Calling out extremists

Aug. 27, 2012
Everything the executive director of the International Energy Agency said in Houston this month needed to be said and cannot reasonably be disputed.

Everything the executive director of the International Energy Agency said in Houston this month needed to be said and cannot reasonably be disputed. Like many leaders who express right thoughts about development of unconventional oil and gas resources, however, Maria Van der Hoeven didn’t say enough.

In a speech at the Baker Institute of Rice University, Van der Hoeven tempered enthusiasm about the supply potential of oil and gas in low-permeability reservoirs with warnings about the need for careful development. “The industry must win public confidence by demonstrating exemplary performance,” she said. “And governments must ensure that appropriate policies and regulatory regimes are in place.” She warned against “excessive regulation” while calling for “effective” safeguards and rules. If the public doubts the effectiveness of oversight, she said, “We are likely to see a backlash against unconventional extraction methods and blanket bans.”

Important half-step

These are all valid points. And Van der Hoeven took an important half-step when she set benefits of energy supply from unconventional resources against “legitimate public concerns” about environmental and social effects, including “implications for water resources, land use, and disruption to local communities.” What she didn’t say is that public concern is being misshapen by strategic exaggeration and falsehood from pressure groups committed to replacing oil and gas with costlier alternatives.

Typical of these groups is EarthJustice, formerly the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. It condemns hydraulic fracturing, the well-completion technique central to development of tight reservoirs, as “fracking,” which it says is “poisoning our air and water and on its way to jeopardizing the health of millions more Americans.” Never mind that the oil and gas industry has hydraulically fractured wells for 60 years without jeopardizing anyone’s health. To EarthJustice, “fracking” is a conveniently discordant word applicable to anything that suits its high-cost energy agenda.

The EarthJustice web site features an interactive map of North America showing multiple locations of “fraccidents.” The map marks incident locations with clickable black buttons labeled with skulls and crossbones. It thus implies that hydraulic fracturing has caused death across the continent. But clicking the icons produces vignettes having little to do with well completion.

People ignite natural gas flowing from water taps in their homes—a phenomenon known to result from methane occurring naturally in shallow strata, usually coal, far from fracture zones. A woman gets a headache and becomes nauseous near a rig drilling a gas well. A compression station explodes. Several gas wells blow out around the country over a period of years. To the extent these mishaps relate to hydraulic fracturing, they reflect the affiliated surge of drilling, not the completion technique itself. And yes, when any heavily mechanical activity increases, the risk of accidents increases, too. To EarthJustice, though, these are all “fraccidents” threatening millions. “Fracking” thus becomes an all-encompassing demon requiring exorcism.

No less an authority than the US Environmental Protection Agency succumbed to this propaganda and lost credibility in the process. In the past year it has announced findings of harm from hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming from which it later, when facts became clear, had to retreat. The completion method with an ugly name poses no mass health threat. But it does provide a handy focus of scorn for extremists eager to discourage oil and gas work.

Organized obstructionism

Legitimate public concern is important. It deserves priority attention. Organized obstructionism is something quite different. It masquerades as concern of the other kind, using the platform to propagate alarmism in service to an energy program that most of the legitimately concerned public never would support.

Someone needs to isolate the pressure mongers and challenge their misinformation. Anyone in the oil and gas industry trying to perform this public service would be dismissed as lacking credibility. The task instead might represent a righteous mission of enlightenment for some serious organization dedicated to truth about energy. Van der Hoeven might know of such a group.