Fracked gas is only cheap because extractors do not clean up after themselves

I favor David and Goliath stories, especially when Goliath is a dangerous, selfish and greedy force that puts short term profits in front of health and safety issues that may affect generations. Though I have not yet had the opportunity to watch the movie, I have learned enough about Gasland and the industry that it exposes to believe that this is one of those battles where I want to help David win.

If you can tune out the banjo playing, you will hear enough in the eighteen minutes of the above talk from TEDx Vancouver titled Water on Fire: A Natural Gas Drilling Crisis to make you wonder – why is this being allowed to happen?

The sad thing is that all of this drilling is not even resulting in sustainable wealth generation; shale gas wells have a completely different production characteristic than conventional wells drilling in sandy formations where migration to the well is enabled naturally. When a tight formation is stimulated with millions of gallons of fracking solution at high pressure, it enables gas that is relatively close to the collecting pipe to flow quite freely – initially.

Within just a few months, most of that newly released gas has been extracted and the flow rate drops rather dramatically. Within the first year, about 50% of the gas that will ever come from that round of fracking has been collected. While it is possible to drill some additional bores and perform the fracturing process all over again, that requires additional expense, additional water, additional chemicals and additional risk to the local area.

There is a lengthy expose in the February 26, 2011 issue of the New York Times titled Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers that provides a wealth of information about how the oil and gas industry’s headlong rush into expanding production from tight formations like shale is damaging water supplies and increasing health risks. One of the focal points of that article is the fact that the waste water from wells drilled into the Marcellus Shale often contains radium at concentrations that are far above the standards for safe drinking water.

The story’s author, Ian Urbina, found that some gas industry apologists believe that the answer to pollution is dilution.

Regulators have theorized that passing drilling waste through the plants is safe because most toxic material will settle during the treatment process into a sludge that can be trucked to a landfill, and whatever toxic material remains in the wastewater will be diluted when mixed into rivers. But some plants were taking such large amounts of waste with high salt levels in 2008 that downstream utilities started complaining that the river water was eating away at their machines.

He also found that the industry often relies on the results of limited scope studies conducted many years ago, often long before the expanded drilling program for shale gas began, to claim that there is no reason to worry.

For proof that radioactive elements in drilling waste are not a concern, industry spokesmen and regulators often point to the results of wastewater tests from a 2009 draft report conducted by New York State and a 1995 report by Pennsylvania that found that radioactivity in drilling waste was not a threat. These two reports were based on samples from roughly 13 gas wells in New York and 29 in Pennsylvania.

While I caution people to understand, rather than to fear radiation, there is a very real threat if levels are not measured, not properly controlled and not properly respected. I have written about the exceedingly low quantities of tritium associated with leakages from water carrying systems at nuclear power plants and demonstrated that those quantities produce no risk to human or animal health. I have also pointed out that tritium is a weak beta radiation emitter that is almost always tightly bound with oxygen in water molecules that do not linger in any tissue for plants or animals.

In contrast, the radioactive materials that come up with fracturing fluids in a formation like the Marcellus, which has a high enough concentration of uranium and thorium that it was once considered a potential heavy metal mining area. As Marie Curie showed the world more than a century ago, wherever you have natural uranium and thorium deposits, you will find small concentrations of radium and other radioactive isotopes.

The health consequences of frequent exposure radium at high enough concentrations are quite different from those of tritium. Here is another question that begs to be asked – if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s charter includes protecting the public from the hazards of radiation emitting materials, why aren’t the truckloads of waste water from fracked wells subject to NRC monitoring and reporting?

This is not a new issue for the oil and gas industry. Drillers have known for a very long time that their drill bits and other gear that grinds up natural rock formation on the way to finding pockets of hydrocarbons often becomes contaminated with radioactive materials. They also figured out a long time ago that their profits would be put at risk if they had to meet the stringent requirements imposed by the NRC. Petroleum interests worked carefully to ensure that the NRC has no jurisdiction over what they branded as NORM – naturally occurring radioactive materials – associated with oil and gas drilling operations.

Health physicists understand that living tissue has no way to distinguish alpha, beta and gamma radiation into naturally occurring radiation and radiation produced by a human engineered process like operating a nuclear power plant. Legislators, however, are often motivated by wealth and power, not by science or medicine.

The point is not that the word “radiation” should be used as a scare tactic, the point is that radiation is something that needs to be understood and respected. It is a natural part of the terrestrial environment that, like fire, water or gravity, can cause serious negative health effects as well as serving as a useful and beneficial tool. It has to be measured and controlled, both at nuclear energy facilities and at facilities where the source of radioactivity seems to be coming from nature. Regulations should be consistent and consistently applied between both NORM and all other forms of radioactive materials.

As is the case with the flammable and bad tasting wells that Josh Fox found and documented in Gasland, the waste dust and fluids from drilling operations have a negative effect. In order to keep that negative effect to a minimum, operators must take action to collect and control their waste products. As the gas industry will be quick to claim, that will increase their costs and reduce the supply of cheap natural gas that they can produce. That is as it should be – no activity can properly claim to be cheap until it internalizes the full cycle of its costs.

Despite the claims of antinuclear activists, a very good case can be made that the nuclear industry comes closest
of all energy industries to this high, but important standard of internalizing and accounting for all costs associated with generating its important and vital electrical power output. If the nuclear industry’s competitors did the same, the playing field would be significantly closer to being level, the world would be a cleaner and safer place, and our overall prosperity would increase because costs would be properly allocated to the people that impose them.

Additional Reading

Atomic Insights Blog (February 28, 2010) A Nuclear Plant With Small Leaks Puts Less Radioactive Material Into the Human Environment Than Drilling for Natural Gas

New York Times (March 1, 2011) Wastewater Recycling No Cure-All in Gas Process

Climate Progress (February 27, 2011) NY Times on natural gas fracking: “The dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.”

About Rod Adams

35 Responses to “Fracked gas is only cheap because extractors do not clean up after themselves”

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  1. Charles Barton says:

    Great post be Rod Adams, based on terrific investigative journalism by The New York Times. the money quote, “Health physicists understand that living tissue has no way to distinguish alpha, beta and gamma radiation into naturally occurring radiation and radiation produced by a human engineered process like operating a nuclear power plant. Legislators, however, are often motivated by wealth and power, not by science or medicine.”
    Right on, Rod!

  2. uvdiv says:

    So ultralow levels of gas-related radium are a health threat, and ultralow levels of nuclear-related tritium are perfectly safe. Nice to see we’re being objective.
    Among the more obvious flaws of this Times hack job (which is practically a reprint of their anti-nuke hackjobs, if you squint) are
    * Comparing radium levels in small amounts of untreated, concentrated brine (I think it is brine?) with EPA standards for drinking water. All the same misdirections as the VY tritium smears, with a couple more (like the part about the toxic brine not being discharged, but going to treatment plants. Conveniently for the Times, they could find no data about the radium levels in actually discharged effluents).
    “The level of radioactivity in the wastewater has sometimes been hundreds or even thousands of times the maximum allowed by the federal standard for drinking water. While people clearly do not drink drilling wastewater, the reason to use the drinking-water standard for comparison is that there is no comprehensive federal standard for what constitutes safe levels of radioactivity in drilling wastewater.”
    Oh sure, that holds up.
    * Reliance on EPA “standards” as a reference for “safe levels”. In the tritium smearjobs, the EPA standards were orders of magnitude at variance with other countries’, and more orders of magnitude short of background radiation. No idea of their radium methodology, but I’ll bet it is insanely overconservative.
    * LNT. ’nuff said?
    In regards to some of your claims in this blog:
    “The story’s author, Ian Urbina, found that some gas industry apologists believe that the answer to pollution is dilution.”
    Is it not? Between wastewater treatment and many-orders-of-magnitude dilution, if environmental radium levels are below even EPA standards, where is the problem?
    “I have also pointed out that tritium is a weak beta radiation emitter that is almost always tightly bound with oxygen in water molecules that do not linger in any tissue for plants or animals. …The health consequences of frequent exposure radium at high enough concentrations are quite different from those of tritium.”
    But everyone is already correcting for these well-understood effects, the lower energy of tritium betas, the difference between alpha and beta radiation, and the biological residence times (t_1/2 = 1 week for tritium, decades for radium). The baseline EPA standards — what we’re using as reference points — are 3.5 orders of magnitude apart: 20,000 pCi/L for tritium, 5 pCi/L for radium. We’re dealing with comparable, normalized radiation doses (Sieverts), so there’s no substance to this fear-raising.

    • EL says:

      “Conveniently for the Times, they could find no data about the radium levels in actually discharged effluents” (uvdiv).
      The NYT provides a document that draws on two EPA studies on discharge effluents from sewage treatment plants on Ohio and South Fork Tenmile Rivers that found “the rivers would not dilute radium to allowable levels” (once passed through treatment plants).

  3. uvdiv says:

    So ultralow levels of gas-related radium are a health threat, and ultralow levels of nuclear-related tritium are perfectly safe. Nice to see we’re being objective.
    Among the more obvious flaws of this Times hack job (which is practically a reprint of their anti-nuke hackjobs, if you squint) are
    * Comparing radium levels in small amounts of untreated, concentrated brine (I think it is brine?) with EPA standards for drinking water. All the same misdirections as the VY tritium smears, with a couple more (like the part about the toxic brine not being discharged, but going to treatment plants. Conveniently for the Times, they could find no data about the radium levels in actually discharged effluents).
    “The level of radioactivity in the wastewater has sometimes been hundreds or even thousands of times the maximum allowed by the federal standard for drinking water. While people clearly do not drink drilling wastewater, the reason to use the drinking-water standard for comparison is that there is no comprehensive federal standard for what constitutes safe levels of radioactivity in drilling wastewater.”
    Oh sure, that holds up.
    * Reliance on EPA “standards” as a reference for “safe levels”. In the tritium smearjobs, the EPA standards were orders of magnitude at variance with other countries’, and more orders of magnitude short of background radiation. No idea of their radium methodology, but I’ll bet it is insanely overconservative.
    * LNT. ’nuff said?
    In regards to some of your claims in this blog:
    “The story’s author, Ian Urbina, found that some gas industry apologists believe that the answer to pollution is dilution.”
    Is it not? Between wastewater treatment and many-orders-of-magnitude dilution, if environmental radium levels are below even EPA standards, where is the problem?
    “I have also pointed out that tritium is a weak beta radiation emitter that is almost always tightly bound with oxygen in water molecules that do not linger in any tissue for plants or animals. …The health consequences of frequent exposure radium at high enough concentrations are quite different from those of tritium.”
    But everyone is already correcting for these well-understood effects, the lower energy of tritium betas, the difference between alpha and beta radiation, and the biological residence times (t_1/2 = 1 week for tritium, decades for radium). The baseline EPA standards — what we’re using as reference points — are 3.5 orders of magnitude apart: 20,000 pCi/L for tritium, 5 pCi/L for radium. We’re dealing with comparable, normalized radiation doses (Sieverts), so there’s no substance to this fear-raising.

    • EL says:

      “Conveniently for the Times, they could find no data about the radium levels in actually discharged effluents” (uvdiv).
      The NYT provides a document that draws on two EPA studies on discharge effluents from sewage treatment plants on Ohio and South Fork Tenmile Rivers that found “the rivers would not dilute radium to allowable levels” (once passed through treatment plants).

      • uvdiv says:

        As I said, they have no empirical data to support their claims. And what they do provide isn’t even a prediction of what empirical data would be — it is a regulatory model which apparently has orders-of-magnitude safety factors (upwards adjustments) built in.
        It’s also ridiculous at face value. Look at the sequence on critical values starting at p. 558. For disposing into the Ohio river they use (p. 562) a dilution factor of 13 (with an assumption of 100 million gallons/day of concentrated brine being poured in, which seems completely incredible to me but that’s not my point). Under this assumption — that they are continuously pouring in 30% saline brine at a flow rate of 1/13th of the Ohio River, they get (p. 573) — after they take the highest measured Radium sample, and multiplying by 5.6x safety factor — 398 pCi/L in the Ohio River. I don’t dispute this math. This is 80x the EPA’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) (which is still basically safe, but whatever).
        Here’s what I REALLY dispute. Under exactly the same assumptions, they also get this figure for Cl- (chloride) in the Ohio River: 19,162 mg/L (p. 562). Also 80x that MCL. That’s 1.9% Cl-, or a total salinity (assuming Na+ counterion) of about 3.2%. The salinity of the oceans (wikipedia says) is between 3.0-3.8%, so this is literally seawater.
        In short: the “assumptions” that lead to 80x MCL of radium in the Ohio River also predict it the Ohio River turns into seawater. No one is drinking 80x MCL radium unless they are also drinking seawater and they will die anyway. If the Ohio River is not currently seawater, then it is not anywhere close to 80x MCL radium.
        I’d be interesting in an explanation of what on earth these EPA calculations are supposed to mean.
        (postscript — I don’t believe there’s any regulatory violation of radium levels at all. If there were, it would have been trivial for the NYT to pull their own samples of tap water or river water and send them to a lab. Then they could have had a real story (however small). Since they haven’t (or they have and did not disclose the results), as a Bayesian I consider this strong evidence against regulatory violations.)

        • EL says:

          @uvdif. It’s a little more complicated to do what you are suggesting than simply showing up on the stream bank and filling up a sample container. You need to carefully measure baseline levels, understand hydrology of river, establish controls, measure what is going into the plant, and know something about plant operation (since they probably aren’t continuously processing sludge from produced water evaporation ponds). It would basically require a whole different approach to the story, a coterie of scientists from multiple disciplines in lab coats, approvals and broad access to private property, and lots and lots of empirical work over an extended period of time. From the New York Time’s point of view, it’s simply enough to show that nobody has done this work (and we’re using treatment plants in new ways without carefully monitoring the environmental effects

          • uvdiv says:

            Well, wouldn’t taking simple stream samples and measuring alpha activity be a start? A bare minimum before publishing a 5-page long expose in the front page of the New York Times?
            I see the value in understanding effects in detail and tracking down sources, but the ultimate concern is what is in drinking water, and this seems easy to answer.

          • Brian Mays says:

            “Well, wouldn’t taking simple stream samples and measuring alpha activity be a start? A bare minimum before publishing a 5-page long expose in the front page of the New York Times?”
            I suspect that they realize that the drinking water is safe, which is why that information (the key statistic, after all) was not investigated.
            It’s typical NYT reporting. Look at how much the article relies on anecdotal evidence, innuendo, dubious (i.e., never published) sources, and dishonest inferences that lead the reader to assume that the rare exception is the rule.
            But they do have an Excel spreadsheet, compiled from sources that they won’t list. It gives the levels of contaminants upstream of the treatment plants, sometimes from the wastewater storage pits themselves. Yeah, that’s fair.
            A little common sense, please? Nobody is supposed to be drinking the water that goes into a sewage treatment plant. Drinking the household sewage from household wastes won’t do wonders for your health either. This is why the water was being treated in the first place.
            This is just bad reporting by someone with an axe to grind and a conveniently sensationalist topic, which helps get the article a more prominent place in the paper.
            I feel embarrassed that Rod bothered to highlight such shoddy reporting. I think that I’ll mention it next time that the NYT does another hit piece on Indian Point or Vermont Yankee.

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Brian – sewage systems are designed for a particular kind of contaminant and use microbes that are good at getting rid of certain kinds of discharge. However, there are strict laws against dumping even small quantities of motor oil, paint, or other kinds of chemicals into those systems for a variety of reasons.
            Preventing contamination is much simpler than cleaning it up after the fact. I am adamantly opposed to the state level regulation in states that have little experience in regulating this kind of activity. The inexperienced regulators are getting rolled by unscrupulous operators who know that in experienced states they would be required to arrange to use existing disposal wells or to drill deep disposal wells BEFORE they start their drilling programs.
            Feel free to be embarrassed by my reporting of a questioning attitude by a reporter. Your advice to prove that there is a drinking water problem before asking hard questions would certainly never fly in our chosen profession.
            I sure as heck hope that the drinking water remains safe so far, but I also hope that action gets taken to ask questions and enforce requirements to dispose of waste into systems designed to accept that specific kind of waste being produced BEFORE there is a problem that is going to be very difficult to clean up.

          • Brian Mays says:

            “sewage systems are designed for a particular kind of contaminant and use microbes that are good at getting rid of certain kinds of discharge. However, there are strict laws against dumping even small quantities of motor oil, paint, or other kinds of chemicals into those systems for a variety of reasons.”
            Rod – Ah … so you’re an expert on sewage treatment plants too? Your skills are truly amazing!
            As for me, I’m not an expert on sewage treatment plants, so I prefer not to speculate on the quality of the water going out of a plant based on the condition of the water going in or the condition of the water at a point source upstream. The engineer in me prefers hard data over innuendo, which is why I insist on knowing what the water coming out is like — via comprehensive testing — which is something that the NYT article is very short of. I’m sorry that you think that this is too much to ask.
            Nevertheless, I can apply common sense, and I know that sewage treatment plants use more than just microbes. They also let the heavy material settle out of the water into sludge (which is disposed of separately), and it is not difficult to see how this would effectively remove a good deal of the “bad stuff.”
            This is not a case of “asking hard questions.” This article is an obvious hit piece, and it is full of the usual hit-piece stuff: irrelevant figures, incomprehensible quotes (some of which have probably been taken out of context), and baseless fearmongering — particularly using the ever-popular bogeyman of “dangerous radioactive” material.
            Interestingly, I’ve noticed that you take a different view of “asking hard questions” when it comes to tritium from Vermont Yankee, problems at Indian Point, or the suitability of restarting Zion. Harboring double standards can erode one’s credibility.
            Don’t get me wrong. The wastewater from hydrofracking at gas wells might very well be a problem. My complaint is that I can’t tell that from reading this article. This piece is simply a case of modern yellow journalism and should be treated as such by any intelligent reader.

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Brian – I think I have tried over the years to carefully explain where I have been and why I think I can write reasonably informed pieces on a wide variety of systems and technologies. I am not an “expert” on sewage treatment systems, but I have operated a sewage system serving a community of about 150 people. I have even inspected the holding tanks and understand what it takes to get rid of the settled sludge in those portions of the system that are segregated and designed to handle contaminants that are not human waste. I also happen to have had a family friend a long time ago who took advantage of what some would have called a handicap to choose a stable and well paying career. She was born without a sense of smell and she enjoyed engineering. She was a sewage plant engineer. We engaged in a number of interested discussions after dinner while I was also an engineer on a submarine.
            Go back to the articles that I wrote about the tritium leaks – I asked hard questions and did some detailed calculations to show how tiny the problem really was. The amount of radioactive material from all of the leaked water was smaller than an aspirin.
            It should be quite obvious to even the most casual observer that the residues from drilling and hydraulically fracturing thousands of 12 in diameter holes that are each 8,000 feet deep into solid rock, some of which has a sufficient quantity of naturally occurring uranium and thorium to be considered for mining is not a tiny amount of material.
            Journalists are not scientists and they are not engineers. They are paid to tell interesting stories and to get people interested and talking about important topics. An article that meets your standards would never get published by a newspaper; no one would read it because it would be long and boring. There is certainly a place for that kind of writing and it is finally being done with regard to hydraulic fracturing. Unfortunately, it was not done BEFORE drilling was allowed because the industry that should have known better about the facts of the situation tried to slough off their responsibilities to the public.
            It seems to me that you are the one applying a double standard. Would you think it was a good idea to allow a bunch of entrepreneurs to build hundreds of new nuclear plants and then do the PRAs and other safety analysis?

          • Brian Mays says:

            Rod – I hear that The National Enquirer is a fairly popular publication. (It has a larger circulation than The Washington Post, for example.) I guess that popularity and “interesting stories” do not always coincide with high quality journalism.
            You’re mixing your apples and your oranges. Nobody is objecting to safety analyses. I’m saying that if I read an article on tritium leaks at a nuclear plant, I want to know what the concentration of tritium in the ground water is and how much of it is likely to end up in drinking water. I don’t want to know the concentration of tritium in the spent fuel pools and that it’s X times the EPA’s drinking water limit.
            Similarly, if I read an article on radioactive material from fracking technology, I want to know what the concentration of these materials in the water after it has been treated and how much of this material is likely to end up in drinking water. I don’t want to know what the concentration of radium in the wastewater ponds is and that it’s X times the EPA’s drinking water limit. It doesn’t matter.
            I suspect you’re being obtuse on purpose, because I am asking the hard questions, and you simply don’t have the answers.
            What is the concentration of radioactive material coming out of those treatment plants? Is it a concern? Are the couple of anecdotes mentioned in the article isolated exceptions or are they commonplace?
            These are the hard questions that matter.

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Brian Mays – So now you try to equate the New York Times with the National Enquirer? I understand from our many conversations that you have an ideological view that is quite different from that of the NY Times, but do you really believe that their reporting is on the same level as a checkout line rag?
            You also conflate used fuel pools with wastewater ponds at a natural gas drilling site. I know you are quite aware of the supervision and careful engineering associated with spent fuel pools. Are you aware of how little control or engineering goes into digging a hole in which to put waste water? Those holes are not lined; they are not even covered to protect animals and birds from gaining access.
            One of the many experiences I have had is engaging in heavy industrial activity near large bodies of water. Though we were quite capable of calculating that there was enough water in the Cooper River or St. Mary’s river to dilute paints, oil, and other hydrocarbon based industrial chemicals down to a level below regulatory concern, we were still extremely careful not to put those materials in places where we might lose control and allow them to enter the local water ways. We were even more careful with substances like coolant that could contain measurable quantities of radioactive material. Even for a US government agency, the potential impact on our business of being found in violation of applicable laws was a motivator – as was my natural desire to leave the world in a better situation than I found it in.
            One of my college classmates had the unfortunate timing of being the duty officer on the night when one of his watchstanders goofed up and pumped a settling tank into the Thames River in Groton, CT. Even though the discharge was almost all water, it did contain enough oily stuff at the bottom of the tank to cause a visible sheen on the water. The source of the sheen was pretty obvious.
            John received a letter of reprimand for improperly supervising his watch section. Though a very smart guy and a good officer, he was no longer considered suitable for promotion. Fortunately for him, the Clinton Administration wanted to shrink the military badly enough that they offered a 15 year retirement for a while. John took the offer – almost entirely based on pumping less than 600 gallons of slightly oil water into a very large river. (I am absolutely positive of the upper limit on the amount of material that was involved since I know the size of the tank that his watchstander pumped.)
            For me, the hard questions that matter is why in the world do we apply such a different standard to the waste products from drilling through thousands of feet of rock to find petroleum products than we do to handling similar products on ships and submarines. Is it because the companies that drill for oil and gas have purchased more politicians?
            By the way, here is another NY Times article on the topic for you to criticize.
            http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/04/us/04gas.html

          • Brian Mays says:

            Rod – Heh. Now, I know that you’re being deliberately obtuse. Perhaps you think that it’s a cute rhetorical trick or an effective debating tactic, but it should be clear to anyone reading this (if there is anyone left) that you’ve been reduced to simply ducking and dodging the questions that I’ve asked and the issues that uvdiv has raised.
            So, let me quickly take care of this, while you pretend to be stupid.
            “So now you try to equate the New York Times with the National Enquirer?”
            No, but sensationalist reporting is sensationalist reporting. It’s all about the same, especially when it comes to quality. Whether it appears in the NYT or the NE is just a matter of branding, and we both know that the NYT has the better brand.
            “You also conflate used fuel pools with wastewater ponds at a natural gas drilling site.”
            Only to the point that I fully expect that nobody will be drinking directly from either source. Considering the salinity levels (and other contaminants) in the nasty wastewater ponds, I don’t expect that animals will be drinking from them either. The water is not potable.
            “One of my college classmates had the unfortunate timing of being the duty officer on the night when one of his watchstanders goofed up and pumped a settling tank into the Thames River in Groton, CT. … John received a letter of reprimand for improperly supervising his watch section.”
            Interesting story, but if a gas company were dumping its wastewater directly into a river, I’m sure that they would be in serious violation of regulations and the consequences would be severe as well. In the article under discussion, the wastewater was not going directly into rivers, it was going into treatment plants.
            “By the way, here is another NY Times article on the topic for you to criticize.”
            Sigh. Here is a much more balanced article on what is going on at the EPA, with quotes from a politician who is a gas-industry critic and a politician who is a gas-industry supporter, and with the EPA administrator in the middle.
            I don’t have time to deal with the NYT article other than to point out that it’s rather childish to complain about what is and is not going into EPA reports, when anyone with any familiarity with how these reports work knows that often the focus of the study can be defined so vaguely that the report can conclude whatever the authors want it to conclude. This can work in favor of industry, of course, but it can also work in favor of over-zealous EPA crusaders as well. This is especially true when the study involves some sort of modeling. Don’t get me started on modeling.
            A good rule of thumb is that the more narrow the scope of a study is, the more reliable the conclusions are likely to be.
            Personally, I suspect that the regulations on gas drilling should probably be tighter than they are now, but I would prefer to have more solid information before offering a more firm opinion. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to excuse sensationalist nonsense, however.

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Brian
            Sigh Again, I realize your political philosophy will cause you to dismiss the source out of hand, but there was a thought provoking opinion piece on Huffington Post about an article on hydraulic fracturing published by the Wall Street Journal about a week ago.
            Did the Gas Industry Censor the Wall Street Journal?
            Apparently there were two versions of the article published. Here is a quote that should make one think a bit:
            “We have to stop blaming documentaries and take a look in the mirror,” Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for gas producer Range Resources Corp., was quoted as saying in WSJ.
            However, if you go to the article, you won’t find Pitzarella’s statement because within the hour the quote disappeared, say citizen journalists, who screen captured it and posted it on Twitter. Gasland director Fox, in Los Angeles, awaiting Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony, has the screen shot of the original version. He also has questions:
            “Why did this key quote disappear from the article? Why did the WSJ censor its own piece ? Does the Gas industry get to edit the Wall Street Journal?” Fox wondered. “Who pulled the quote?”
            It’s more innocuous replacement from Tom Price, a Chesapeake Vice-President reads, “We need to be able to respond objectively and accurately.”
            Yet among the gas industry and its friends, Pitzarella is not alone in suggesting that by stonewalling, the industry is shooting itself in the foot.
            I have been subscribing to the Wall Street Journal for about twenty years and frequently quote its articles, but I have noticed that its accuracy and the quality of its opinion pieces has declined in the past couple of years – ever since it was purchased by a man who makes no secret of his desire to use his media properties in a synergistic manner to increase the power of his empire.
            As I have made pretty clear here, I have no bones with prosperity and I enjoy modern living. I admire the heck out of inventive and talented people who become wealthy by creating really amazing products or by demonstrating incredible feats of athletic skill. I hold a special place in my enemies list, however, for those people who become wealthy and powerful by stepping on their competitors, or by taking short cuts, or by stealing from others. No matter what Gordon Gecko famous said, greed is bad everywhere it occurs.
            Also, with regard to answering yours and uvdiv’s comments, I have tried to show that the magnitude of the gas industry’s waste issue is enormous. I did not run the math, but remember, they have to figure out how to get rid of the residue from tens of thousands of drilled holes where each hole is about a foot in diameter and 8,000 or more feet long. Each one of those holes has to be filled with a proprietary mix of chemicals so that drilling operators can raise it to extreme pressure (I have done enough hydrostatic tests of piping to have an idea how that process works). After the frack is complete, that fluid has to go somewhere, otherwise the gas will not be able to flow out of the hole.
            Animals do not have terribly refined senses of taste. When thirsty, they will drink from water that you and I would not even consider to be water. If they come across a pond full of “produced water” they will drink it. If birds see the ponds from the sky, they will land and try to see if there are any fish to eat. Unlined ponds will leach. Certain components of the fracking fluids will evaporate. Heavy rains will cause the ponds to overflow. Trucks carrying the fluids will occasionally get involved in accidents. The treatment plants were not designed to handle the input they are receiving – they could not have been. The engineers did not have drilling residues from a large campaign of fracking on their lists of system requirements decades ago.
            As I told you – when conducting industrial work near large bodies of water we were careful not to store any hydrocarbons anyplace where they might leak or spill. Accidental releases were no excuse for violating the laws protecting those bodies of water. Knowing a bit about the kind of people who engage in the itinerant life of a drilling operator, I have no confidence that 100% of them are well supervised or maintain the same sense of personal responsibility or discipline that you commonly find in the Navy or in the commercial nuclear industry. Even in those admirable professions, mistakes get made if there is not a lot of care taken.
            Perhaps I have still not provided the details you desire, but it sure seems to me that getting some serious attention paid to an issue that has been swept under the carpet by greedy people is worth a bit of sensational reporting.

          • EL says:

            @Brian

          • Brian Mays says:

            EL – Almost all of what you bring up hinges on supposed “questions and concerns” that have been raised by various groups. Well, that’s all fine and dandy. I don’t have any problems with concerns. My only beef is that they should be grounded in some sort of solid evidence before they are taken seriously.
            After all, there are always people raising “concerns” about this and that. You find it all the time. For example, there are people today raising “concerns” about vaccines and autism, even though we now know that all of the supposed “evidence” for such a link was based on scandalously flawed studies masquerading as “science.”
            Now, before you claim that the vaccine issue is a fringe issue, with only disreputable sources making crack-pot claims (while the gas drilling issue is mainstream with accurate reporting) let me point out that less than a decade ago, the NYT was reporting that the vaccine/autism theory was “not-so-crackpot”. We now know that it is crackpot.
            Once again, I’ll repeat: I fully expect that the regulations on fracking wastewater will be tightened and I think that it is likely that they should be tightened. That doesn’t mean that I need to give flawed journalism a pass.

          • EL says:

            @Brian (last reply on topic). Just a quick look seems to indicate the Monongahela River has a pretty serious TDS problem in Pennsylvania (here and here). First noticed by steel mill and power plant workers when water used in their plants had “so much salty sediment that it was corroding their machinery.” For nearby residents, “dishwashers were malfunctioning, and plates were coming out with spots that couldn’t be rinsed off.” 350,000 people get their drinking water from the Monongahela River.
            Now TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) are classified as a secondary contaminant by EPA (primarily made up of carbonates, chlorides, sulfates, nitrates, sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium). The DEP in PA responded to residents that such materials can impact the “taste and odor” of water, but is not a fundamental health concern. To control for taste and odor, the secondary maximum contaminant level is set by State at 500 mg per liter. All testing results showed elevated levels in testing. To respond to issue, treatment plants were recommended to “drastically reduce the volume of gas well drilling wastewater they accept to 1% of their daily flow. Currently, gas well drilling wastewater constitutes up to 20% of those plants’ daily flow.” But problems continued

          • Brian Mays says:

            EL – What makes you think that your comment was on topic? I was complaining about the unsubstantiated insinuation that radioactive material was ending up in drinking water.
            Are you saying that we weren’t talking about radioactivity?
            The NYT article uses the words “radiation,” “radioactive,” or “radioactivity” 34 times. Rod’s article also focuses on radiation and includes these words 16 times.
            The great thing about radioactive materials is that they’re so darn easy to detect, and guess what? The tests were done:
            “The state Department of Environmental Protection today said tests show water supplies downstream of Marellus shale gas drilling are safe.
            Samples from testing in November and December show levels of radiation at or below naturally occurring levels, the agency said.

            I guess that all the radiation fear mongering in the NYT was much ado about nothing.

          • EL says:

            @Brian. Do you believe that taking water samples upstream of sewage treatment plants constitutes sound science in this case? And what of the frequency of sampling and differences between river flows (and low dilution during summer months and during periods of drought). There is a great deal more work to be done on this issue than a partial and hasty one time survey by DEP. One report, due to come out this Wednesday, suggests contaminants (bromides, strontium, chlorides, and other contaminants) from treatments plants on Blacklick River at 10,000 times the safe drinking-water standard.
            On topic

          • Brian Mays says:

            Comment removed by moderator

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Brian – Before this devolves even further into name calling, I’ll ask you about the standards that would be applied to the nuclear industry in a similar situation.
            Based on my experience, the nuclear industry would have had to establish its own treatment systems and to test that our discharges met our license commitments BEFORE they entered into a public sewage treatment plant. If questioned to prove that we were not contaminating the public water systems, we would not be able to point to some sample results taken a few months ago when the suspected activity is still continuing, the sample results would have to be current and reasonably voluminous to show that we continue to have an established program that monitors our activities and regularly takes samples before there is any risk to public safety or health.
            Those are not bad standards. Dilution has not been the solution to pollution for a very long time. I am certainly not opposed to extracting fossil fuels and using them as an important tool that enables modern society to function.
            I am opposed to allowing both enormous multinational companies and what seem to be almost fly-by-night operators to take short cuts that allow them to produce a product that can temporarily be priced low enough to discourage long term investments in nuclear energy. The NUMBER ONE reason on many recent presentations from utility companies for not steadily pursuing new nuclear plant construction is the availability of low priced gas.
            Until the shale gas bubble and the recession, natural gas cost 3-4 times as much as it does today. On a per unit heat basis, it is trading at an historically high spread compared to crude oil. I continue to maintain that is an unnatural situation that has been enabled by exempting the industry from many long existing federal laws that were designed to protect the commons from potentially dangerous materials.
            If we continue on our present path, I am quite certain that natural gas prices are going to be far higher in the near future than anyone who is making power plant investment decisions today is admitting. We have played this tune before, when the electric power industry built nothing but gas plants for almost 15 years because the gas industry told us that their product was clean and cheap. How many times do I need to show the graph that illustrates how deceptive that sales pitch was?

          • Brian Mays says:

            Rod – This is quickly becoming a farce.
            Given the voluminous responses that my simple comments (my original comment was only about 200 words, one-fourth of your latest comment) have provoked from you, it’s clear that I have hit some sort of nerve. For that, I should apologize, since it was not my intention to get your dander up. I was merely commenting on what I consider to be poor reporting. You’re welcome to disagree, but in defending the NYT and your blog post, you seem to have gone off into la-la land.
            For example, I’m accused harboring a “political philosophy” (what that constitutes is anyone’s guess), while you continue to try to bury me under articles with serious political leanings and disturbing conspiracy theory overtones? Talk about ironic.
            Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. Next, there’s an insinuation about the influence of Rupert Murdoch. Have you ever talked to Glen Beck? You two should get together for a beer sometime (except that, he’s a Mormon and doesn’t drink, but you know what I mean). Although you would most likely disagree vehemently on who the puppet-masters are, you could probably learn a thing or two from each other by comparing notes on how these evil people plan to take over the world.
            Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. “Enemies list”?! Who are you — Richard Nixon?
            And it goes on and on.
            Anyhow, I’m done with this unless you can come up with a single credible statistic about what is coming out of those wastewater plants and whether it is a genuine health hazard.

          • Rod Adams says:

            @uvdiv – do you really advocate waiting until drinking water samples show up as being contaminated? If that is your recommended course of action, what do you propose as a clean up method if the results do start to show contamination? How do you clean up the system?
            In general, water treatment systems have to be designed with some kind of basic assumptions on the quality of the input so that provisions can be made to take out the expected contaminants. In the purification systems I used to operate, it was pretty simple to eliminate salt, but we shut down our systems before ever coming close to land because they were not designed to eliminate the kind of “stuff” that cities are known to dump into rivers or the ocean.

          • EL says:

            @uvdiv. More per your salty observations. This is exactly the concern raised in an AP article on the issue (March 1, 2011):
            “Pennsylvania has a few plants that specialize in treating wastewater from the oil, coal and gas business, and operators of these facilities say that they are adept at removing many of the worrisome contaminants. They are unable, however, to remove the salty dissolved solids and chlorides that the wastewater picks up as it travels through the shale beds. There have been concerns about the salt levels rising in some Pennsylvania rivers that supply drinking water.”

  4. uvdiv says:

    Apologies for the double-post. I didn’t do it; the JS-KIT thing malfunctioned (it said “posting attempt 1″, then posting attempt 2″, and it posted twice).

  5. GeekGoddess says:

    This report is full of factual errors. I watched “Gasland” and made six pages of notes, checked references, looked up citations. Either the producers of Gasland were stupid, or they were lying. There were also implications made that any skeptic should see through. For example, there is a scene where a man comments that his wife had always been healthy, until a gas well was drilled, and ‘now she has a brain tumor’. Cut to next seen. The viewer is left with the impression that the well called the funeral. He also talked about ‘clouds of benzene’ when the amounts of benzene in natural gas, IF PRESENT, is in ppm.

    • EL says:

      The claim for high levels of benzene doesn’t come from low ppm in natural gas but use of diesel fuel in frac fluid to help “dissolve and disperse other chemicals suspended in fluid.” From 2005-2009, companies “injected tens of millions of gallons of diesel fuel into onshore wells in more than a dozen states.” Companies don’t dispute claim, but instead dispute whether use of fuel is illegal or a violation of EPA regs and Safe Water Drinking Act (here). If it’s in the air, it’s likely from evaporation techniques used by industry in management of produced water from injection wells.

      • Matt Musson says:

        Help me understand how fracking hard rock that is thousands of feet below the water table, somehow pollutes the water thousands of feet above – through the solid rock.
        I am not denying that Pennsylvania has water quality issues. But, it is more reasonable to assume that the pollution is coming from a more realistic source.
        Here at Camp LeJeune NC – the water is contaminated. For years leaking jet fuel tanks were blamed. But, it turned out that a Dry Cleaner near the base was dumping his fluid down a well in his shop.

        • Rod Adams says:

          @Matt – to get to the rock that is thousands of feet below the water table, don’t you have to drill through those thousands of feet? When you pressurize the pipe at the bottom of the well, doesn’t the pipe at the top of the well also have to be pressurized to an even higher pressure since that is where the source of the pressure will come from? In order to allow gas to flow back out of that hole, you have to get rid of the fluid that you pumped down into the well to apply the pressure. Where does that fluid go and what does it contain?
          I presume you have drilled holes before. When you do that, where does the material from the drilling operation go? Think about how much material you have to dispose of if you drill several thousand feet into solid rock to form a hole that is 8-12″ in diameter.
          These are not hard questions – just logical ones that the gas industry would prefer for people not to ask.

  6. Charles Barton says:

    The word “radon” did not occur in the New York Times story even though it has been known for nearly 40 years that natural gas is a source of naturally radioactive radon in the home, and it is known that farcked gas contains radon. The presence of farcked gas wells close to large domestic natural gas markets, means that natural gas with relatively high concentrations of radioactive radon enter homes along with natural gas used for cooking, heating, and water heating. The radon lingers, enters the lungs of home residents including children, and then it produces beta radiation which can cause cancer,

  7. DV82XL says:

    Here in Quebec, after some enthusiasm at the beginning, the government is probably going to impose a moratorium on shale-gas development. Their own inquiries have found a staggering number of the wells leaking, and nothing done about this even after the companies were informed.

  8. Michael Karnerfors says:

    The point is not that the word “radiation” should be used as a scare tactic, the point is that radiation is something that needs to be understood and respected. It is a natural part of the terrestrial environment that, like fire, water or gravity, can cause serious negative health effects as well as serving as a useful and beneficial tool.
    I liked this part alot. I am going to be using this approach from now on when discussing radiation… saying that radiation is a force of nature, just like fire, water and gravity. They exist all around us, always have, always will. Use them wrong and disrespect them, and they will harm/kill you. Use them right and with the proper respect, and they are indispensible tools without which our lives as they looks today would be impossible. And always understand and respect them.