Thank you Captain Obvious


From earthquakes to endocrine disruptors, this year has seen the release of a record number of studies about the variety of impacts from oil and gas drilling. And that makes the oil and gas industry very nervous.

The problem is, not all studies are created equally. Some are more or less remarkable than others. Some are funded by industry using back channel grants to foundations and universities. With so much research and so many studies coming at us from all directions, it’s easy to get lost in the maze. Too much information. It’s hard to sort it all out.

Whenever that happens I shine a big giant “O” over the gas patch and call on Captain Obvious.

Three studies were released this month that captured our super hero’s attention.

This week Huffington Post reported:  Contaminated Water Caused By Leaky Wells, Not Fracking Process, Study Says

What’s obvious about this study?

Well, Rob Jackson, co-author of the study summed it up best: “I don’t think homeowners care what step in the process the water contamination comes. They just care that their lives have changed because drilling has moved next door.”

“Cornell University engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea, who wasn’t part of the study, praised it, adding that he’s worried because ‘it’s impossible to drill and cement a well that will never leak. There’s still serious and significant harm from what’s coming before fracking and what’s coming after fracking’.”

There we have the author of the study and an engineering expert pointing out the obvious. The issue isn’t fracking. The issue is water contamination. So what’s this study all about?

The headline at the industry-darling Smithsonian about this same study says it all —

New Study: Blame Defective Wells for Fracking Leaks
Fixing shoddy wells could mean making fracking safer for the environment

… In a way, this is good news. It means that, if companies would just follow established guidelines, then this method of natural resource extraction can be made much safer. Too often, the BBC reports, fracking operators are under monetary and time pressures to get things done as quickly and cheaply as possible, so they take short cuts that likely lead to the problems that some local communities are now experiencing …

That’s their answer. This unregulated-addicted-to-cost-cutting industry just needs to clean up its act and fracking will become magically safe.

And it’s obvious that’ll never happen.

… As the team told the BBC: “You need enough inspectors on the ground to keep people honest and you need separation between the industry and the inspectors and you don’t always have that in the US.”

Of course it’s obvious that more and better inspectors could ensure the industry follows the rules and doesn’t mess up the environment. And it’s obvious that’s not happening.

Something else occurred this year that’s worth mentioning in the context of this particular study. The definition of “fracking” evolved from “the injection of fluid into shale beds at high pressure in order to free up petroleum resources (such as oil or natural gas)” into a generalized term covering all phases of oil and gas development including drilling, hydraulic fracturing, venting and flaring, pipelines, compressor stations, injection wells, gas processing plants, and truck traffic. The industry likes to parse all those different processes — especially fracking. That way there’s a good chance the average person will find it all too confusing and not pay attention.

Obviously the industry likes this study because they can use it to keep saying that “fracking” doesn’t contaminate groundwater – “not one single proven incidence.”

This next study seems painfully obvious.

Fracking Literally Makes People Sick, New Study Finds

The study “Proximity to Natural Gas Wells and Reported Health Status: Results of a Household Survey in Washington County, Pennsylvania,” published yesterday in Environmental Health Perspectives, found that people who live near fracking sites have more health problems than those who don’t …

It’s not so much that I distrust this study, I don’t see how it furthers the research into the public health impacts of oil and gas drilling. For one thing this Yale University study is based on previous studies by Lisa McKenzie, Michelle Bamberger, Robert Oswald and others. Armed with data obtained through the actual research of others, Yale researchers wrote a set of health assessment survey questions which they sent to residents in one Pennsylvania county. They didn’t examine any actual people or anything. They didn’t do any blood or urine sampling. They just mailed out a survey and crossed their fingers.

Obviously people who are sick responded to the survey. USA Today reported:

People near ‘fracking’ wells report health woes

People living near natural-gas wells were more than twice as likely to report upper-respiratory and skin problems than those farther away, says a major study Wednesday on the potential health effects of fracking …

This is exactly the spin the industry wants out there about this study. People who live near gas wells — meaning people who can see them – complain more about their health problems. The results leave open a couple of misleading interpretations: a) only people who live close to gas wells are impacted; and b) oil and gas drilling doesn’t cause health problems, people just believe their health problems are related to drilling. As I see it, this study contributes little, if anything, to our understanding of the public health impacts of oil and gas drilling.

Finally — don’t drink the frackwater! Doesn’t get any more obvious than that.

Fracking’s Wastewater, Poorly Understood, Is Analyzed for First Time
Researchers determined general chemical footprint of one liter samples, but not relative concentrations, and call for further study

A new study in the journal Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts offers one of the most comprehensive analyses yet of what’s in a type of waste called produced water, a poorly understood and controversial byproduct of fracking.

This peer-reviewed study by a pair of researchers at Rice University in Houston shows that while fracking-produced water shouldn’t be allowed near drinking water, it’s less toxic than similar waste from coal-bed methane mining …

… Study author Andrew Barron said the results showed that produced water “was not quite as bad as we thought” …

Wait a minute. If we didn’t know what was in frackwater before this study how could it be “not as bad as we thought”? How bad did we think it was?

… Researchers did not look closely at the waste’s naturally occurring radioactive materials …

Oh. Yeah. That bad.

Without data on the radioactivity of frackwater it’s obvious we still don’t know how bad it is. Although researchers did identify 25 inorganic chemicals including barium, chromium, copper, mercury, arsenic, antimony, toluene, and ethylbenzene. Those are bad enough.

The frackwater study was funded by and conducted by researchers at Rice University in Houston, “a private university with a substantial endowment and strong ties to the oil and gas exploration and exploration-technology industry.” The point of the study was to ascertain what’s in frackwater in order to determine the right treatment processes. Obviously this study is funded by and benefits the industry. At the same time the workers and the public gain a little more information — but not everything we need to know — about the toxic chemicals we are exposed to from fracking.

I’m not a scientist so it’s not really fair for me to criticize these studies. But that’s what I do.

It’s important to look beyond the headlines and pay attention to the background and details of each study and how the results are being interpreted. Studies that look like a re-packaging of previous studies, or are funded by and/or benefit the industry, or come to too many obvious conclusions do not impress me.

With so many studies being released and many more coming at us, and with these three perfect examples on display, this seemed like a good time to share my simple and fun method of determining which studies contribute less than others to our understanding of the impacts of oil and gas drilling.

Captain Obvious to the rescue!

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2 Comments on “Thank you Captain Obvious”

  1. David Mead Says:

    Let’s talk water? Part of the fracking process is to purposely contaminate fresh water, agreed? Then, the polluted water is injected under pressure deep in the ground, Yes?
    The “industry” and the environmental scientists tell us that this contaminated water can never be reclaimed. I call BS on this assertion! Technology exists to take this water and seperate the toxins from the fresh water. The process is expensive? How do we know? I can’t bring myself to believe this. Isn’t it much more expensive to contaminate millions of gallons of the finite supply of fresh water, rather than forcing profiteers to clean the water and return it to the ecosystem? This is my big problem with fracking. We must not support politicians that allow companies to externalize obstacles that are overcomeable!

  2. Peggy Tibbetts Says:

    It can be “reclaimed” enough to be re-used as frackwater. But it is my understanding they are only at about 10% of total water usage is recycled frackwater. Here’s the rub — WPX has a frackwater recycling facility between Rulison and Parachute but part of the process is to spread the frackwater into huge ponds to allow the chemicals to “dissipate” into the atmosphere — and therefore pollute the air. So it’s a work-in-progress. They aren’t even close to being there yet.

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