The real frac fear

May 14, 2012
For disclosure of chemicals injected into the subsurface during the hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells, the issue now is timing.

For disclosure of chemicals injected into the subsurface during the hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells, the issue now is timing. The US Department of the Interior proposes to make disclosure occur after fracing on federal land. Environmental groups, ever wary of any concession to the industry and desirous of new ways to impede its work, say disclosure should occur before the procedure.

Timing of disclosure will receive its due airing before Interior publishes a final regulation. That the department is even performing this work, however, shows timing is really a side issue. Much more important was disclosure's past contribution to the fear in which federal initiatives in this area now ground themselves.

Redundant regulation

Federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing is redundant. It will slow development of unconventional oil and gas resources on federal land—somewhat if regulation is reasonable, egregiously if not. It is occurring because many Americans came to fear unjustifiably that fracing would contaminate ground sources of drinking water. In the murk beneath this concern, which facts and history should be able to mitigate, a larger, less widely held fear is at play.

The public fear was partly intuitive but mostly provoked. People see that aquifers and shales share the subsurface. To many of them, thousands of feet of intervening rock might as well be sponge. To them, something injected below surface can migrate anywhere in an incomprehensible realm beneath the visible.

So sensational stories about methane catching fire at water taps—a phenomenon unlinked to fracing—generated panic. Then came reports of industry reluctance to discuss frac fluid additives. Those reports were true. For competitive reasons, companies didn't want other companies to know what types and mixtures of dilute chemicals they used to fabricate permeability in tight reservoirs. The secrecy had to do with competition, not evasion. In fact, it's never been difficult to learn what chemicals are used in hydraulic fracturing. Formulations related to rocks, however, are trade secrets.

But propagandists can make secrecy, whatever its motivation, look sinister. Even the Environmental Protection Agency, which has begun regulating air quality around frac jobs, prejudged the groundwater threat. In cases in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Texas, it made announcements that it later had to disclaim about having found evidence of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing. But EPA's retreat, like Interior's concession on disclosure timing, are gusts in a storm. The irrational demonization of hydraulic fracturing is embedded in politics, evident most recently in Vermont's statewide ban on the procedure. Unnecessarily, the federal government will regulate.

Federal leasing and permitting, already too slow, will become slower. Groups hoping to obstruct oil and gas work will have a new level of jurisdiction in which to seek delay. Frac-fluid recipes will breed lawsuits. States will migrate toward federal regulation. Inevitably, there will be less unconventional oil and gas work than there would have been if regulation had been left to states.

Less work satisfies the other fear underlying the federal crackdown on an activity that merits no such thing. It's the fear of what might happen if nothing but state regulation and operator caution constrained hydraulic fracturing. It's the fear that hydrocarbon energy doesn't soon meet its geologic fate.

Vast resources

Unconventional resources are vast. They're becoming technically and economically viable because of hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, and refinements and adaptations of those technologies. Suddenly, the US can contemplate self-sufficiency in hydrocarbon energy. The unconventional promise appears to be that lavish.

A corollary to that promise is a diminished future for renewable energy. It doesn't mean the absence of a future for solar, wind, hydrogen, and biomass; it means for these costly energy sources steadily growing roles supplementing rather than displacing cheaper oil, gas, and coal. For supporters of exotic energy such a future inspires great fear. For most other people, it should seem only rational—and certainly not a reason to jump over economic cliffs trembling about a 60-year-old completion method.

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