Science, Emotion, and the Public Interest

June 16, 2015

It turns out hydraulic fracturing isn’t the root of all evil after all.

Over the years, opponents of domestic energy production have spent millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours maligning the oil and gas industry as a bunch of comic book villains bent on destruction of our land and resources. Typically, the chief culprit in these attacks is hydraulic fracturing, a well completion process that is central to the shale oil renaissance taking place in the Permian Basin and across the country.

Despite the game-changing turnaround in domestic oil and gas production – not to mention the hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in tax revenue it generates – opponents blame this process for everything under the sun. Like many things in our popular culture, “fracing” is vilified by organizations with an axe to grind and something to sell.

In the past few months, we have seen a wave of reports and studies from the academic world and the Environmental Protection Agency setting the record straight on hydraulic fracturing, what it does and – perhaps more importantly – what it doesn’tdo.

Most recently, the EPA’s draft study, Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources, released this past week, concludes that they “did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” The study goes on to cite the extremely low percentage of hydraulic fracturing fluid (less than 2%, the other 98% is essentially water and sand) that contains chemicals of any kind. Also illustrated is the basic premise that successful extraction of oil and gas requires an absolute separation between those resources and groundwater. The simple fact is that mixing oil and water isn’t just bad for the environment, it’s bad for business, and drillers avoid it at all costs.

In addition to the EPA study, researchers from Southern Methodist University testified before the Texas House Committee on Energy Resources in Austin last month about their recent study on seismic activity in Texas. Contrary to the popular narrative, this study and others like it do not draw a link between hydraulic fracturing and earthquake activity. When asked if injection wells in the Azle area northwest of Fort Worth were causing earthquake activity, Matthew Hornbach, Ph.D, an Associate Professor of Geophysics at SMU responded by stating “that would be hard to believe”. Later on in the same hearing, Rep. Drew Darby from San Angelo asked if hydraulic fracturing is causing earthquakes and was told there is no correlation.

Media coverage of this report and the researchers’ testimony left out these important exchanges, focusing instead on the very narrow set of circumstances where there could be an impact if not properly managed, primarily injections of extraordinary pressure directly into a fault line. The fact is that the industry avoids those conditions and regulators have updated permitting to ensure that we do.

The oil business runs on facts, figures, and empirical data, and producers know that cleaner technologies and processes will lead to better results. That’s why companies like Pioneer Natural Resources and Apache Corporation are investing millions in water reuse and recycling technology. Operators like Fasken Oil & Ranch, a family-owned oil and cattle ranching company, now use 100% recycled water. That decision costs them as much as $1 extra per barrel, but ensures the sustainable use of their land for generations to come.

For those of us in the oil and gas business, these findings illustrate what we’ve known all along – safe, precise, responsible use of this revolutionary process is not only possible today, it is the reality. As the industry evolves and continues to innovate, the public can expect even more efficient production, higher yields, and a smaller all around footprint – which benefits everyone, both at home and around the world.