Sorry Josh. You Actually Show Fracking Is Safe

By Thomas Pyle

Recently, filmmaker and leading critic of hydraulic fracturing, Josh Fox, responded to my article that challenges his claims in the sequel to his first science fiction thriller, Gasland. Much like in my critique of his films, the hardest part about formulating my latest response was figuring out where to begin debunking the falsehoods. Ironically, and much to his chagrin I am sure, Fox’s response clearly demonstrates that hydraulic fracturing is indeed safe. After all, if Fox had any actual evidence on his side, he would have been able to accurately produce at least one piece of it.

Fox has made a career arguing that hydraulic fracturing is a dangerous activity that contaminates groundwater. But after decades of the utilization of this technology and years of study showing no evidence that it contaminates groundwater, Fox can only resort to misrepresentations, false claims, and attempt to change the subject.

For examples, Fox’s first paragraph states: Thomas Pyle’s claim on this site that there is not one “confirmed case of groundwater contamination” from fracking is the big lie, repeated often. It’s like saying cigarettes don’t cause cancer. And industry’s intentional disinformation campaign comes from the same tobacco playbook (it even uses the same PR firm).

Note Fox’s technique of argumentation—he claims that it is “the big lie” that there are no confirmed cases of groundwater contamination and then goes straight into a false analogy about tobacco and PR firms. If Fox had facts on his side, he wouldn’t need to engage in this kind of arm waiving about tobacco, because he would just point to examples of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing.

Unlike Fox, when I write that there are no confirmed cases of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing, I can provide support for the claim. For example, President Obama’s leading environmental regulator, former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, testified under oath to a House committee that she was “not aware of any proven cases where the fracking process itself has affected water.” Jackson also told reporters “in no case have we made a definitive determination that the [fracturing] process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” Lisa Jackson, the darling of the environmental community, certainly has no incentive to repeat the so-called “big lie” before Congress or to the media.

Fox must actually understand that hydraulic fracturing is safe. Or at least he admits as much when, instead of providing examples of problems with hydraulic fracturing, he changes the subject by redefining hydraulic fracturing to mean whatever he wants it to mean.

Fox asserts, “Fracking – when taken to mean the entire process of developing an oil or gas well – has conclusively been linked to water contamination by federal and state environmental authorities many times.” The problem is that you cannot take fracking “to mean the entire process of developing an oil or gas well” because that is not what fracking is.

Hydraulic fracturing is one step in the process of developing many wells, but certainly not all wells. As the Environmental Protection Agency explains, “Hydraulic fracturing is a well stimulation process used to maximize the extraction of underground resources; including oil, natural gas, geothermal energy, and even water.”

While an important step indeed, fracking is one small part of the process—a well stimulation process. It is not the entire process of drilling, casing a well, and producing oil and natural gas. It is one step. It is dishonest to suggest that it is anything else.

Fox argues that the situation in Dimock, Pennsylvania supports his argument about hydraulic fracturing. Again, Mr. Fox is not being honest. In Dimock, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection determined that the introduction of methane into 18 private water supplies was the result of drilling activities. Cabot, the company who drilled the wells, disputed the claim, but agreed to provide certain remedies. There is nothing that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found that indicated that hydraulic fracturing was to blame. And while no amount of environmental degradation should be acceptable, no industrial process is completely risk-free, including the production of Hollywood movies.

Fox argues that 5 percent of well casings fail. Once again, this is not accurate. Fox is dramatizing the definition of “fail” in a review of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection enforcement records. The review counted such things as “failure to report a casing and cementing issue” or “failing to submit a corrective action plan” as a failure of a casing. Further, since Pennsylvania clarified and instituted stronger casing and cementing issues in 2011, the frequency of stray gas mitigation has decreased.

Also, if Fox’s 5 percent failure rate were accurate, then other studies should show similar percentages of casing problems in other areas of the country. In 2011, the Groundwater Protection Council, an organization made up of regulators of groundwater issues from all 50 states, analyzed over 200,000 wells drilled between 1983 and 2007 in Ohio and Texas. In Ohio, they found there were 12 incidents of groundwater contamination from well construction issues of more than 33,000 wells drilled (see page 47 of the report). That is a failure rate of 0.036 percent.

The Groundwater Protection Council also looked at Texas. In Texas, between 1992 and 2007, nearly 188,000 wells were drilled. The study found 10 ground water contaminations from drilling and completion activities (page 78) and 2 incidents of “deficient well construction practices” (page 84). That is a failure rate of 0.006 percent. Even if you include all 211 incidents of groundwater contamination in Texas, the failure rate is a mere 0.1 percent. And while not perfect, this remarkably successful track record pertains to the drilling process, not the process of hydraulic fracturing.

In attempting to discredit me, Josh Fox, the leading opponent of the technology that has fueled the economies of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, North Dakota and many hopefully many other states to come (NY will be next if politicians see past the antics of the anti-fracking hysterics like Mr. Fox and Mark Ruffalo), actually demonstrates just how safe hydraulic fracturing is. He provides no arguments to rebut former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson’s Congressional testimony and he reorganizes the facts to suit the narrative in his films. Movies tend to sell better when they are hyped, but serious public policy discussions are not made clearer when such tactics are employed. It is a good thing that the U.S. is safely producing the energy that makes our lives better. It creates wealth so that people can go to movies to entertain themselves and makes people like Josh Fox wealthier than they probably ever dreamed possible. Keep making movies, Mr. Fox. Just stop lying to the public to try and sell more tickets.

Thomas Pyle is the president of the Institute for Energy Research.

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