Fracturing fear

April 9, 2012
Memo to the people of France: With reference to the fear to which Parliament sacrificed your energy and economic interests last year, please disregard.

Memo to the people of France: With reference to the fear to which Parliament sacrificed your energy and economic interests last year, please disregard. In the United States, which has more practical and political experience with the procedure, hydraulic fracturing looks increasingly like something over which people and governments need not panic.

To the oil and gas industry, of course, fracing has never been a source of immobilizing terror. Producers have fractured wells for decades without hurting anything.

Now, though, the technique has become crucial to development of low-permeability reservoirs. In North America, frac jobs are growing in number, size, and complexity. They're part of a boom in oil and gas supply, a boom detrimental to political agendas committed to displacing fossil energy. In response, proponents of those agendas have promoted fear, mostly about contamination of groundwater.

Orchestrating fear

In an era of tweets, blogs, and instantaneous opinion, fear is especially easy to orchestrate for political exploitation. It can create overnight stigmas. Not long ago, few people outside the oil and gas industry could define "hydraulic fracturing"; now, informed by frantic news stories heavily dependent on sources who happen to be plaintiffs in lawsuits, many Americans consider it a grave threat to public health. Responding to political pressure, two agencies of the US federal government want to regulate the well-completion method, which states regulate successfully. Last year France banned the procedure outright.

The motivating fear, however, is losing traction. On Mar. 30 the US Environmental Protection Agency vacated an emergency order from December 2010 alleging contamination of drinking water supplies by Range Resources gas wells fraced in the Barnett shale of Texas. EPA now says gas detected in water most likely came from a much shallower formation. Earlier in March, the agency said it would conduct new tests of water in Pavillion, Wyo., about which it raised noisy concern last year in a report casting suspicion about hydraulically fraced wells operated by Encana Corp. The operator called the initial report "conjecture." EPA said the new tests will try to "clarify questions about the initial monitoring results.

EPA also has notified 11 households in Dimock, Pa., that hydraulic fracing of Marcellus shale wells operated by Cabot Corp. hasn't spoiled their water, after all. The households are among 60 whose water EPA decided in January to test despite having announced the previous month that it had reviewed data and found no immediate threat. The notifications enraged environmental pressure groups that have made Dimock a showcase for demonization of hydraulic fracturing and now act as though failure to find a health hazard is something to regret.

Apparently, EPA is learning what the industry and its state regulators long have known: Hydraulic fracturing doesn't represent a subsurface threat to drinking water when performed in properly constructed wells, which states effectively regulate. Indeed, Texas regulators pounced on EPA's withdrawal of the Range Resources order to defend what Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman called his group's "science-based processes" in the regulation of hydraulic fracturing. Commissioner David Porter called for dismissal of the regional EPA administrator, whom he accused of "fear-mongering, gross negligence, and severe mishandling of this case."

Crusades of obstruction

To whatever extent these reversals chasten EPA, they won't silence the pressure groups nagging it. Nothing silences pressure groups on crusades of obstruction. That's too bad. A surge in hydraulic fracturing raises real environmental concerns, including surface effects and strains on the resources of state governments. The main risks are aboveground and manageable. But it's easier to create fear about the mysterious subsurface—where drinking water resides—in service to arguments for restricting if not blocking work. Even if EPA continues to moderate its stance on hydraulic fracturing, pressure groups won't.

Their insatiability offers another lesson. As facts moderate fear, which they inevitably if slowly do, uncompromising promoters of fear lose credibility. Governments shouldn't want to share that fate, whether they're in Washington, DC, or Paris.

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