Today, we’re going to talk about the new documentary that was released by Josh Fox, the creator of Gasland, which is named The Sky is Pink (link here: http://vimeo.com/44367635).
The documentary is full of deception, half truths, and outright lies that are peppered in between faux-artistic camera work and a narrators voice that is seething with propaganda and a wish to appeal to outrage culture that has been cultivated against oil companies,or any industry that can be prefaced with BIG, pharma, agrochemical etc. or any kind of energy sector company that isn’t working with solar panels which the creator of the documentary seems to have an affinity for, flashing to images of them throughout the documentary.
The video starts off with an interview that Tom Ridge did with the satirical Stephen Colbert about the dangers of fracking and what it means to have peoples’ tap water having the ability to combust. Tom Ridge explains how methane is a naturally occurring gas and has ended up in water wells for the vast majority of history. This is very true, however, the one thing that Tom Ridge fails to explain is that although there is methane within most of the water-wells throughout the areas where natural gas is naturally occurring, the concentrations of the methane are different.
A 2010 article by Osborn et al, found that methane concentrations in water wells in an area of active fracking have ~17x the amount of methane concentrations within the aquifers. This is well above the EPA designated safe concentrations (figure 1)
However, in the same article, there were no reported ion and isotope contaminations within the aquifer water itself (Osborn et al., 2010) and confirmed by an independent article by the Ground Water Protection Council (http://fracfocus.org/sites/default/files/publications/state_oil__gas_agency_groundwater_investigations_optimized.pdf) and EPA administrator is quoted as saying “in no case have we made a definitive determination that the [fracturing] process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater”
This means that although there are instances of higher methane concentrations (along with the longer-chain hydrocarbons like propane and benzene) there is no physical contamination from fracking fluids. This indicates that there may have been a casing failure deeper within the borehole, or, the fracturing process has managed to tap into some of the existing fractures within the area and it allowed gas to flow along a network of natural fractures, thus contaminating the aquifers.
This is one of the main problems with fracking the ground to extract gases. There are vast networks of pre-existing fractures that are naturally occurring. They are impossible to map using current technologies, so creating a new fracture network may lead to communication of gases with a pre-existing fracture network. This can lead to gas infiltration into aquifers. This also explains why there might be a gas contamination and not a physical fracking fluid contamination: the gas will have a much easier time travelling through this fracture network, where as the fluid, being much more viscous and dependent on higher pressures, will not travel as far.
In the first few minutes of the program, we begin to understand the basic problem of the debate and controversy with fracking: deception on both sides and objectivity lost in the name of either a greater cause, be it money or humor, which only further divides people on the subject.
At around [02.10] into the documentary, they flash to a cross section, that is not to scale, thus showing a closer proximity of the gas fracking to aquifer than truly exists, of a drilling rig and shows how fracturing is done. Just to be thorough, I will point out at this moment that there was no mention of surface casing or production casing, nor was it accurate in the depiction of how fracturing is done. In the animation they show, there is no mention of casing. Casing is where layers of steel piping and concrete are installed into the borehole (or well) to prevent any loss of gas or oil. A further explanation of the different types of casings can be found on the Wikipedia site here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casing_(borehole)
The film then flashes to a few quick images of the chemicals used in fracking, one of them stamped with [PROPRIETARY]. Fox tries to make it sound like it is impossible to get a list of these chemicals, even though he flashes them himself on the screen (and the reason he flashes them so quickly is because most of the chemicals are things that are found in laundry detergents, food preservatives, other industrial activities that are not required to regulate, nor disclose their processes or particular chemicals). If you want to take a look at the chemicals and find out what they are used for, please see http://fracfocus.org/chemical-use/what-chemicals-are-used; http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Hydraulic%20Fracturing%20Report%204.18.11.pdf; http://assets.bizjournals.com/cms_media/pittsburgh/datacenter/DEP_Frac_Chemical_List_6-30-10.pdf.
It would be useful to first know what fracking fluid is composed of: 99.5% of the fluid is water, around 50% of what is left of the 0.5% is known as a propant, or something like sand or silica to keep the fractures open after fracturing takes place (so that the fractures don’t close up and the gas has an easier time percolating through a fracture network that is propped open), and the rest is composed of the various chemicals. It is an extremely low percentage of the fracking fluid, and there are many regulations that dictate what happens to waste waters once it is extracted from the well (http://cce.cornell.edu/EnergyClimateChange/NaturalGasDev/Documents/PDFs/marcellus_regulations_fact_sheet%5B1%5D.pdf)
[02.30] again states that there is a public health crisis, however there is never any substantiating evidence or links to references about this claim and I was unable to find any article that discovered a higher amount of illnesses that would constitute a crisis within the communities surrounding a well. In studies, especially medical studies, there can always be false correlation/causation trends that can be inferred. Much more study is needed in this specific area to determine what is the exact cause of the illnesses.
[02.41] “ …it is a whole-scale industrialisation” Yes, the oil industry is. . . an industry. Using the word “industrialisation” to scare the public is, again, being deceptive. This type of language is also used earlier in the documentary, and the effect that it has on the audience is damaging to objective discussion, it hinders legitimate issues and over-emphasises illegitimate arguments and makes any type of debate very adversarial.
[02.50] Fox then describes a point in a rebuttal article about his original film Gasland about the claims that the man being able to light the water on fire were, in fact, true, where the gas industry rebuttal says that it is naturally occurring methane. Again, please refer to the interview with Tom Ridge earlier to see what the effect of not recognizing that there is a natural source for methane in aquifers has.
I do find it highly suspicious that Fox would pick on one of the more easy-to-prove points in the rebuttal rather than going after some of the scientific falsities that were pointed out.
[03.19] The interview with Doug Sheilds is a very interesting point. The way the documentary wants to put it, is that they took trucks full of mud and radioactive material and dumped it into the rivers, however that is not what happened. The waste water was transported to the local sewage treatment plants, treated, and then released into the river water. The problem is that the water was slightly more radioactive due to the shale particles that were suspended in it http://www.newsinferno.com/fracking/dumping-of-radioactive-fracking-waste-in-pennsylvania-waters-creates-uproar/29221. Again, this is an outright lie on the part of the documentary maker. This is a problem that would absolutely be solvable, with minimal investment, by updating the sewage treatment plants. Almost all oil companies are willing, and usually are the forerunners in investments for public services. This is something that can be compromised on: Have the oil companies pay for retrofitting sewage treatment plants for the return of being able to use them for cleaning up fracking waste-water.
[05.45] The documentary then goes into a tirade about how the tobacco companies hired Hill and Knowlton to smooth over the controversy with cigarettes causing cancer. He then goes on to say that the ANGA, or American Natural Gas Association has also hired this firm. Full stop. Lets take a look at who else Hill and Knowlton represent: The American Heart Association, Arby’s, Center for International Disaster Information, Embassy of Japan, Florida Hospital Assn., GlaxoSmithKline, Kidney Care Partners, Kellogg Company, Motorola, Nuclear Energy Institute, Reebok, Virgin Mobile, and Wal-Mart to name a few. There is an entire list here http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Hill_%26_Knowlton#Clients. If we’re going to be judging companies and industries by the PR firm that they hire to represent them, lets lump every other company that is represented by that firm into the same group. If you don’t do that, you’re just being disingenuous.
[06.08] This part really gets me. He is talking about “big tobacco all the way to climate change” in which he zooms in to some text that says “no proof” right after he says climate change, but that document is in reference to tobacco, not climate change, and it is in just a few square inches of some document that we don’t know the origin of.
[06.41] When the woman here is saying that people don’t know if methane is naturally occurring in tap water, and that the PR firm of Hill and Knowlton is trying to fabricate a debate on where the methane is coming from, this is again a falsity and out right lie. It is proven, by empirical data cited earlier in my argument that methane is naturally occurring in tap water. The whole conversation with the woman, complete to the end, is a false representation of the data, and has manipulated, or even outright lied about, the data to further fit his agenda. The minimal levels found in non-active well areas can be seen in Figure 1 above.
[07.30] When Fox states that “the oil industry has documents in their drawers” insinuating that these documents have never seen the light of day and that it takes a massive undertaking to get these documents, it is just preposterous. Here are the exact papers he was saying “fell off the back of a truck”: http://www.scribd.com/doc/65704543/Casing-Leaks; http://www.slb.com/~/media/Files/resources/oilfield_review/ors03/aut03/p62_76.ashx; http://www.heritage.org/events/2010/11/hydraulic-fracturing; http://www.spe.org/spe-site/spe/spe/jpt/2007/07/106817Syn.pdf; http://www.energyindepth.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Archer-Copy-for-EID.pdf. All of the information is in public domain, all you have to do is look. Read the sources yourself, and you’ll notice another trend: Most of the information that Fox is spouting is extremely warped, or it is from models, not from real-world example. Models, in almost every natural science, have major limitations, especially when implementing those model results into the real world.
[09.30] With the ever present flair for the dramatic, Fox states that wells and their casings need to last ‘forever’. This is also fallacious. Abandoned wells are routinely either completely cemented, or more commonly have cement plugs placed throughout different levels in the wells to mitigate any transference of material from layer to layer. All of these different protocols are detailed in the Energy Resources Conservation Board Directive 020 about well abandonment http://www.ercb.ca/docs/documents/directives/directive020.pdf. This again shows a fundamental ignorance about the lifecycle of a well.
This is not to say that sealed and cemented wells cannot leak, it is just highly improbable.
[11.48] When Fox says “there’s no way to fix it” in reference to leaks in casing (again, we’ve already established that methane and other long-chain hydrocarbons can leak into aquifers via casing failures or from unknown fracture propagation) it is also deceptive and a slight to the science of geotechnical engineering and petroleum engineering. Nothing is impossible, and there will be a way to fix these problems, it will just take more years of science to figure it out. There are currently several disciplines within geology that are dedicated to figuring out these exact problems, and the usage of more and more sophisticated models and mathematical constructs are being utilized
[11.52] “ …there’s no safe drilling, and they know it]. Again, a fundamental mischaracterisation of the science, and of the overall impression that is given by geologists and engineers. Geologists, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and engineers are working extremely hard on solving these problems. They know it is possible to have safe drilling, it’s just a matter of finding the right answer.
[11.58] When Stephen Colbert lists some chemicals that are found within fracking fluids, he tries to make the point that he wouldn’t be able to feed them to his toddler. Lets look at them in an objective viewpoint:
Kerosene: Used for insecticides, fire-breathing, and cooking. If he has taken his daughter camping, chances are she’s been exposed to kerosene.
Benzene: This is an additive of gasoline, so chances are, she has been exposed via Stephen filling his car with gasoline in the way of fumes, or if he will make her mow the lawn and fill the gas tank when she gets older.
Urea: Well, that’s produced in the human body, so I’m fairly sure she’s been exposed to that.
Toluene: This is used for tanning leather among other uses. If they have leather in the house, chances are she’s been exposed to a little bit of it.
I’m not saying that these chemicals are good for anyone, but a bit of perspective would come in handy when trying to demonise an entire industry.
[12.44] he mentions a likelihood of illnesses that might be linked to the industry activities. No references given, no corroborating evidence.
[13.00] When talking about the breast cancer rates of Denton County in Texas skyrocketing, Fox is only partially telling the truth. From 1975 to 1999, breast cancer rates went up from 103 instances of cancer per 100,000 people to 141 instances of cancer per 100,000 people. However, from 1999 to 2008, the rate of cancer has dropped according to the National Cancer Institute statistics (http://seer.cancer.gov/data/). If the rate of gas drilling and production has increased over the past decade, shouldn’t there be a much larger correlation between cancer rates and the rate of gas production?
Medical trends such as cancer occurrences in particular areas have a very large amount of factors that go into it, so it will take more than a simple dot to dot connection of increased drilling and increased breast cancer to come to a scientifically viable conclusion of the relationship.
[14.42] The interview with Assemblyman Robert Sweeney is also a very well known tactic of trying to sully the current reputation of an industry by bringing up past transgressions. Yes, the oil industry has not been entirely truthful at times, and it deserves to be scrutinised and held accountable for the mistakes, and blatant abuses of power, however the past does not always predict the future. At 15.09 when he says “sticking the tax payers with the cost” I think that he also forgets how much tax revenue a set of oil rigs brings a county, not to mention jobs.
North Dakota received over $398 million dollars in tax money from oil companies drilling within their state in 2008 which was the second highest contribution of taxes into the state treasury http://www.nd.gov/ndic/ogrp/info/g-015-033-faq.pdf.
[15.40] Saying that no one would know about the fracking within the state had there not been “people talk(ing) about this” that everything would have gone the way of the oil industry and they would have polluted without repercussions is not only baseless speculation, but it doesn’t even make sense. There are a host of regulations that are imposed upon oil companies when entering a state for drilling such as seen here http://www.velaw.com/uploadedFiles/VEsite/Resources/UnitedStates.pdf.
[16.28] Again, baseless accusations and speculation based upon no supporting data. Just because permits are given for 5 counties does not automatically mean that oil companies will immediately, or even gradually, take over all surrounding areas until they blanket the entire State.
[16.38] When Fox states that there is no plan for wastewater disposal and no plans for a health impact survey, please note the above link about oil and gas drilling regulations. There is a very large set of rules and regulations that oil companies must abide by.
[17.02] “They don’t want you to know that Tom Ridge was paid $900,000 to serve as chief spokes person of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.” The idea that they ‘don’t want you to know’ is a fallacy, as this information can be found here: http://www.pennlive.com/editorials/index.ssf/2010/08/tom_ridges_integrity_at_stake.html. Or how we’re not supposed to know about Tom Corbett. Unless you look it up http://articles.philly.com/2010-10-19/news/24982706_1_gas-industry-tom-corbett-campaign-donations.
Just like the papers that the oil industry was supposedly hiding that you can find with a quick Google search, you can find these contributions that the oil industry ‘doesn’t want you to know about’. This is a very classic case of spreading propaganda, conspiracy theorism, and sensationalism to sell your particular brand of dogma.
Finally at the end of the movie we get into some statistics about the amount of wells that will be leaking. If we look at the 20% figure will be leaking that Fox puts out, we find that if we look at the background data, we find nothing of the sort.
Lets take a look at some findings in an August 2011 report by the Ground Water Protection Council (http://fracfocus.org/sites/default/files/publications/state_oil__gas_agency_groundwater_investigations_optimized.pdf), more than 220,000 oil and gas wells were drilled within Texas and Ohio over the past 25 years, 16,000 of such were from the deeper shale horizons that produce the thermogenic gas (thermogenic gas is produced in deeper areas with more heat, biogenic gas is produced in shallower areas with less heat and more biologic activity). If we take the 20% failure rate that Fox touts, then we should see thousands of wells leaking right? But, if we go back to that report by the GWPC, they show that of the 34,000 wells that were drilled in Ohio over the years of 1983 to 2007, 184 incidents were recorded in all categories of failures. Of these 184 failures, only 12 were related to the casing and cement. This represents a failure rate of 0.03%.
“Who would you trust with our future, paid industry spokes people, or the people bringing to light the very documents the gas industry is trying to hide?” This final statement from Fox is ironic in so many ways. The documents are not hidden, you just have to search for them, like any other piece of scientific data. If we were to trust the ‘people bringing to light the very documents…” of any industry or event, then we would have to call into question the moon landings, the JFK assassination, medicine, all branches of science, and most scientific articles and findings. At some point, it just becomes ridiculous.
To conclude, this documentary does very little to raise to light the legitimate concerns and the technological and engineering difficulties that are involved in creating gas wells, fracking, and extracting gas from them. The documentary serves to use half-truths and lies to further a divide between the citizens of fracking areas and the companies doing the fracking. With a more civil and objective viewpoint from both sides, it is possible to come to an understanding and a plan of solving the economic, industrial, political, and scientific issues and difficulties surrounding hydraulic fracturing. This is true for every other energy producing industry on the world. An example of environmental impacts in an apparently benign technology is the possible impact in the manufacturing process of solar panels, or geothermal contamination issues, so even an industry on the surface of it that appears environmentally friendly needs objective study for health and environmental impacts. With greater communication between industry and the community, it is possible to live, and understand, in greater transparency and prosperity.