New Brunswick

Does the natural gas industry need a new messenger?

Anthony Ingraffea writes about the various myths that are often used by the natural gas industry to support shale gas development.

A series of special op-eds about the shale gas industry

Anthony Ingraffea is the Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering and Faculty Fellow at the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future (ACSF) at Cornell University.

Ingraffea is also the president of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy.

The university professor is visiting New Brunswick in November and December to discuss hydro-fracking. The event is being hosted by the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

To hear the natural gas industry tell it, the only problem with natural gas is bad public relations.

"The public is skeptical of anything we say," says Tisha Conoly-Schuller, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association.

Her advice is for industry to get "other messengers to carry positive messages about oil and gas to a skeptical public," and she touts university professors as the ideal: they "polled highest and are well-positioned in that regard."

I am a university professor, but I’m certain Conoly-Schuller and her colleagues decidedly won’t like my simple message for them: "Tell the whole truth."

And I’m only one of hundreds of critics delivering that message. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a self-confessed "early optimist on natural gas," laments, "The industry's worst actors have successfully battled reasonable regulation [and] stifled public disclosure while bending compliant government regulators to engineer exceptions to existing environmental rules."

In his New York Times commentary The Fracking Industry’s War On The New York Times – And The Truth, he goes on to note that, "Captive agencies and political leaders have obligingly reduced already meager enforcement resources and helped propagate the industry's deceptive economic projections.  As a result, public skepticism toward the industry and its government regulators is at a record high."

The U.S. Secretary of Energy’s Subcommittee on Shale Gas Production in its Nov. 16, 2011, report ominously stated, "…if action is not taken to reduce the environmental impact accompanying the very considerable expansion of shale gas production expected across the country – perhaps as many as 100,000 wells over the next several decades – there is a real risk of serious environmental consequences causing a loss of public confidence that could delay or stop this activity." Bad PR, indeed.

Myths and reality

The trouble with the industry’s PR is that it’s built on myths.

Myths always have at least a kernel of truth, but you have to listen to the whole story, carefully, not just the kernel.

And then ask questions about the myth. After years of deception, the whole natural gas story is starting to emerge, and engineers, like me, plus scientists, physicians, generals, admirals, ranchers, farmers, landowners and regulators – including U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson – are seeking answers to those questions.

With decades of geopolitical influence and billions of dollars on the table, it is not surprising that the gas industry has perpetuated dozens of myths to keep the public in the dark, regulators at bay, and the wells flowing. 

Let’s take the four most persistent myths:

1. Fracking is a 60-year-old, safe, well proven technology

Yes, fracking is 60 years old. But using this shorthand obscures the truth that what’s at issue here isn’t really just fracking. It's the entire process of coaxing gas from shale using high-volume, slickwater fracking with long laterals from clustered, multi-well pads.

Used together, they form a new process, having been introduced about five six years ago, the jury is still very much out on its safety.

2. Fluid migration from faulty wells is rare

Fluid migration is not rare. For example, industry researchers Watson and Bachu, in a Society of Petroleum Engineers paper in 2009, examined 352,000 Canadian wells and found sustained casing pressure and gas migration.

They found that about 12 per cent of newer wells leaked, considerably more than older wells. Yes, the industry’s own researchers found that a substantial percentage of wells leak initially, an even higher percentage of wells leak eventually, and now more wells are leaking than in the past; the process is getting worse, not better.

Most recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found benzene, methane and chemicals in water-monitoring wells in Pavilion, Wyoming, and EPA chief Lisa Jackson admitted "It is possible that fracking in one bearing zone may have impacted nearby areas that may contain some groundwater."

3. The use of clustered, multi-well drilling pads reduces surface impacts

Such pad sites are large and growing, up to 10 acres or more. Newer sites, in Canada, are bigger than 50 acres, and each will leave behind clusters of wellheads and holding tanks for decades.

Cluster drilling facilitates and prolongs intense industrialization and leaves a larger, more concentrated, and very long-term footprint, not a smaller and shorter one.

4. Natural gas is a "clean" fossil fuel

The newest evidence here is discouraging. NASA climate scientist Drew Shindell’s work, published in the prestigious journal, Science, shows that methane – natural gas – is 105 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a global warming contributor over a 20-year time horizon, and 33 times more powerful over a century.

Unfortunately, unconventional gas drilling techniques actually leak more methane than conventional ones.

Leaks happen routinely during regular drilling, fracking and flowback operations, liquid unloading, processing, and along pipelines and at storage facilities.

The rate of leakage is anywhere from 3.6 per cent to 7.9 per cent of the lifetime of production of a shale gas well, which means from three to 200 per cent greater leakage rate than from conventional gas wells. When it comes to global warming potential, production of gas from shale creates effects greater than that of coal or oil.

Other myths

There are plenty of other myths swirling around this debate which require analysis: local job-creation versus the reality of imported expertise from Oklahoma and Texas; development of a home-grown resource versus selling gas on the world markets; revitalized, vibrant local economies versus boom-and-bust syndromes of strangled small business investment and profits sent to Norway or China; natural gas as a short-term bridge fuel to renewables, versus an impediment to developing the long-term sustainable energy future the world so desperately needs.

Donald Siegel and Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University professor, will discuss hydro-fracking at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday on CBC Radio's Shift with Paul Castle.

Everyone from the most zealous drillers to environmentalists wish natural gas could solve the oil-dependency problem. Military leaders, in particular, argue that there’s a strategic, national security imperative in getting off oil.

But a group of senior U.S. generals and admirals in early November acknowledged "concern" about the potential to "pollute underground water reserves" even as they suggested a role for natural gas in weaning the West from oil. The group further allowed that "…to the degree this proves true…and the industry cannot remedy the problem, this could limit the viability…" of natural gas as an alternative fuel.

Our nations need to have an intelligent conversation about our energy needs, but we must not allow one industry to dominate the discussion and to derail efforts for a more diversified energy portfolio.

After scouring academia, industry will surely find highly paid voices to offer these and other myths as fact in New Brunswick. But keep asking questions, dig for the truth, and you’ll get the whole story.