Editorial: New study shows fracking has minimal environmental effects

AP file photo.

An important report was issued last week by Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas, the state’s premier scientific body, about hydraulic fracturing. And it’s a very positive report, showing that fracking can be done safely and cleanly, to produce the energy that drives our economy - indeed, our whole way of life.

But you wouldn’t know it’s a positive report, if you read some of the coverage on it. The Houston Chronicle’s headline was “Study of oil and gas drilling finds pollution and connections to earthquakes.”

Here’s the Chronicle’s lead sentence: “Oil and gas drilling in Texas shale plays pollutes the air, erodes soil and contaminates water, while the disposal of millions of gallons of wastewater causes earthquakes, a consortium of the state’s top scientists concluded.”

Not only is that misleading on its face, but it’s also misleading in another way.

We must have energy. And for now, that means oil and gas.

So fracking should be compared to conventional drilling for a real evaluation. But many in the media aren’t doing that. Instead, they’re comparing the effects of fracking to the effects of doing nothing at all.

That’s like a scientific study that says eating salad causes weight gain - when compared to eating nothing at all. It’s true, but misleading.

The actual report cited by the Chronicle sounds quite different.

“Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies applied multiple times in long horizontal wells has led to an ability to profitably produce vast shale gas and tight oil resources,” the report says. “By adapting these enabling technologies developed and proven in Texas, the late George P. Mitchell led the economic development of shale energy resources. The abundant oil and gas supplies unleashed by shale development have generally led to lower cost electricity, heating, and gasoline for U.S. consumers.”

Now, here’s what the report actually says about earthquakes:

“Mechanisms of both natural and induced earthquakes in Texas are not completely understood, and building physically-complete models to study them requires the integration of data that always will have irreducible uncertainties,” it reads. “To date, potentially induced earthquakes in Texas, felt at the surface, have been associated with fluid disposal in Class II disposal wells, not with the hydraulic fracturing process.”

How about water quality?

“There is little chance of migration of hydrocarbons or brines from producing formations to drinking water aquifers, but near surface and surface spills or leaks may pose the dominant risk of hydraulic fracturing operations to water resources,” the report says. “Increased complexity of surface fluid management, for example by treatment and use/reuse operations, may increase the potential for spills or leaks and therefore the risk to land and water resources.”

For the most part, the report contains some solid recommendations - including that all aspects of fracking be studied more.

The report is hardly as apocalyptic in tone as its coverage has been. That’s because the scientists involved in the two-year study know that energy isn’t supplied by magic.

No method of energy production is free of environmental impact. Fracking has less of an impact than we’re constantly being told.

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