Why Maryland Does Not Need A Fracking Ban by David Montgomery

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The fracking revolution is the best thing that has happened to the United States thus far in the 21st Century.

“Fracking” is short for “hydraulic fracturing,” the final step in a sequence of new exploration techniques that pinpoint precisely where oil or gas are located, directional drilling that makes it possible to reach reservoirs previously too thin to be worthwhile, and use of water pressure and sand to open cracks in rock where oil and gas are trapped. In just about ten years, this incredible technology has given us cheaper energy, cleaner air, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Investment to take advantages of these improved technologies provided the only sustained growth in jobs and income that appeared during the tenure of President Obama. Fracking cannot harm water supplies and does not cause earthquakes. The chemicals involved are harmless, and you use every one in your home now.

Nevertheless, the Maryland legislature is considering two very bad bills that would ban and criminalize the use of this technology to expand production of natural gas in Garrett and Washington Counties. Supporters of this ill-conceived legislation are defending the ban with a combination of innuendo, half-truths, and outright fabrications. It just seems impossibly galling to progressives that something really good could happen for which government can take no credit at all.

Now that my position is clear let us turn to some true facts, not the alternate reality in which the opponents of fracking live.

Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 12.58.20 PMHydraulic fracturing is one of the great success stories of private initiative. It builds on the computer revolution to locate and get at oil and gas deposits that only a few years ago were thought impossible to use. Those deposits contain huge quantities of oil and gas, but the hydrocarbons are trapped in the pores of rocks, and can’t get out of those pores into a well. Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping fluids at high pressure into the well to cause cracks to appear in the rock so that the oil and gas can flow.

The idea of doing this was around for a long time. The problem was finding the right fluids to make the cracks and a way to keep the cracks open once the pressure was released. A Texas oil man named George Murphy, may he rest in peace, put his own money into experimenting with all sorts of possibilities and eventually found a combination that did the trick.

Since the fracking revolution started, U.S. oil production has nearly doubled, and natural gas production increased by 40%. Before the fracking revolution, pundits were talking about peak oil and peak gas and how the days of plentiful energy were over. Since the revolution oil and gas production just continues to grow. Natural gas prices were cut in half, and oil prices fell to one-third of what they were before the revolution. Despite claims about methane leaks and global warming, methane emissions from the natural gas system have also fallen.

Hydraulic fracturing technology has made the USA a world energy superpower again. We produce more oil and more natural gas than any other country. Even Saudi Arabia and Russia have fallen behind us.

Guess what. This all happened on private land where the landowners welcomed the oil men because they shared in the rewards. Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Colorado were the top producers and the four fastest growing states from 2010 to 2015. They have prospered immensely from the investment and employment opportunities that came along with fracking. Poor Maryland, though it has large deposits in western regions, sits fearfully on its hands and remains one of the slowest growing states in the nation, despite all the good things Governor Hogan has done.

First, to deal with claims of horrible things that have, will or might happen due to fracking. Very few, if any, verified complaints about oil and gas drilling have anything to do with the specific use of fracking; they are due to accidents, errors and criminal activities that are rare in the oil and gas industry and would be just as likely with conventional drilling practices. The only thing fracking has done is bring about a great deal more drilling than was predicted even a few years ago, disappointing those who want to prevent us from having more and cheaper energy.

Understanding how the technology of directional drilling and fracturing works is all that is needed to understand why so many claims are bogus. First of all, any kind of oil or gas well may go through aquifers and underground water supplies, and the standard practice of casing and cementing wells until they are far below any usable water prevents contamination. As a side note, the famous pictures of flames coming out of kitchen faucets is old news, and happened long before current hydraulic fracturing practices were introduced. It has happened when water and natural gas were both drawn from shallow underground reservoirs where they were intermixed. With fracking, this is literally impossible.

Water supplies are found within 1000 feet of the surface, far above any deposits of oil or gas that might be fracked. The Marcellus Shale in Western Maryland is down around 6000 feet, and the deposits are only few hundred feet thick. It lies below impervious layers of rock that trap not only water but natural gas itself that comes out of the shale. The shaft is drilled straight down 6000 feet into the shale rock, than a guided drill bit turns the corner and drives horizontally through the relatively thin reservoir. From a single pad, it is possible to drill multiple such horizontal wells, accessing a huge 2-dimensional area with minimal surface disturbance or impact on neighbors.

Underground, the well is perforated within the reservoir so that oil or gas can flow. Up to this point, everything is the same for conventional drilling or fracking. To get the oil or gas to flow from the rock like the Marcellus shale, a mixture of 95% water, 4.5% sand and less than 0.5% other additives is pumped in under pressure to crack the rock. The cracks propagate several hundred feet, which is enough to open up the oil- or gas-bearing rock.

The additives used in fracking are mostly common household chemicals like pool cleaners, table salt, anti-freeze, laundry detergent, disinfectants, food additives and cosmetics ingredients. In addition to being nearly harmless, these fluids are being put into the ground a mile below any water supply, separated by many layers of impervious rock. There have been no confirmed cases of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing itself in 1 million wells fracked over the past 60 years, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

A lot of water is used for this purpose, and its disposal must be managed carefully. The current state of the art is to recycle the fluids so that water disposal is no longer an issue. Otherwise, the water is reinjected into depleted wells or other locations equally deep in the ground.

The industry has learned how to manage the reinjection process to that it does not trigger seismic activity, as sometimes happened early in the application of the technology in seismically active regions in the Southwest. Nevertheless, there are constant reports of “frequent, small earthquakes” where fracking is taking place. That is true, but intentionally misleading. One might think that a “small” earthquake would resemble something like a heavy truck driving past, which measures around three on the Richter Scale. The seismic activity that fear-mongers claim is caused by fracking is around -2 on the Richter Scale. Since going down a point on the Richter Scale reduces the energy of an earthquake by a factor of 10, going from 3 to -2 reduces the energy involved by a factor of 100,000. Literally, seismic activity from hydraulic fracturing is noticeable only to sensitive seismic instruments.

Finally, the entire fracking process is tightly regulated by state and federal rules, no matter what its opponents say. To mention a case I know well, Governor Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado created a model regulatory system through negotiations among all concerned parties, and Colorado is becoming a major user of fracking. I mention this because Maryland legislators seem willing to follow Colorado’s idiocy of legalizing marijuana, but not its sensible approach to energy policy.

I like to end on the good side of the story, the facts about what the fracking revolution has accomplished.

The price that gas utilities pay for deliveries of natural gas from interstate pipelines has been cut in half since 2005, from $8 to $4 per million BTU. This has been a tremendous boon to the U.S. chemical industry which now has the cheapest feedstocks among all our global competitors, as well as to consumers who pay less to heat their homes. U.S. production of natural gas has increased by 40% in just ten years, and has displaced coal for electric power generation throughout the United States

Cheap and plentiful natural gas has lead to improved air quality and an immense drop in greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2005, our carbon emissions are down more than 10 percent. We have cut our carbon emissions per dollar of GDP by closer to 20 percent. This means that despite all the posturing by supposedly Greener countries, we have reduced our carbon emissions more than virtually any other country in the world, including most of Europe.

World oil prices have fallen by two-thirds, largely due to the massive increase in U.S. production, saving hundreds of billions of payments for foreign oil and depriving state sponsors of terrorism of billions in revenue. Crude oil prices dropped from $103 per barrel in 2011 to $45 in 2015. U.S. production climbed from 8 million barrels per day in 2008 to 15 million barrels per day currently. Just four years ago, gasoline cost on average $3.64 per gallon, last year it cost $2.14.

So why the hysterical reactions? There have been isolated problems – largely due to local subcontractors disposing of wastewater improperly – but banning fracking for that reason would be like banning crabbing and oystering because a few waterman harvest illegally.

I believe we are observing again a social phenomenon that has happened frequently in the history of environmental regulation. It involves the acceptance of unfounded claims due to social pressure and reinforcement from politicians, media and social groups with whom we associate. It affects everyone – politicians who uncritically repeat what they hear whenever it appears to advance their careers, celebrities who are too dumb to think on their own but understand how to get publicity by attaching themselves to a cause, and all of us who hate to appear contrary in social settings. It is manipulated by activists who seed the process with false news.

This is not the first time this has happened. Remember when Meryl Streep was telling you that alar on apples would kill you? The Governor of New York and EPA officials knew that scientific tests had proven that there was nothing toxic in Love Canal but jumped on the bandwagon to create a massive new liability and regulatory empire. For a great analysis of how and why this happened, there is a fascinating paper by a behavioral economist and a law professor, Cass Sunstein, who served as regulatory czar in the Obama Administration. http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1036&context=public_law_and_legal_theory

The opposition to fracking is conducting a misinformation campaign that would make the Russians proud. It is promoted by those who hate oil and gas in principle, who don’t want us to have cheap energy, and who want to keep it in the ground at all costs. No falsehood about fracking is beneath them, because their end justifies the means. We on the Eastern Shore should not be fooled.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Kathi Donegan says:

    I was able to overlook your last OpEd piece on medically assisted death only because you so securely cloaked yourself within the Catholic church and I didn’t want to infringe on your freedom of religion angle – though you did sound as though you might be open to a theocracy.

    This piece on fracking, however, is disingenuous at best. And I have neither the time nor the patience to educate you as to the real dangers of fracking, though having been an executive with NERA, I‘m sure your due diligence while being a defender of deregulation and pro big anything allowed you to see both sides of the story. It’s just a shame that you failed to show whose colors you were wearing when you listed your resume at the end of the article.

    For anyone who has read this far I suggest just googling ‘fracking pros and cons’ and make up your own minds. But please, start with this ‘hysterical’ piece by the Sierra Club on Mr. Montgomery’s company. http://content.sierraclub.org/press-releases/2013/01/sierra-club-investigates-department-energys-economic-study-natural-gas

    And lastly, your quote, “ …No falsehood about fracking is beneath them, because their end justifies the means. We on the Eastern Shore should not be fooled.” Is pointing right back at you, sir.

    • David Montgomery says:

      I always figure that I have won the debate when those who disagree start impugning my integrity or talking about who I have done work for. That is so much easier than disputing my facts or logic. I have no career or financial stake in this, unlike politicians and professional environmental lobbyists who earn a living by putting out scare stories. I just get irritated when people make specious arguments and dont tell the truth.

  2. Kevin Kriescher says:

    This article is a basket of lies, and as a scientist, I am appalled that someone would submit it without foreknowledge of the subject matter. Correction 1) Fracking is mostly extraction; most “exploration” is done before the wellhead is placed. 2) Fracking does not make gas reservoirs “previously too thin to be worthwhile” suddenly worthwhile; given the horrendous amount of pollution fracking produces, it makes attempts to reach tiny pockets even less worthwhile. 3) Pollution occurs at all stages of industry: extraction, compression, transfer, burning, etc. Gas does burn cleaner than coal, but pollutes much more at the wellhead; renegade methane from gas mines is a greenhouse gas 80x more potent than Co2, and high pressure fracking mines release roughly 1.5 times as much, making cleaner burning useless. 4) Fracking supplied the “only sustained growth in jobs” during Obama’s tenure? The solar industry for example in this country employs more than coal, oil and gas combined. The solar industry has grown by 20% for each of the past four years (The Solar Foundation) and by 27% in MD in 2016. 5) Fracking chemicals are “harmless”? Than why are at least 65 (of the over 300 toxins that have been identified) regulated by the federal government? Ask the victims in PA. 6) Fracking does not cause earthquakes? Ask somebody in Oklahoma. If all of the author’s investments are currently in fossil fuels (a dying industry at best) there is a better alternative to denial: reinvest in clean, sustainable energy. Thank you.

  3. Jamie Kirkpatrick says:

    I raise a glass of contaminated groundwater to Mr. Montgomery. I bet a dollar to a doughnut he wouldn’t want a fracking well in his backyard.

  4. First, since David Montgomery doe not believe that Love Canal was toxic, he is obviously not a reliable source of information.

    Second, the growing call for Maryland to ban fracking is thoroughly grounded in facts, such as those gathered together in the over 900 fully referenced studies summarized in the “Compendium of Scientific, Medical and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction), 4th edition” (available online: http://concernedhealthny.org/compendium).

    Finally, to appreciate the disastrous implications of fracking for Maryland and particularly for Western Maryland, everyone should read the brilliant editorial, “The Case for a Fracking Ban,” by Paul Roberts and Mike Tidwell (Talbot Spy, February 27, 2017: http://talbotspy.org/op-ed-the-case-for-a-fracking-ban-by-paul-roberts-and-mike-tidwell).

  5. Lois Marie Gibbs says:

    In response to Dave Montgomery article on the proposed fracking ban in Maryland I can only ask what planet he’s been living on. For an educated man he certainly didn’t do his homework. I want to first correct him on the Love Canal historic situation. The State of New York Department of Health did indeed find conclusive science validating that over fifty percent of the children living around the Love Canal dumpsite were born with birth defects. Furthermore, in a follow up study the state health investigators found that Love Canal children (now adults) were giving birth to babies who were born with deformities at the same rate of over 50%. I could go on about other negative health outcomes but do not need to since this one fact demonstrates his credibly.

    After I moved from Love Canal I started an organization, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice to assist other communities faces with environment chemical threats, including fracking related infrastructure and wastes. You only need to go across the state line to Pennsylvania to experience first-hand the serious environmental and public health threats that results from the fracking process. Contaminated groundwater, drinking water, air and land can be found in many fracking sites.

    After spending billions of dollars to clean up and protect the Chesapeake Bay and the tributaries that feed the Bay, it would be absurd to allow fracking anywhere in the state. Furthermore, western Maryland the home of ranchers and farmers depend on clean water and air to maintain their business and lifestyle. There is an abundance of scientific studies done by government agencies as well as non-governmental organizations that have clearly shown that fracking causes all of the negative impacts you mentioned including earthquakes, contaminated water and air and social impacts one you forgot.

    I would suggest that Mr. Montgomery goes back and does his homework and research before he writes his next article. Let’s talk about truths rather than fiction. I pray the state does the right thing and bans fracking to protect Maryland’s families, ranches and extraordinary beautiful environment.

    Author: Lois Marie Gibbs, former resident of Love Canal, Niagara Falls, NY and founder of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.

  6. David Montgomery says:

    I have been away from the Spy for a few days, and I see there is an ongoing discussion. I will respond to the issues raised in the comments rather than the individual replies. First, as to earthquakes. The US Geological Survey is quite clear: “Fact 1: Fracking is NOT causing most of the induced earthquakes. Wastewater disposal is the primary cause of the recent increase in earthquakes in the central United States.” https://earthquake.usgs.gov/research/induced/myths.php. USGS is also the source of my statement that earthquakes induced by hydraulic fracturing are almost always too small to be of concern: http://www.eia.gov/Energyexplained/?page=natural_gas_environment Wastewater disposal can cause noticeable earthquakes if it is done in regions with existing faults, which is why both seismic testing and techniques for recycling drilling fluids are being developed. Moreover, most wastewater being reinjected in Oklahoma does not come from fracking: “In many locations, wastewater has little or nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing. In Oklahoma, less than 10% of the water injected into wastewater disposal wells is used hydraulic fracturing fluid. Most of the wastewater in Oklahoma is saltwater that comes up along with oil during the extraction process.” So I agree that wastewater injection can cause earthquakes, but not that hydraulic fracturing is responsible.

    Next, drinking water. As I read the literature, in particular on Pennsylvania, drinking water contamination has occurred because of human or equipment failures in handling fluids above ground, or because of inadequately cemented wells. These kinds of accidents occur with any kind of oil and gas drilling, and are not inherent in fracking. Moreover, in Pennsylvania in particular USGS research found many of the problems blamed on fracking in its baseline studies of water quality in areas without fracking activity:

    https://water.usgs.gov/coop/products/energy/shale.cwp.summary.pdf. Finally, there is little to be learned from stories of drinking water contamination that lack quantification of the frequency of these events or, indeed, whether the so-called contamination exceeded standards or posed any risk.

    Ms Gibbs cites Love Canal to question my credibility. I did suggest that misinformation about fracking is being spread in the same way as was information about Love Canal, and I see now that I was more correct than I realized. Ms Gibbs book “Love Canal: The Story Continues” is cited throughout the Kumar and Sunstein article and she appears prominently in their analysis of how an entirely unfounded story was disseminated. To quote them at p. 697, where their footnotes can be found: “Yet it remains unproven that the contamination of Love Canal, assuming it occurred, ever posed a significant risk to anyone. Peer-reviewed follow-up studies conducted by the New York State Department of Health uncovered no abnormal health trends among Love Canal residents, and this finding was supported by later analyses by the American Medical Association, the National Research Council, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Equally significant, no subsequent study discovered any link between the identified chromosome alterations and the contamination in question. An exhaustive 1982 study by the EPA, based on 6000 samples of soil, air, and groundwater from the evacuated area and other sampling regions, found “no evidence of environmental contamination” at Love And in the same year the Department of Health and Human Services found that the emergency zone was “as habitable as the control areas with which it was compared.”70

    I suggest that Ms Gibbs credibility is the real issue. The initial impetus for the Love Canal episode came from reports of an insecticide Mirex being found in fish in Lake Erie and identification of Love Canal as a source. Picking up the history given by Kumar and Sunstein at p. 692, “At this stage, neither the state government nor the federal government
    attempted to reassure the residents about their neighborhood’s safety, probably for fear that such efforts would only engender distrust and because they thought the anxieties would dissipate on their own. Taking the cautious route, government officials ordered a series of tests. These detected low levels of carcinogens in basements near the dump site, and in early 1978 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed the findings. The EPA also reported, however, that the observed toxicity was not at all threatening; the water was safe to drink, and Lake Ontario was not alarmingly contaminated. 26 Nevertheless, lawsuits kept the residents’ complaints steadily in the news. In June 1978, frightening stories in the Niagara Falls Gazette came to the attention of Lois Marie Gibbs, a housewife living in the area. Gibbs, who became president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association, played a key role in reinforcing fears of adverse health effects and mobilizing public attention. Indeed, she would eventually appear on national television programs and receive invitations to the state capitol and even the White House. In brief, she served as a leading availability entrepreneur of the episode” Continuing on p. 693, they report that in response “The local health department
    initially attempted to counter the campaign by referring to controlled studies that found no evidence of leukemia or even of low or fluctuating counts of white blood cells. But because the health department provided no interpretation of what the numbers meant, they “had no meaning” for the residents, and concerns did not dampen.” Kumar and Sunstein further describe how the panic was spread “She [Gibbs] and her associates treated technical explanations as just “a bunch of baloney.”~~They also instructed residents to report to doctors and local officials any and all suspected health abnormalities. “Tell them everything,” Gibbs exhorted, “If you had three pimples this time last month, and this time you have five-tell them!”

    Then the misinformation started coming out from all sources. “Within a few days of [President] Carter’s declaration [of a state of emergency], scientists re-examining the evidence began signaling that the dangers were being overblown. Their findings prompted some government officials, including Carey, to tone down their statements. But fears would not dissipate. On the contrary, they intensified. Then certain new studies, presented before Congress in early 1979, pointed to sky-high rates of nervous breakdown, miscamage, and various diseases of the urinary system in the Love Canal area. These data would be thoroughly discredited two years later; some of the effects were evidently fictitious, and others were undoubtedly produced by panic; but at the time the data were widely reported as scientifically sound. To call for caution in interpreting the data, even to question their validity, was to risk fierce and
    widespread criticism. Information that flowed rapidly among groups was heightening anxieties, and those who challenged the prevailing interpretations of Love Canal were being labeled as accessories to a heinous cover-up.” (p. 694)

    I hope these excerpts will induce readers to download and read this article for themselves. At least up to p. 704, where it turns very academic.

    Remember, by 1982 it was proven that there was no basis for any of these claims. Does any of this sound familiar?

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