By Simon Lomax
Be afraid. Be very afraid…
That was the Denver Post’s front page article on March 16, which profiled a couple – Mieko and Charles Crumbley – who claim seismic surveying near Brighton, Colo. damaged a groundwater well on their property and put cracks in some of the walls in their home. But the oil and gas company that commissioned the survey says its contractors did not cause the damage, according to the story by the Post’s environmental writer Bruce Finley. Sounds like one of those classic “he said, she said” situations, right?
Well, no, actually. In reality, the claims by the Crumbleys are very unlikely, based on readily available facts on the way seismic surveying works. But the reporter failed to include those facts, and painted a misleading and frightening picture for his readers.
The type of seismic surveying in question is carried out by vibroseis trucks, which are informally known as “thumper trucks.” The use of these trucks has greatly reduced the use of small dynamite charges in seismic surveying. Here’s how the reporter describes the way these vehicles work:
“[T]he trucks, weighing up to 30 tons, drop heavy, metal vibrator plates from their undercarriages to thump and shake the ground. Analysis of pressure waves, similar to ultrasound, generates data that companies use to determine where to drill for oil and gas.”
Sounds pretty ominous. But take a look at this video of some vibroseis trucks in action:
In fact, while these vehicles are unquestionably big, the vibrations they create are very small. For that reason, scientists with state and federal agencies, experts in academia, the geologists and engineers of the oil and gas industry, and even other media outlets have reaffirmed the safety of vibroseis trucks many times. Here are a few examples:
In an urban environment, vibroseis-generated waves are less than background noise generated by buses, trucks, and trains … At its source you can feel a vibroseis shake the ground but as you move away your ears will hear the airborne sound waves much longer than your feet can feel those in the ground.
Residents standing near a vibroseis truck … may be able to detect it, but this process will not cause any interruptions of daily life or damage to structures.
Despite their relatively benign operations, these big machines sometimes appear more daunting to the populace than the commonplace dynamite. To assuage any concerns in that regard, companies sometimes resort to public demonstrations prior to operations. … Two light bulbs and two raw eggs were buried eight inches under the vibrating pads. Following the demo, the eggs were retrieved unbroken and the light bulbs still worked – to the amazement of the crowd of onlookers…
“If you stand near the truck you’ll be able to feel slight shaking in the bottom of your feet, but the level of shaking is far below the levels required to cause damage to pavement or structures” said [USGS scientist Rob] Williams.
The seismic imaging process does not damage the street or negatively impact the earth below ground.
[T]here is no reliable evidence of these trucks causing well problems or damage to buildings.
Unfortunately, the Post story didn’t just leave out these expert opinions. The article went a step further and suggested the Crumbley claim was one of several structural damage complaints. From the news story:
“State records show that since 2000, residents have filed 16 formal complaints about seismic surveys.”
Given the statements by the USGS, NETL and others about the very low risk of structural damage from vibroseis truck, we asked the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to identify those 16 complaints, which include the Crumbley case. Then we reviewed the case files on the COGCC’s online database.
It turns out just three of the complaints allege any structural damage from vibroseis truck operations. The rest of the complaints mostly deal with disputes over property access, noise and the potential impact of these heavy vehicles on soil and crops. Besides the Crumbley case, there are no other complaints of damage to a house, and only two allegations of damage to water wells.
In the first water well complaint, from 2000, the COGCC concluded there was “no indication that oil and gas activities in this area impacted the well.” It turned out the well was located next to the burned-out shell of an old house, hadn’t been used in two years, and there was trash both around and floating inside the well. In the second water well complaint, from 2002, the COGCC found“no direct evidence of impact due to oil and gas operation” and concluded “[t]he most probable cause is corrosion in the casing from a shallow aquifer.”
So, instead of state records showing 15 other cases that support the Crumbley complaint, there appear to be none. Which makes sense, of course, because state and federal officials, industry experts and academics have repeatedly said that vibroseis trucks are very unlikely to cause structural damage.
However, let’s play the reporter’s game for a moment and assume the worst possible interpretation of those state records. Even when you group together all the 16 complaints to the COGCC that mention seismic surveying over the last 13 years – and include some more from residents in Aurora, Colo., as the Post’s story did – it’s hardly evidence of a commercial activity run amok. In fact, the Post’s own reporting suggests an average of between one and two complaints a year. That’s not bad when you consider Colorado’s oil and gas production has more than doubled since 2000. And it’s not scary either.
Of course, only time and further investigation will tell whether the Crumbley’s claims – however unlikely – are correct or mistaken. We’ll also have to wait and see if the alarmist tone of this particular news report scares some other residents into blaming seismic surveying for cracks in their drywall. But we can say two things now without equivocation: The oil and gas industry will cooperate fully with the state regulators investigating this matter, and the business of seismic surveying is nowhere near as scary as reporter Bruce Finley would have you believe.
This column appeared originally on Energy In Depth, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America as a research, education and public outreach program “focused on getting the facts out about the promise and potential of responsibly developing America’s onshore energy resource base.”
For a well-researched, easy-to-read, factual primer on hydraulic fracturing, check out our paper Frack Attack: Cracking the Case Against Hydraulic Fracturing.
By William Yeatman and Amy Oliver Cooke
As Coloradans we thought we might have to apologize to the rest of the country if President Barack Obama nominated former one-term Colorado Governor Bill Ritter to head the Energy Department. If the President wanted to make electricity costs skyrocket and the eco-left community happy, Ritter was his guy, but the President didn’t pick him.
Despite his dense résumé and desire to cut emissions, however, Moniz can be a polarizing figure in scientific and environmental circles. Few experts deny the value of a scientist as DOE chief, but many fans of renewable energy worry about Moniz’s gusto for natural gas and nuclear power — not to mention his financial ties to the energy industry.
‘We’re concerned that, as energy secretary, Ernest Moniz may take a politically expedient view of harmful fracking and divert resources from solar, geothermal and other renewable energy sources vital to avoiding climate disaster,’ Bill Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a recent press release. ‘We’re also concerned that Moniz would be in a position to delay research into the dangers fracking poses to our air, water and climate.’
And the Washington Post reports:
But over the past couple of weeks, many environmentalists and some prominent renewable energy experts have tried to block the nomination of Moniz because of an MIT report supporting “fracking” — as hydraulic fracturing is commonly known — and because major oil and gas companies, including BP, Shell, ENI and Saudi Aramco, provided as much as $25 million each to the MIT Energy Initiative. Other research money came from a foundation bankrolled by shale gas giant Chesapeake Energy.
‘We would stress to Mr. Moniz that an ‘all of the above’ energy policy only means ‘more of the same,’ and we urge him to leave dangerous nuclear energy and toxic fracking behind while focusing on safe, clean energy sources like wind and solar,’ Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement Monday.
The Sierra Club doesn’t have much credibility because financially it was sleeping with the enemy, having taken $26 million from Chesapeake Energy to destroy the market for coal. One place they enjoyed great success was in Colorado with HB 1365, the fuel switching bill and cornerstone of Ritter’s “New Energy Economy.”
Governor Ritter coined the term New Energy Economy for his signature agenda. In practice, his New Energy Economy entails three policies: (1) a Soviet-style green energy production quota; (2) subsidies for green energy producers; and (3) a mandate for fuel switching from coal to natural gas. Renewable energy is more expensive than conventional energy, and natural gas is twice as expensive as coal in Colorado, so these policies inherently inflated the cost of electricity.
Last month, the Independence Institute published the first ever line item expensing of Ritter’s energy policies, and the results were shocking. In 2012, the New Energy Economy cost Xcel Energy (the state’s largest investor-owned utility) ratepayers $484 million, or 18 percent of retail electricity sales.
This princely sum purchased the equivalent of 402 megawatts of reliable capacity generation. By comparison, Xcel had a surplus generating capacity (beyond its reserve margin) in 2012 of 700 megawatts—almost 75 percent more than the New Energy Economy contribution. Thanks to Governor Ritter’s energy policies, Xcel ratepayers in Colorado last year paid almost half a billion dollars for energy they didn’t need.
In addition to implementing expensive energy policies, Governor Ritter also has experience picking losers in the energy industry. In May 2009, Governor Ritter hand-delivered to Secretary Chu a letter in support of a $300 million loan guarantee for Colorado-based Abound Solar, a thin-filmed solar panel manufacturer. In the letter Ritter claimed Abound would “triple production capacity within 12 months, develop a second manufacturing facility within 18 months and hire an additional 1,000 employees.”
Taxpayer money couldn’t keep Abound afloat, which never reached production capacity. After its solar panels suffered repeated failures, including catching fire, Abound declared bankruptcy in early 2012 leaving taxpayers on the hook for nearly $70 million and even more at the state and local level. A former employee explained, “our solar modules worked so long as you didn’t put them in the sun.”
Abound Solar wasn’t the only pound-foolish Stimulus spending associated with Governor Ritter. During his administration, the Colorado Energy Office’s coffers swelled with almost $33 million in stimulus subsidies for weatherization efforts. According to a recent report by the Colorado Office of State Audits, the Ritter administration failed to even maintain an annual budget for the program. As a result, the audit was unable to demonstrate whether the money had been spent in a cost effective manor. All told, the auditor found that the energy agency could not properly account for almost $127 million in spending during the Ritter administration.
Ritter told the Fort Collins Coloradoan that the scathing audit accusing the agency under his watch of shoddy management practices was not the reason the President passed over him for Energy Secretary.
The former Governor is especially proud of the job creation associated with the New Energy Economy. To be sure, throwing taxpayer money at any industry would create jobs. The problem occurs when the public money spigot runs dry. In this context, an October 22, 2012 top fold, front page headline in the Denver Post is illuminating: “New energy” loses power; A series of setbacks cost over 1,000 jobs and threatens the state’s status in the industry. To put it another way, in the two years since Ritter left office, his New Energy Economy has atrophied in lockstep with the reduction in public funding.
Ritter has taken to proselytizing for the gospel of expensive energy. He founded the Center for the New Energy Economy, the purpose of which is to, “provide policy makers, governors, planners and other decision makers with a road map that will accelerate the nationwide development of a New Energy Economy.” He even brought with him the former head of the beleaguered energy office Tom Plant to work for him as a “policy advisor.”
So far Ritter’s bad energy policy has remained largely within the Centennial State, and, for now, that’s where it will stay. With the choice of Moniz, the rest of the country can breathe a sigh of relief. For Coloradans, we’re still stuck with him.
William Yeatman is the Assistant Director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Denver, Colorado. Amy Oliver Cooke is the Director of the Energy Policy Center for the Independence Institute
For the last four years, the state of New York has imposed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing supposedly to give Governor Andrew Cuomo time to study the process before making a decision on whether or not to lift it.
Four years seems like a long time to study a process that has been around for decades and used safely and successfully in multiple states during that time. Now we may have some evidence as to why it has taken that long.
Last week the New York Times reported Gov. Cuomo, a democrat, buried a state analysis concluding that hydraulic fracturing can be performed safely in the empire state. According to the Times, Cuomo “has long delayed making a decision, unnerved in part by strident opposition on his party’s left.”
Coming from a politically savvy family (his father Mario Cuomo was Governor from 1983-1994), Cuomo is no stranger to party squabbles, which makes this situation even worse. A seasoned politico, Cuomo is so frighten by his eco-left flank that instead he chose to bury the facts, bury the science that came from his own state agency.
Based on the degenerating fracking dialogue in Colorado, Cuomo’s fears are justified. He may have read how the eco-left has attacked Colorado democrat Governor John Hickenlooper, a former geologist, for his support of fracking. Or Cuomo could have watched this scary video of protesters getting in Hick’s face and surrounding his car. Or maybe he saw the “Faces of Hate” in Boulder.
These tactics are meant to intimidate and squash free speech. They seem to work in New York.
“The function of the Human Relations Commission is to foster mutual respect and understanding and to create an atmosphere conducive to the promotion of amicable relations among all members of the city’s community.” Boulder Human Relations Office
For a community with an “Office of Human Rights” and is home to a university with a multi-million dollar diversity department, Boulder was anything but an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance of diverse opinions during a December 4 public hearing on land use and hydraulic fracturing.
Newspaper (Denver Post, Daily Camera) accounts of what happened that night do not adequately convey how quickly events spiraled out of control, so much so that anti-fracking activists, including children, took over and forced Boulder County Commissioners Cindy Domenico, Deb Gardner, and Will Toor from the room.
With the commissioners gone, a group of well-coached child activists, who call themselves “Earth Guardians,” took charge and chanted an anti-fracking rap, which the adults repeated in a cult-like manner. Then the “Earth Guardians,” seated in chairs reserved for the county commissioners, symbolically voted to ban hydraulic fracturing.
This behavior wasn’t limited to a few rude attendees. Dozens of adults participated and encouraged the children’s inappropriate behavior. Paul Falkenberg of 23rd Studios posted a video of the chaos, which provides a more accurate portrayal of how the situation deteriorated at the start of the hearing.
After order was restored some 30 minutes later, the meeting proceeded. Wendy Wiedenbeck, community relations advisor for Encana Oil and Gas, provided testimony on her company’s position about possible new fracking regulations. A man (presumably Falkenberg) taped Weidenbeck’s six minute testimony and can be heard interrupting her, which included a suggestion that the community “tar and feather your [Wiedenbeck’s] ass.”
As troubling as those incidents are, they pale in comparison to the treatment that Wiedenbeck and another female colleague endured after they left the hearing. The same man who taped Wiedenbeck’s public comments, along with several others, harassed and threatened the women as they walked back to their vehicle calling them “killers,” screaming that they are “poisoning our children,” and shouting at them to leave Boulder and never return because they aren’t welcome; they aren’t wanted. Fear is obvious on the face of the young blonde woman who walked with Wiedenbeck, but it did not deter the mob.
The angry anti-fracking gang menacingly reminded the women “we know your name,” and followed up with “this [harassment and threats] is a shadow what is to come.” Watch the video (begin at the 6:27 mark) to get the full impact of the unadulterated hatred these people demonstrated toward Wiedenbeck who was simply doing her job.
An interesting side note, research into 23rd Studios and Paul Falkenberg reveals he recently moved to Boulder from New York. His area code is from Manhattan, which is ironic since part of his strategy is to question where she lives, where her children go to school and to demonize Wiedenbeck assuming she isn’t part of “the community.”
This video conjures up the image of the iconic photo of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, who bravely endured a “thicket of racism” when she walked alone into Little Rock High School on September 4, 1957. A photographer captured the hatred on a young white woman’s face as she screamed behind the black teenager.
Like the conduct of those white students in 1957, the behavior captured on these videos is meant to intimidate reasonable people into silence. Who would want to risk that kind of treatment just to support fracking?
Even the Boulder County Commissioners recognized it for what it was – eco-left thugs trying to intimidate and silence any dissent. The next day, December 5, the commissioners issued this statement:
The Boulder County Board of Commissioners deeply disapproves of the conduct of certain individuals who came to disrupt the public hearing on proposed Land Use Code regulations for oil and gas development in unincorporated Boulder County last night.
As a county, we have a long history of respecting the First Amendment rights of all, and as a Board we greatly respect and appreciate the opinions and information which was brought forth at the hearing and for the respect and conduct of the majority of attendees once the hearing was underway.
The troubling activities last night included the disruption at the beginning of the hearing by a group of individuals intent on overpowering anyone in the room with an opinion different than their own; the jeering of a spokesperson from the oil and gas industry during her testimony – and mob harassment, cursing at and intimidation of the same representative and her colleagues as they left the building and walked several blocks to their cars; a bullying atmosphere in and around the hearing room; and outbursts of cheering for threatening rhetoric aimed at quashing opposing opinions.
Suppressing alternative comments and shutting out voices through intimidation and fear is not part of the democratic process we hold dear. As your publicly elected officials, we strive to create a safe environment for people of all opinions to come forward and provide input and feedback in our public hearings.
As we mentioned repeatedly during the hearing last night, we call upon residents to be considerate of all by allowing everyone’s voice to be heard in a respectful manner.
Last night’s efforts by a small segment of attendees to threaten and intimidate a speaker walking to her car was nothing short of shameful. Public hearings should create a space for everyone to feel comfortable to participate. Furthermore, any speaker should be able to attend and leave a public hearing free of threatening harassment.
As much as it pains us to do so, we will be creating a security plan for future hearings to ensure that everyone is made to feel welcome for taking the time to let his or her voice be heard. In the interest of helping to create this safe environment, the plan will entail the removal of individuals who elect not to participate in civil discourse and the prosecution of individuals who threaten the safety of other individuals.
From the perspective of the Independence Institute, hydraulic fracturing is a mature process and a safe and reliable way of extracting oil and natural gas that otherwise may not be recoverable. It is an economic and environmental blessing for Colorado and the nation. For more information, please read “Frack Attack: Cracking the Case Against Hydraulic Fracturing.”
While we support fracking, we also acknowledge that no energy resource is 100 percent risk free. But to suggest that the fracking process kills babies is so utterly absurd, it should be dismissed immediately and those making the claims should be discredited. That isn’t likely to happen because people and the industry are afraid of the well-funded, angry so-called environmental groups. Critical thinking is the victim. The eco-left’s irresponsible verbal venom is killing any kind of reasonable public debate.
Boulder isn’t the only place this has happened. Just a few months ago Longmont anti-fracking activists swarmed Democrat Governor John Hickenlooper, a former geologist and fracking supporter, screaming “dirty water, dirty air, we get sick and you don’t care” and plastering signs on the windshield of his vehicle as he tried to leave a community event. Watch the video here. Now, there is an online petition to recall him.
The eco-left doesn’t want to compromise on regulations. After accepting more than $25 million to kill coal by advocating conversion of coal fired power plants to natural gas, groups like the Sierra Club now want to rid the U.S. of natural gas. Of course this isn’t even remotely possible and would be an economic and environmental disaster.
The time has come for reasonable people to stand up to eco-hate and intolerance. For those with the courage to show their support for fracking and find pleasure in irritating the extreme eco-left, email email@example.com. The Independence Institute will send you a free “Mothers In Love with Fracking” T-shirt. Just pay $5 for shipping and handling. Wear it if you dare!
Energy Policy Center Director Amy Oliver Cooke has fun talking energy, especially when wearing a hot pink “Mothers In Love with Fracking” t-shirt. Thanks to Tom Barry of The Villager for this photograph and his article on the American For Prosperity (AFP) event that featured Dick Morris. AFP invited Amy to be the warm up act to discuss Obama’s energy policy.
IP-10-2012 (July 2012)
Author: Donovan D. Schafer
PDF of full Issue Paper
Scribd version of full Issue Paper
A ban on fracking would not satisfy those who present general arguments against any kind of development. Acceptance of these arguments would require an outright ban on all oil and gas activities, new wind farm construction, electric transmission construction, residential housing developments, road construction, and the like. Before accepting any argument against fracking as sufficient grounds to restrict or ban its use, one should take that argument to its logical conclusion and consider the full set of repercussions. For if such arguments are granted valid status, they will be used again and again by whichever parties can benefit from shutting down any particular form of development.
By Donovan Schafer
The Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) at the University of Colorado recently published an article in Science of the Total Environment presenting results from a study on air pollution due to oil and gas development (including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) in Garfield County.
Benzene and other ”potentially toxic” chemicals were found at concentrations potentially hazardous to human health, the article said. But before this study, or any similar study, can be taken as a basis for alarm, several questions should be answered: What are these “potentially toxic” chemicals? Where do they come from? And how dangerous are they really?
To answer these questions, it will be helpful to focus on just one chemical, benzene, which is the chemical most often associated oil and gas development, and in the case of the CSPH study, “the major contributor to lifetime excess cancer risk.”
Benzene is inextricably linked to oil and gas development because it is a natural hydrocarbon- like methane, propane, octane, and the hundreds of other chemicals in the mixtures we call “crude oil” and ”natural gas.”
Consequently, benzene also is found in gasoline, diesel fuel, and engine exhaust. And, because benzene is a powerful solvent, small amounts (in a mixture called “petroleum distillate”) are added to fracking fluids to make it easier for the other chemicals to dissolve.
Also, benzene is used as a feedstock in manufacturing other products, including nylon, plastics, polymers, resins, and adhesives.
Given these uses, it should not be surprising that benzene can be found everywhere, not just near oil and gas development.
“Benzene is ubiquitous in the atmosphere,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Not only does it come from tailpipes, but also cigarettes, volcanoes, forest fires, and even campfires.
Government agencies, however, are not alarmed by the benzene in our daily lives, because they recognize that the mere presence of a substance (the fact that a laboratory can physically detect it) does not automatically pose a threat to public health. It is equally important to determine what concentrations can actually do harm.
At what level, then, does benzene become a problem? The truth is, we don’t know. The EPA does the best it can to estimate the risks at various levels; however, its data is limited. In the case of benzene, the EPA uses a 1987 study, in which workers were exposed to concentrations of benzene literally thousands of times higher than the levels the EPA is trying to estimate.
The EPA then extrapolates (i.e. draws a best-fit line) from the data to estimate a concentration that will result in 10 additional cancer cases (not necessarily deaths) per million people exposed.
This is essentially the same as increasing the cancer risk of an individual by one-thousandth of a percent (0.001%).
For benzene, the EPA estimates that a 0.001% increase in cancer risk corresponds to exposures of 0.4 parts per billion (ppb) in the air and 10 ppb in drinking water. For even greater caution, the actual limit on drinking water, enforceable under the Safe Drinking Water Act, has been set at 5 ppb.
While a 0.001% risk may seem small to begin with, there are two critical assumptions built into these estimates that need to be remembered: First, the estimated concentrations represent the lowest concentrations within wide ranges of uncertainty.
As explained by the EPA, there is an “equal scientific plausibility” that the real levels of benzene that cause a 0.001% increase in cancer risk are 3-times higher than the current estimates.
Second, the estimates assume a person will be exposed to the same concentrations during their entire lifetime. This is especially unlikely in the case of benzene, which is biodegradable and does not last long in the air. (The CSPH study does make adjustments for the second assumption; however, this is often not the case in other studies, or at least, in how they are presented to the public.)
Understanding the assumptions built into EPA estimates is essential to evaluating studies like the CSPH one, because these studies almost always express their findings in relation to EPA estimates. Without such an understanding, the studies can give an exaggerated perception of the risks involved.
It is equally important to consider a study’s findings in context. The CSPH study calculated an increased cancer risk of 10 cases per million people living near oil and gas development.
However, according to the EPA’s National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), the average increased cancer risk nationwide due to air pollution is 50 cases per million. The risk in Denver is even higher (80 per million) simply because it is an urban environment.
In Garfield County, where the CSPH study was conducted, the NATA risk is 20 per million.
Thus, a person living near oil and gas development in Garfield County will experience a total increased cancer risk of roughly 30 per million, far below the national average, and less than half the risk from living in an urban environment.
While benzene and other air pollutants should not be ignored when discussing oil and gas development, it is important for the public to recognize that estimates and limits set by the EPA represent very small -though perhaps not insignificant-risks, and that these risks are comparable to the risks associated with automobile emissions, urban living, and industrial activities in general.
This article originally appeared in the Denver Business Journal, June 22, 2012.
The Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) at the University of Colorado recently announced an article that will be published this month in the journal Science of the Total Environment. The article is based on a study of air pollution resulting from oil and gas development (including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) in Garfield County. According to the announcement, the article will reveal findings of benzene and other “potentially toxic petroleum hydrocarbons” at concentrations potentially hazardous to human health. But before this study, or any similar study, can be taken as a basis for alarm, several questions need to be answered: What are these “potentially toxic” chemicals? Where do they come from? And how dangerous are they really?
To answer these questions, it will be helpful to focus on just one chemical: in this case, benzene—the chemical most often associated oil and gas development. Focusing on benzene will also be helpful in evaluating the CSPH study, because, according to the announcement, benzene was the “the major contributor to lifetime excess cancer risk” found in the study.
One reason benzene is so often associated with oil and gas development is that it’s a natural hydrocarbon—like methane, propane, octane, and the hundreds of other chemicals in the mixtures we call “crude oil” and “natural gas.” Consequently, benzene is also found in gasoline, diesel fuel, and engine exhaust, which further increases the presence of benzene near oil and gas development. Lastly, because benzene has desirable chemical properties, it is also separated from crude oil for use in industrial applications, including—among many other things—use as an additive in fracking fluids.
Given the uses above, it should not be surprising that benzene can be found everywhere, not just near oil and gas development. According to the toxicology profile provided by the US Department of Health and Human Services, “Benzene is ubiquitous in the atmosphere.” Not only does it come from tailpipes, but also cigarettes, volcanoes, forest fires, and even camp fires. Government agencies, however, are usually not alarmed by the benzene levels found in our daily lives, because they recognize that the mere presence of a toxin (the fact that a laboratory can physically detect it) does not automatically pose a threat to public health: It is equally important to determine what concentrations can actually do harm.
At what level, then, does benzene become a problem? The truth is, we don’t know. With limited data, the EPA does the best it can to estimate relative risks at various levels of exposure. In the case of benzene, the EPA uses a 25-year-old study (published in 1987), in which workers were exposed to concentrations of benzene measured in parts per million (ppm)—concentrations literally thousands of times higher than the levels the EPA ultimately tries to estimate. The EPA then performs a linear extrapolation (i.e. draws a best-fit line through the data) to estimate a concentration of benzene that will result in 10 additional cancer cases (not to be confused with cancer deaths) per million people exposed. This is essentially the same as determining a level at which the cancer risk for an individual increases by one-thousandth of a percent (0.001%). When considering studies like the CSPH study, it can be more useful to think of the increased cancer risks on the individual level because the exposures in such studies are localized and rarely affect more than a million people—typically they affect a few hundred or less.
For benzene, the EPA estimates that a 0.001% increase in cancer risk corresponds to exposures of 0.4 parts per billion (ppb) in the air and 10 ppb in drinking water. For even greater caution, the EPA set the actual limit on drinking water, enforceable under the Safe Drinking Water Act, at 5 ppb.
While a 0.001% risk may seem small to begin with, there is one critical assumption that needs to be remembered when using these EPA estimates: the calculated risks assume a person will continue to be exposed to the same level of a toxin or carcinogen for their entire lifetime. This is especially unlikely in the case chemicals like benzene, because it is a biodegradable substance—and, in the case of the CSPH study, it is produced by temporary activities.
Also worth considering is the fact that a wide range of uncertainty results from the process used to generate the EPA estimates. Within the range of uncertainty, the EPA selects the most conservative (i.e. the most protective) estimate to establish as the official estimate. Thus, as explained in the EPA calculations, there is an “equal scientific plausibility” that the real levels of benzene corresponding to a 0.001% increase in cancer risk could actually be more than 3-times higher than the current estimates (1.4 ppb in the air and 35 ppb in the water).
These are important considerations when evaluating studies like the CSPH study, since these studies often express their findings in relation these EPA estimates. Without a proper understanding of what these estimates represent, they can give an exaggerated perception of the relative risks involved. Consider, for example, the EPA report that found benzene contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming. In press releases, it was announced that benzene was found at levels 49 times higher than the EPA limit. This, no doubt, caused considerable alarm for the public—but few realized that this represented a 0.02% increase in cancer risk, again, assuming a lifetime of exposure at that level. However, just six months later, the benzene level had fallen 40%. Adjusting for this rate of biodegradation, the total increased cancer risk would have been only 0.0005%. And while this level represents a very low risk, it’s also worth mentioning that this level was found in a deep monitoring well, specifically used to detect contamination—in other words, not a single person was ever actually exposed to this level of benzene. Unfortunately, none of these considerations, are quite as attention-grabbing as the statement: “Benzene found at levels 49-times above Safe Drinking Water Limit!”
Just as it is important to understand what EPA limits represent, it is also important to consider how the increased risks from a particular activity relate to increased risks from air pollution in general. The CSPH study calculated an increased cancer risk of 10 cases per million people living near oil and gas development. But, when compared to the average increased cancer risk nationwide—due to factors such as automobile emissions and industrial activity—the numbers are not quite as alarming. According to the EPA’s most recent National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment, the average increased cancer risk nationwide due to air pollution is 50 cases per million. The risk in Denver is even higher (almost 80 per million) simply because it is an urban environment. Garfield County, on the other hand, has a risk of only 20 per million. Thus, a person living near oil and gas development in Garfield County will experience a cancer risk of roughly 30 per million, far below the national average, and less than half the risk that results from living in an urban environment.
Benzene and other air pollutants should not be ignored when discussing oil and gas development. But it is important for the public to realize that the limits set by the EPA reflect concentrations that present very small—though perhaps not insignificant—risks, and that these risks are comparable to the risks associated with automobile emissions, urban living, and industrial activities in general.
It should also be remembered that, for the purposes of this post, benzene was used as an example because it is one of the most dangerous and most common chemicals associated with oil and gas development; however, the same considerations and relative risks apply the many other chemicals associated with oil and gas development—including xylenes, trimethylbenzenes, aliphatic hydrocarbons, and other compounds that will likely to receive attention in the CSPH study.
This post will be the first in series on hydraulic fracturing (”fracking”), in which Independence Institute research associate, Donovan Schafer, will take on specific issues related to fracking. In this post he focuses on the claim that fracking will deplete Colorado’s water resources. Enjoy!
Two recent articles—one in the Denver Post and another in the Huffington Post—present the issue of water depletion as it is commonly presented by those who oppose fracking. Wendell G. Bradley, in the Denver Post, urges lawmakers to “cut off fracking’s unconscionable amounts of water use,” while Gary Wockner, in the Huffington Post, warns that fracking would use up the “last drop in the bucket of Colorado’s rivers.”
These views simply do not reflect reality. In January, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission issued a joint report estimating that fracking would account for just eight-hundredths of a percent (0.08%) of Colorado’s annual water usage—far less than what we use for recreational purposes (5.64%) and slightly more than what we use to make fake snow (0.03%).
But fracking is different—these authors claim—because the water is left in “deep subterranean cavities,” and thus fracking “permanently remove[s] billions of gallons of water from the hydrologic cycle.” This statement gives the false impression that fracking can significantly affect the hydrologic cycle. It cannot. The hydrologic cycle is not a fixed supply of freshwater, but rather a constantly recharging system that begins with the nearly infinite expanse of the oceans.
Just for fun, let’s accept the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prediction that sea levels will rise by one foot during the next century. A few simple calculations show that it would take one hundred million (100,000,000) frack-jobs, each using 5 million gallons of water, to counteract the predicted one-foot rise in sea level. In other words, the oceans which serve as the starting point for the hydrologic cycle cannot possibly be affected by hydraulic fracturing in any significant way—and even if they could be affected, the general effect would be to counteract the threat of rising sea levels, which we are constantly warned about.
Some of the fracking nay-sayers, seem to concede these points, but then they go on to assert that there is still a problem. They warn that even a small additional use of water will be enough to completely dry up the system. Consider Gary Wockner’s line of reasoning:
It is true that the state of Colorado contains millions of acre feet of water, and that fracking may only need a small percentage of it. But more importantly and to the point, it is also true that fracking is a brand new use of water . . . . Fracking would certainly contribute to being the last drop in the bucket of Colorado’s rivers.
But this, too, is misleading. Every drop of water withdrawn requires, by law, approval from water permitting authorities. Furthermore, these permitting authorities cannot simply give away the proverbial “last drop.” Currently, by law, all new water uses must be balanced against current water uses. To quote the CDWR Report, “water cannot be simply diverted from a stream/reservoir or pumped out of the ground for hydraulic fracturing without reconciling that diversion with the prior appropriation system.” Claims that fracking will gobble up the last drop are just plain nonsense.
In the face of claims like those presented in this post, remember these three points:
- Fracking would present a mere 0.08% of Colorado’s annual water usage;
- Even though some water is left underground, the amounts of water involved cannot possibly have an appreciable effect on the hydrologic cycle, because that cycle is fueled by our massive oceans;
- And, lastly, the added water uses from fracking will not suck the system dry, because current laws require that new uses be reconciled and balanced with current appropriations.
Stay tuned for more coverage of the specific fracking issues that you need to know about.
by Donovan Schafer
In a recent report, the EPA linked groundwater contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming, to the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing (”fracking”) used to extract oil and gas. You can almost hear the collective “Hooray!” from anti-fracking advocates. But the actual data in the EPA report make it clear that fracking is safe.
The Wyoming report found contamination in two deep monitoring wells that were drilled specifically to detect contamination. But in addition to these wells, the EPA tested 51 domestic wells and not a single one of these wells showed any signs of contamination that could be linked to fracking.
Strangely, this information is not made clear in the EPA report. Instead, it is buried in the lab data. There are literally thousands of “ND” (Not Detected) entries for every imaginable compound and chemical that the EPA thought it could link to fracking. Yet these results, for all 51 domestic wells, are not discussed or presented anywhere in the EPA’s sensation-seeking report.
While the deep monitoring wells do appear to link fracking to groundwater contamination, they do not link fracking to drinking water contamination. It’s misleading when the EPA report says that an Underground Source of Drinking Water (”USDW”) was contaminated, because the EPA’s definition of USDWs is so ambiguous that the entire 3,000-foot-thick Wind River Formation (the one beneath Pavillion) is lumped into a single USDW, even though it has more than 30 separate freshwater zones.
So was any drinking water contaminated, and is anyone’s health at risk? The results from the 51 domestic wells respond with a resounding “No!”
The fact that none of the domestic wells were affected by fracking is even more impressive when we consider the circumstances and the complex geology of Pavillion. The depths of the domestic wells were separated from the fractured zone by as little as 400 feet, which is incredibly small when compared to operations in Colorado and throughout the country.
Geologically speaking, the ground beneath Pavillion is a mess. Most regions have multiple clay-rich layers that spread uniformly throughout the area and act as impenetrable barriers between fracking and groundwater. Pavillion has none of these layers, and therefore represents a worst case scenario by which we can test the safety of fracking. As the 51 domestic wells show, fracking does indeed pass this test.
No doubt, anti-fracking groups will retort that the EPA found benzene, a carcinogen, in the deepest monitoring well at levels 49 times higher than the EPA limit. But this well was drilled deeper than any domestic well in the entire area, and when the EPA tested for benzene in domestic wells it came up empty handed. Furthermore, the EPA limit on benzene is extreme. The average person absorbs more than 36 times the EPA limit, every day, from sources including candles, incense, and campfires.
Fortunately, here in Colorado, there’s no need to argue about chemical limits, because unlike Pavillion, the fractured zones are separated from groundwater by, not hundreds, but thousands of feet. Take, for instance, the Wattenberg field in Weld County. Oil and gas in this field come from the Niobrara Shale and the Codell Sandstone, both of which are separated from the deepest aquifers by more than 4,000 feet of impermeable rock.
What happened in Pavillion was the first incident ever recorded, in which fracking was shown to have contaminated groundwater. It happened under unique circumstances, in the worst of all geological settings, and resulted in a level of contamination (in a well that nobody uses) comparable to the exposures from everyday life.
Although the EPA seems eager to increase its own power by scaring Americans away from fracking, the facts about Pavillion help us understand why fracking in Colorado is the safest, most environmentally benign way to grow tens of thousands of new jobs in Colorado’s energy economy.
This article was originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, December 17, 2011.