Saturday, June 25, 2011

Is fracing unsafe to drinking water as it is currently being carried out?

This caught my attention.

From Discover blog, titled: EPA Study Probably Won’t Prove That Fracking is Unsafe, Though It May Be.
For me, the issue of water contamination due to the fracking process is not simply a yes or no question. It is a matter of risk. We must ask ourselves if we are willing to risk the possibility of water contamination occurring in our neighborhood. Given that few of the natural gas sites across the country have caused contamination, I think it is unlikely that the EPA study will demonstrate a direct correlation between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination. If this is the case, this study will do more harm than good by providing evidence, albeit faulty, for the gas industry to argue that fracking is safe. The real question is whether you are willing to take the risk of having undrinkable water. Are you?
Lets look at this, starting at the end....
The real question is whether you are willing to take the risk of having undrinkable water. Are you?
What is that risk?  Is it possible, probable, certain, unavoidable, catastrophic, or unnecessary?  The author does not elaborate on what risk is acceptable, so the conclusion must be that the possibility of a risk of water contamination is enough to stop or significantly change the process of fracing.

Contrary to what the author states, the fracing process really is a yes or no question.  If you say "no" then the risk of water contamination caused by fracing is eliminated.  At the same time, the benefits form this process (cleaner burning fuel, jobs, less foreign dependence, royalties, taxes) are also eliminated.  One goes with the other, so how much risk are you willing to accept for the benefit?

If you say any risk is too much, then how do you reconcile the risk from flying or driving?  We have tons of statistics showing the real negative outcomes from these two events.  We accept the risk, based on the benefit obtained.  You can choose not to fly or drive, but without banning those two processes, you will always be at risk from them.

This is the same with fracing.  There is the possibility of spills, explosions, and contamination just as there is the possibility of drunk drivers, poor maintenance, and underwear bombers.  What then is the incidence of these events?  Well outside of drunk drivers, pretty low, enough so that it does not happen enough to change our behavior.  And when we find a problem, we fix it, reducing the incidence further but never removing the risk altogether.

Does fracing, as it being performed now, present an elevate risk to drinking water such that question of allowing it to take place should be "no"?  What do we know about fracing, which are into the multi-thousands (millions?) of gas wells to date, and drinking water contamination?  Here is what the author of this blog writes:
  • Given that few of the natural gas sites across the country have caused contamination
  • “I’m not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water, although there are investigations ongoing.”
  • The problem with the critics’ argument is there is insufficient evidence to prove that the contaminated water is indisputably due to fracking.
  • but with no analysis of the ground water prior to drilling, one cannot be sure that the contamination is directly caused by the fracking industry.
  • Personally, even though the evidence is sparse and inconclusive, 
  • First, there is little or no evidence that the toxic ingredients in fracking fluid have contaminated drinking water directly from the below-ground wells.
  • Regardless, it seems that the fracking fluid and, in fact, the fracking process is not the problem.
  • There are numerous physical arguments against the possibility that fracking fluid will find its way into drinking water during the hydraulic fracturing process. 
  • Of course, there is the possibility that the cracks created by the process could connect with natural cracks in the rock formations leading to a direct connection between the well and the aquifer, but this is statistically unlikely.
  • As described in the PNAS paper, the problem of contamination is most likely due to leaky gas-wells, not the hydraulic fracturing itself.
  • Second, there are millions of natural gas wells across the country. Very few of them have been linked to any contamination. 
The debate needs to move away from the possibility and towards environmentally friendly drilling and production processes that can be adopted by industry, faithfully carried out, and modified when the data shows it necessary.  

The risk to contamination of drinking water does not appear to be more than any other public or industrial processes currently performed.  We can decrease the risk, we cannot eliminate it.  On the other hand, the evidence and statistics point to a process that is not producing a significant risk to drinking water that would require outright prohibition or modifications for the sake of appearance.

So my answer to his question: "The real question is whether you are willing to take the risk of having undrinkable water. Are you?" Is yes, yes I am.  Just like I am willing to fly in a plane that has a risk of falling out of the air.  I trust the engineers and the mechanics and the regulatory oversight to minimize that risk, not eliminate it altogether.  So far so good.  Same can be said about fracing.