Debunking Gasland (Again)

Published October 30, 2015

A study has confirmed what many of us already knew: The movie Gasland got it wrong.

Gasland was many Americans’ first exposure to hydraulic fracturing, and the film sparked anti-fracking organizations around the country. These activist groups used the film in efforts to convince people that fracking is responsible for a whole host of environmental problems, including contaminated water supplies, overuse of water, and even earthquakes.

Despite the theatrics employed in the film — the famous flaming faucet, for example, was caused by naturally occurring methane and had nothing to do with fracking — science has proved that fracking poses no greater risk to the environment than traditional oil and natural-gas development. In some respects, fracking is actually better for the environment than conventional drilling, and people with good sense should challenge anti-fracking activists when they say otherwise.

The flaming faucet convinced many people that fracking contaminates groundwater by fracturing the rock that separates water supplies from oil and gas wells. Scientific research, however, has found it is not “physically plausible” for chemicals to migrate upward to drinking water, there being simply too much rock (thousands of feet of it) protecting the water supplies.

Confirming this, an analysis released this year — an authoritative five-year study conducted by EPA —found no evidence of widespread or systemic impacts on drinking-water resources. Impacts are in fact rare.

In terms of water consumption, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that, on average, it takes about 4 to 5 million gallons of water to fracture the rock for a well. Although this may sound like a lot, it’s less than ten minutes’ worth of water consumption for New York City, and fracking uses far less of the nation’s water than crop irrigation does. In drought-stricken California, irrigation uses approximately 80 percent of the water, whereas fracking consumes 0.00062 percent.

Earthquakes have become one of the general public’s largest concerns about fracking. Science should help allay that concern. USGS reports hydraulic fracturing has been used in more than one million wells since 1947, yet there have been only three instances in which fracking was directly responsible for tremors large enough to be felt at the surface. This has led scientists to conclude hydraulic fracturing is not a mechanism for causing perceptible earthquakes.

But what about Oklahoma’s dramatic increase in earthquakes? Those quakes are caused by the disposal of oil and gas wastewater into underground injection wells, not the process of fracking itself, an important distinction. An average fracked well does produce between 800,000 and 1 million gallons of wastewater that must be disposed of in underground injection wells. However, fracking wastewater accounts for only a small portion (5 to 10 percent) of total wastewater disposal in the state. Most of the wastewater comes from oil production, which uses no hydraulic fracturing.

This isn’t to say hydraulic fracturing has zero environmental impact; in fact, all human activity affects the environment. But the environmental risks of fracking are manageable and vastly outweighed by the economic benefits.

[Originally published at Real Clear Policy]