.
They note that not a single one of their wells showed any evidence of contamination with brackish water from deep aquifers, radioactive substances that occur at depth, nor any sign of the chemicals that are used in the fracturing fluid. This comprehensively rules out failure of the sophisticated triple-layer well sleeves that are designed to shield gas wells from the surrounding soil and water table.
They point out that further research, including proper baseline data, is needed to reach any firm conclusions about methane in the drinking water.
In short, they have no idea how the thermogenic methane got to the water aquifer, but that's the worst problem they found, and they discovered a whole bunch of reasons to think that it was not caused by gas drilling or hydraulic fracturing.
The distinct lack of strong evidence didn't stop the authors of the report from heading straight to the media with an “editorial” (i.e. press release) headlined, “Strong evidence that shale drilling is risky.”
The report also mentions that methane is not a substance regulated as harmful in drinking water. A scientist in the field wrote to me to note that ingestion in the concentrations the researchers found is very unlikely to be a health risk. He also said that the simple solution to the fairly common problem of methane in your water well is to use a ventilated storage tank, so the gas can evaporate off before consumption.
Despite my distinct lack of research funding, I have a different theory about the gas the Duke scientists found. Have you ever noticed how oil drilling often happens near natural oil seeps, because, well, the seep shows that there's oil there? I'd be mighty surprised if they invested millions to drill for gas in places where there isn't any gas in the ground.
All this studying, of course, doesn't stop documentary makers (and commenters) from making wild allegations about chemicals and radioactivity. Among the things that they didn't find in the drinking water, for example, is radium-226. This is a common substance that occurs naturally in most rock. It was the first radioactive material found, and it's the reason why the inside of caves are more radioactive than the outside of caves.
“It'll kill ya”, says one documentary, inventively entitled Fracking Hell. (Now why didn't I think of a play on an activity that is somewhat risky, but highly recommended nonetheless?)
Fracking Hell quotes James Northrup, a “former energy industry investor” (whatever that means) on the level of radium in shale at 2.5km depth. The level he mentions is, of course, considerably higher than the very strict permissible exposure limits to ordinary citizens. However, that level does not occur anywhere near where humans are exposed to it. Moreover, the level he mentions is less than the lowest level at which a statistically measurable increase in cancer risk begins. “It'll kill ya,” the idiot grins. No it won't.
The same documentary, and many other alarmist articles, offer an ominous list of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, and go on about how awfully poisonous they are. Many people who commented on my column said that they're a big secret. No, they aren't. Here's a registry of fracturing fluid chemicals. (Thanks to Jacques Rousseau for the link.)
To illustrate the chemical hysteria, let's consider this scare story, which builds on one falsehood (“The controversial gas-drilling practice is tainting water”) to float another (“Your food might be next”).
Ethylene glycol is described as a “lethal toxin”. True, that it is. But we also put it in our cars, because it is a corrosion inhibitor and coolant. Every time we have a car accident, we dump the stuff in the storm-water drains. Ever seen a hazmat crew cleaning the road after an accident? Thought not. Because that would be overkill. Ethylene glycol, while poisonous, is simply not that scary.
Hydrochloric acid is described as damaging skin, lungs and eyes. I put some in the swimming pool this morning, to create a lethal cocktail just a strong as the poisons used in hydraulic fracturing.
Benzene, they say, is a potent carcinogen. True enough. But anyone – even grinning idiots – can buy this useful solvent in pure form from the supermarket. Sure, I wouldn't recommend sniffing it, but it's perfectly safe if stored, used and disposed of responsibly.
The fact is that these chemicals rarely cause pollution. That doesn't stop Northrup from spouting some truly inane waffle about what would happen if a tanker truck filled with hydraulic fracturing chemicals were to crash. Since when are tanker trucks filled with hazardous chemicals limited to shale gas drilling operations, or hydraulic fracturing in particular? If that's your standard for safety, you'd better ban fuel tankers and milk trucks too. Ever seen what happens to a river full of spilt milk? It's worth crying over.
Chemical spills are accidents. They do happen, of course, and when they do they need to be dealt with rapidly and responsibly. But out of many thousands of gas wells, pollution incidents have been rare, and have never once been attributed to the process of hydraulic fracturing itself.
The best the story under examination can come up with is two cases from last year, involving a grand total of 44 cattle that were exposed to polluted water from gas wells. By comparison, a group tracking chemical contamination in livestock handles ten requests per day. The writer seems blind to the fact that this disclosure shows that the worry about hydraulic fracturing is just baseless hysteria. Risks exist, but they are small and manageable.
In my column I singled out Andreas Späth for the transparency of his attempt to hang a naïve argument against all fossil fuels exploitation on the environmental scare tactics over shale gas drilling. In his response, one of the claims he makes is that I trivialised water consumption of gas drilling.
True, I put the quantities needed in perspective. Perhaps I was a little sarcastic. However, I added quite clearly that because of the sensitivity about water in an arid region such as the Karoo, Shell, for one, had from the start committed not to compete with farmers and residents for water. There are a few possibilities open to gas drilling companies to find water usable for hydraulic fracturing, and a number of technical solutions to disposing of it. A recent article in the Cape Times suggests that one of my own favourite options – using saline acquifers found in deep rock strata – is also on Shell's shortlist. Moreover, they've offered to recycle the produced water at their own expense, so the Karoo will have more water than when gas drilling started. How Shell solves the water problem is its own affair, but so far, indications are that it is entirely capable of finding a solution that is agreeable to everyone.
The rest of Späth's column is quite vague, and involves arguments about proving a negative. He writes: “The fact is that neither Shell nor anyone else has a sufficiently detailed enough understanding of the hydrogeological conditions in the region to be in a position to guarantee that potable groundwater reservoirs will not be contaminated. Groundwater migration is often very slow and there is simply no way that gas drillers can be certain that the long-lived, harmful chemicals they inject into the ground will not cause long-term groundwater contamination for generation [sic] to come.”
Ignoring the unwarranted slight against Shell's hydro-geologists, this argument is false in every respect in which it is provable. As the Duke study showed, there is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing is a systematic risk to drinking water. Occasional accidents will happen, typically at well-heads, but all well drilling is subject to this risk. Accidental spills are subject to perfectly normal remediation and compensation processes.
While boning up on course material from the International School of Well Drilling, I was interested to learn, for example, that cleaning polluted aquifers is one application for a particular kind of well drilling. What happens is that if a water aquifer gets polluted by a spill of some sort, they drill wells, pump out the water, treat it, and re-inject the clean water. Costly? Sure. Will the government hold gas drilling licence holders to such cleanup requirements if they mess up? Of course they will.
Another fact that merits attention is that far from causing groundwater contamination, deep wells have routinely been used to dispose of industrial waste. Half a million deep injection wells exist in the United States, and 34 billion litres of waste officially classified as “hazardous” goes down them ever year. These waste disposal wells are, for all practical purposes, identical to shale gas wells. Why? Because deep wells are the safest place we know to put stuff we don't want in our drinking water.
Many objections to hydraulic fracturing were made, but in 70,000 words I couldn't find a single one with any merit. Except that Karoo farmers have every reason to object, because they stand to gain nothing. South African farmers don't own the mineral rights on their own land. Therefore, they have no reason to agree to any exploitation of those rights near their land, no matter what the risk. This, however, is not an argument against shale gas drilling, but an argument against nationalisation of mineral rights. Now that the state owns those rights on behalf of the nation, it is perfectly reasonable to expect it to grant exploitation rights to private investors willing to take the commercial risk.
In an email to me, Gerrit van Tonder from the University of the Free State's Institute for Groundwater Studies notes that South Africa's potential shale gas reserves rank fifth in the world, after China, the United States, Argentina and Mexico.
This is a bountiful treasure, and in the absence of evidence that this will do any appreciable damage to anyone's farm or to the environment, South Africa would be daft not to permit its responsible, sensible exploitation. DM
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