Fracking: 'You lose. Check and Mate.'

The bald assertion that you’re wrong is alarming when you’ve spent four years arguing that the environmental risks of shale gas have been grossly overstated and that a domestic shale gas industry would greatly benefit South Africa. When it is demonstrably untrue, it also shows bad faith.

That the South African government had approved final regulations for shale gas exploration and production was terrific news. A full five years after several oil and gas outfits applied for exploration licences, three years after an initial moratorium on drilling was lifted, and almost two years after the publication of draft regulations, it was high time to get on with it. Lengthy delays could seriously hurt the South African economy, as Shell’s threat to up sticks and leave demonstrated earlier this year.

So I must admit that the statement, “You lose. Check and Mate,” in response to a column of mine about hydraulic fracturing, made me look. Had one of the applicants withdrawn their application? Had radical environmentalists filed a legal challenge against the regulations?

Nothing that exciting proved to be afoot, however. The headline to which I was directed declared that “fracking” (as hydraulic fracturing is colloquially known) “pollutes drinking water”. So, apparently, said the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This I knew was not true.

Earlier this month, the EPA released a draft of a long-awaited report (website) on the greatest public fear about hydraulic fracturing, namely the possibility that it could contaminate drinking water. The assessment, conducted at the request of the US Congress, took five years to put together. It reviewed the available scientific literature and empirical data to determine the potential risks to both the quantity and quality of drinking water available near oil and gas wells that use this technology.

Guess what it found? “Anecdotal evidence of accidents resulting in pollution does exist, but they are few and far between, and the industry continually gets better at preventing them. The risks are small and manageable.”

No, wait. That was me, in May of 2012, when I wrote “let’s get cracking on fracking”. I’ve expressed similar views consistently since 2011, when I first addressed the public fears about hydraulic fracturing that were being whipped up by some environmental groups.

What the EPA found was this: “Through this national-level assessment, we have identified potential mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing could affect drinking water resources ... We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. ... The number of identified cases where drinking water resources were impacted are small relative to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”

That sounds pretty much like what I’ve been saying all along.

The EPA is not just a fig leaf. It is a venerable, powerful and often overbearing environmental regulator, the largest of its kind in the world. It has over 15,000 employees, more than half of which are scientists, engineers and environmental protection experts.

It was formed in 1970, when the world had a mere 3.7 billion people, but Paul Ehrlich was predicting imminent mass starvation because of the population explosion. Its founding legislation was enacted in the wake of the 1969 blowout of an off-shore oil rig, Union Oil Platform Alpha. Not to be confused with Piper Alpha, a platform that exploded in the North Sea off the UK in 1988, this was a drilling rig in the waters off Santa Barbara, on the US west coast. It was located near a large natural oil seep off a nature reserve called Coal Oil Point, which spills over 20 tons of oil per day into the sea. (Such seeps are the source of almost half the crude oil in the world’s oceans; only 3% is related to oil production activities.)

The Platform Alpha oil spill became a cause célèbre because it befouled rich people’s beaches in Santa Barbara, California, at the height of the hippie era. A massive clean-up operation by local volunteers got widespread media coverage. Much of today's environmental regulation was built upon the infamy of this spill.

The EPA’s purpose is to rein in environmental damage caused by industry, and despite occasional accidents, there is no doubt that it has been effective in the oil and gas sector. For example, a 2012 study documented that US off-shore oil spill rates in the decades after 1970 plummeted by a factor of 15, and after 1990 dropped still further, to one fortieth of the pre-1970 rate, or 0.0006% of all oil produced.

In a hefty 998 pages, this US agency has now added its voice to those of scientists in the UK and regulators in the EU, regarding the risks of drilling for unconventional oil and gas reserves in shale formations.

The UK’s Royal Society in 2012 issued a much more concise report on the risks of shale gas drilling, which declared: “The health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (often termed ‘fracking’) as a means to extract shale gas can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation. Hydraulic fracturing is an established technology that has been used in the oil and gas industries for many decades. The UK has 60 years’ experience of regulating onshore and offshore oil and gas industries.”

The EU likewise issued a recommendation to its member states that would allow exploration for and production of shale oil and gas using hydraulic fracturing, “while ensuring that the public health, climate and environment are safeguarded, resources are used efficiently, and the public is informed.”

European regulators endorsed the so-called Golden Rules for shale development published by the International Energy Agency (IEA, not to be confused with the EIA, the US Energy Information Administration). It added: “Clear and transparent rules would also help alleviate public concerns, and possibly opposition to shale gas development.”

All of these scientists, regulators and experts – independent of the oil and gas industry – held that while pollution of groundwater could happen, actual incidents were rare and the risks could be effectively mitigated and managed.

So why is it that I was declared to be wrong? One reason is probably simply ideological opposition to the energy industry, which I don’t share but which evokes strong emotions. Another, however, stems from the headline of the article, which unequivocally stated: “Fracking Pollutes Drinking Water, Says Long-Awaited EPA Study”.

Other environmental groups and publications picked the same cherry from the report, yet Newsweek wrote the exact opposite headline: “Fracking Doesn’t Pollute Drinking Water, EPA says”. How does that happen?

The US public broadcaster, NPR, wrote that “both sides claim victory over EPA fracking study”. That is true, inasmuch as shale oil and gas advocates like Energy In Depth and America’s Natural Gas Alliance did cite the report in vindication of their pro-shale positions.

It is not, however, true in the sense that there is any significant division among non-partisan commentators. Newsweek is (officially at least) an unbiased observer in the matter. Publications from left to right, including Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Reuters, Politico, Forbes, Al Jazeera and the New York Times, all stressed that fracking is “not a ‘widespread risk’ to drinking water”.

That drilling for shale gas or oil could, and on rare occasions does, cause localised pollution was never in dispute. In fact, regulations such as the recently-gazetted South African regulations, consist of detailed measures designed to manage and mitigate any environmental, health or safety.

In parallel with initial exploration, a new strategic environmental assessment for shale gas development will be conducted jointly between the departments of science and technology, environmental affairs, and mineral resources. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Council for Geosciences, and the South African National Biodiversity Insitute, will participate in this project.

The EPA report did identify mechanisms by which shale drilling could contaminate drinking water. It also found a few actual cases of illegal activities or accidental spills that led to such pollution. Most of these involved well drilling, wastewater disposal, or surface spills during storage or transport of chemicals or wastewater. These risks are common to many existing industrial processes, including conventional oil and gas activities that have long been permitted under environmental regulations. These incidents were few and far between, however, and hydraulic fracturing itself, which has been the basis of public fearmongering, did not contribute meaningfully to them.

Claiming now that the mere possibility of pollution, or its rare occurrence, invalidates the claims of those in support of shale gas development, is an outright falsehood. Asserting that the essence of the EPA report was that it found fracking pollutes drinking water, is equally untrue. It found almost the exact opposite.

Such rhetoric demonstrates bad faith on the part of radical environmentalists. With religious zeal, they refuse to change their minds when the scientific facts dictate. Instead of offering rational and reasonable risk management policies, they cling on to their fashionable fears. They continue to raise even the smallest of risks as grounds to block industries they dislike on ideological grounds. They continue to oppose progress, while calling themselves progressive. They continue to stand athwart history yelling “stop”, which is the very definition of conservative.

The South African government is right to pay them no heed.

There are, of course, very valid fears about who negotiated what financial deals behind the scenes, but that is a different matter altogether. Corruption, high taxes and levies, and other barriers to good business, are factors in all industries, and especially in sectors of the energy industry in which government is so heavily involved. These factors are grounds to fight corruption and inefficiency, but they are not grounds to oppose any particular industry sector.

There simply are no reasons left to block shale gas exploration in South Africa. Only manageable risks, and great potential benefits, remain. DM.