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.
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.”