A response to fracking critics
- Ivo Vegter
- 24 May 2011 08:37 (South Africa)
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
- How to kill a baby, naturally!
- Miserere mei, the Ebocalypse is here!
- Advanced technology or magic?
- Tourism: Still doing okay? Let’s fix that!
- Green-left messiah desperately seeking spin-doctor
- The gun genie and its bottle
- On energy, environment, and regulatory independence
- South Africa’s schools of witchcraft and wizardry
- Grab shale gas opportunity, but avoid opportunism
- It’s about who you don’t vote for
- Free markets as a moderate position
- Voting: there’s still time to change your mind
- Green tech is cool, but not because it’s green
- How Mmusi Maimane swindled a vote out of me
- The case to elect Malema to Parliament
- The intellectual gnome, Chomsky
- If Malema isn’t Pol Pot, is he still dangerous?
- Do Malema's followers understand ‘agrarian reform’?
- Look ma, I'm defending Shell's record in Nigeria!
- Any weather is evidence for global warming
- U-turn prof finds his fracking fears are avoidable
- Ramphele et al: The world according to angry feminists
- On HIV/Aids and scary-big numbers
- Cherry-picking ‘grey literature’ on rhino horn
- 350,000 reasons to kill a black rhino
- Eight myths about libertarians
- New Year’s resolutions for other people
- All I want for Christmas is a fire pool
- In defence of Donald Trump
- My old South African flag
- Fearful Fukushima fiction fatigue
- Do we tolerate private sector corruption?
- In defence of a lion killer
- Save the rare wine and endangered craft beer
- Forever blowing bubbles: shale gas economics
- Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill: When “certainty” means “wait and see”
- This land is my land: a revolution
- The launch of SA's Libertarian Party: herding cats in time for 2014
- The African case against the ICC
- The fossil fuel subsidy myth
- Think of the little fishies!
- The hilariously misunderstood libertarian
- The sickly history of sweeteners
- Pants on fire, but they’re not mine
- The obstructionism of shale gas activists
- How mind-numbing numbers whip up fear
- Why pick on Khanyi Dhlomo?
- Half-measures will fail the rhino
- Malema’s righteous anger... and naïve confusion
- Lottery licence to go to one lucky winner
- Vaccinations: when the state stabs the people
- Do reusable shopping bags kill people?
- The long walk to serfdom
- The Karoo desperately needs development
- The trials of Samson Shuttleworth
- The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest
- Raping the discourse about rape
- Who is the reasonable man?
- Fracking: Debating a big deal
- Who needs the Queen’s English?
- Electric cars: Taking from the poor to give to the rich
- Business Licensing Bill: An indefensible defence
- Red-tape tourism
- The Big Business Bribery Bill
- On Thatcher and society, Vavi and the market
- Extinction: Let’s make up numbers and panic!
- Feeding the world is getting easier
- Stop talking shit: Build your own toilet
- Climate change is pseudo-science
- Anti-competitive competition law
- The Department of Less Government
- An open letter to President Zuma
- In defence of Kim Kardashian
- The world’s weirdest wildlife sanctuary
- Boycott calls are simple-minded
- In defence of vegans
- The population explosion implodes
- Environmental backpedalling picks up pace
- How Mangaung can help and hinder entrepreneurs
- The elusive libertarian enclave
- The Gathering: Ivo Vegter
- The hidden overemployment crisis
- The case for constructive environmentalism
- Privatise the Western Cape's shacks
- Tenders: Not open to employees or their families
- Hurricanes fuel climate sensationalism
- Next: Gross-out warnings on food
- No new deal: The failure of Zumanomics
- Benoni has a bright idea
- Was I wrong about acid rain?
- Public food gardens: Where dumb ideas thrive
- Rethinking the costly food label madness
- Give hunting a chance
- Fracking gets green light, but here's the risk
- Socialists, bless 'em, visit Cape Town
- Buy a 1Time ticket now
- Give the ANC credit where credit is due
- The myth of the competent apartheid government
- It's a disaster that 'peak oil' is not a disaster
- No Gravy: a label for sustainable business
- This lightbulb's going to blow
- Smokers? Get 'em up against the wall!
- Inflating the obesity scare
- Bring a Shotgun to School Day
- GMOs: Hacking genes to feed the world
- The hidden dangers of charity
- Fracking: the unread paper debated
- Fracking: The “U-turn” paper nobody has read
- Eco-cronyism is as dangerous as any other
- SKA: Be grateful Karoo residents didn't object
- Energy: Get cracking on fracking
- Fair trade, unfair trade-off
- Casual labour is only bad for Vavi's unions
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- How do we fix our dismal education?
- Barter: the rebirth of sound money
- Rights are not entitlements
- Debunking 'limits to growth' inanities
- Tax: Why align with "most other countries"?
- Newspaper sensationalism doesn't help rhinos
- Rolling Stone reprises Gasland's fracking fantasies
- Cosatu's manipulative march move
- Why do 16 million people not constitute an economy?
- The age of smear politics
- Does fracking cause earthquakes?
- The Chinese model is morbidly obese
- Green tech: doubling down on a losing bet
- Rape, pornography, and hell's grannies
- Petrol taxes won't hurt the poor
- Jailtime mooted for bad weather warnings
- Let's ban bans, and start with CITES
- In defence of overpaid sport stars
- On the death of Kim Jong-Il
- COP17: Let's ban fire
- Cancer gets you when nothing else can
- COP17: The 'party on' agenda
- COP17: The Blue Line of Death
- New seven natural inanities
- Occupiers' anger is all that makes sense
- The Luddites and Technocrats live on
- Malema marches for economic slavery
- Profitable purveyors of pudendal prettiness
- Sense? Us?
- If they want rhino horn, let's sell them some
- "Stimulate" economy by ending telco abuses
- Executive pay makes nobody poorer
- Malema's real persecution
- Mogoeng: Lock up your daughters
- Don't mandate insurance, deregulate healthcare
- I sympathise with Malema's persecution complex
- Short selling: panicked pols ban proof of failure
- Don't blame those who saw it coming
- What's obscene about profit?
- In defence of Bombela
- Dear president Zuma, you are not above the law
- The economics of love
- Treasure the Karoo? Ban the SKA!
- Malema is right, you know
- Gautrain's PPP: political patronage profiteering
- Kumi Naidoo is no hero
- LeadSA fails to lead when it matters
- No logo means carte blanche
- The drug war: dopey but dangerous
- A response to fracking critics
- Don't vote. It's your right.
- Welcome Walmart
- If you're happy and you know it clap your hands
- Buy local, support poverty
- Ubuntu, the free-market way
- Karoo fracking scandal exposed!
- I'm ashamed for my profession
- The bill of bunkum
- Being gay: a brand new concept!
- Who's afraid of the nuclear wolf?
- The nationalisation canard
- Ogilvy should grow a spine
- The new robber barons
- A classy revolution: Why we cared
- Bombastic Bombela balks
- Liberty is more than mere democracy
- Gautrain has a law unto itself
- The irony of 'services for all'
- How to hire a hitman in SA
- Arrive alive and neurotic
- The oppression of taxis
- Protection of Information Bill and why WikiLeaks is so dangerous
- Fifa, Russia and Qatar deserve each other
- One day, we'll all hate WikiLeaks
- The cycling mafia strikes again
- What Julius got for Christmas
- Let's return the beads
- Away with fascist seat belt laws
- Tintin Mbeki in the Sudan
- How the ANC can make everyone happy
- Currency: the race to the bottom.
- Hurrah for national healthcare!
- Give Zimbabweans citizenship
- Carte Blanche has no carte blanche
- That finger-licking, lip-smacking taste
- Bomb the barbaric lot already
- Green tax: another raid is coming
- Do strikers deserve anything?
- The media will lose this battle
- Global warmism needs a fisking
- A glass half-full
- Go ahead, have a baby
- Stop the handouts - end xenophobia
- The right to fire
- FIFA's heart of darkness
- Have some self-respect
- I ordered an orange skirt
- Secretly, Match blames South Africa
- The stupendous Gautrain: a rare marvel!
- The Fifa conquistadors are coming!
- What's wrong with everyone?
- Leave poor BP alone
- The destructive power of government
- The bonsai economy
- The darkness of Africa
- Who is ripping off whom?
- Anatomy of a whitewash
- While FIFA takes over, we fight
- The pointless pretence of Earth Hour
- Ten reasons to reject climate alarmism
- Really, boycott the FIFA farce
- The climate dominoes fall
- Lessons in ethics from Dick Cheney
- Screw the consumer
- In defence of bankers
- Break the banking cartel
- Julius Malema, the walking contradiction
- Boycott FIFA
- Climate clarity
- In defence of Boney M
- Pray Copenhagen fails
- Capitalism is not unkind
- Climate fraud kills people
- Pop goes the hot air balloon
- Peace, love and schadenfreude
- The irony of the left
- Too late to cool it?
- Going cold turkey