Fracking Fact Check

With BC’s fracking inquiry due in December, we check out the evidence on earthquakes, water, pollution, and health

Delores Broten

©IRIS Earthquake Sci

One of the most common search phrases at www.watershedsentinel.ca is, “Does fracking cause earthquakes?” When we last summarized the fracking controversy, the answer to that question was still disputed, but now it is clear. Yes, fracking causes earthquakes.

Swarms of earthquakes, they say. Clusters of tiny tremblers. But not just little earthquakes. In 2015, an area 110 kilometres northwest of Fort St. John, BC suffered a 4.6 quake definitively attributed to a gas fracking operation by Progress Energy. BC Hydro has even requested that the industry voluntarily stay 5 kilometres away from its dams.
The earthquakes could also be caused by a combination of the initial fracking and deep well injection of wastewater from fracking. A recent study in Earth & Space Science News (February 2018) shows that clusters of small fracking related earthquakes in Arkansas between 2010 and 2011 were indicators of deeper stresses, which ultimately resulted in a 4.8 quake.

In the UK, fracking was halted in 2011 when two earthquakes hit Lancashire, but resumed in October 2018 despite sustained protest. On October 19, metro.co.uk reported the area was hit by four earthquakes just 72 hours after fracking resumed.

Most earthquakes are due to the deep injection of wastewater but some of the BC quakes are clearly due to fracking itself, though to a coastal dweller inundated with warnings to be prepared for “The Big One,” this seems a moot point.
Water

The water required for fracking and the disposal of wastewater is the most contentious aspect of the gas production method. The Petroleum Services Association of Canada says the amount of water needed to frac an individual well varies greatly and depends on several factors, including the geologic setting, characteristics of the rock (thickness, brittleness, etc.), length of the well, and how many stages are required. Frac jobs use from 500,000 to 100 million litres of water per well.

frack·ing / frak-ing / noun

The process of injecting liquid at high pressure into sub- terranean rocks, boreholes, etc., so as to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas.

In a June paper in the American Geophysical Union journal Earth’s Future, scientists evaluated the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on local water availability globally. They found that 30% of shale deposits are located in arid regions where aquifers are already being heavily tapped for irrigating crops, and 31-40% of shale deposits are in areas where water stress is likely to emerge and would be exacerbated by fracking.
And that water use is about to get even worse. A team from Duke University, who published their findings August 15, 2018 in Science Advances, found the amount of water used per well surged by up to 770% between 2011 and 2016 in all major US shale gas and oil-producing regions. The volume of flowback and produced water that new wells generated during their first year of operation also increased by up to 1,440%.

The disposal of wastewater, which contains widely differing amounts of salts, radioactive traces, minerals, and assorted mostly toxic chemicals is also difficult, requiring either disposal or treatment and re-use. An average of 30% and up to 60% of the water injected into a wellhead during the fracking process will discharge back out of the well shortly thereafter as “flowback wastewater.” Thereafter, and for the life of the wellhead, it will discharge a large amount of  wastewater per day, depending on the nature of the site. Whether injected into deep aquifers or spread on surface areas, disposal of this water is problematic to sustainability.

The contamination of drinking water quality aquifers by accidental drilling is uncommon but with so many wells being drilled and fracked, incidents are on the increase.

Greenhouse gases

Natural gas, they say, is the clean “transition fuel” to wean humanity off coal and eventually other fossil fuels. However, the greenhouse gas releases from the Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) process, as well as the upstream drilling and fracking, are enormous. The proposed LNG facility in Kitimat, BC (announced in October) would, according to West Coast Environmental Law, add another 9,600,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases to the province’s emissions by 2050 (from the plant and associated upstream emissions). Meanwhile, as well as CO2 and methane, the spread of noxious gases from fracking is just beginning to be calculated.

Human health

Quite a lot of air contaminants are released in fracking – according to Potential Health and Environmental Effects of Hydrofracking in the Williston Basin, Montana (at serc.carleton.edu), “benzene, toluene, xylene and ethyl benzene (BTEX), particulate matter and dust, ground level ozone, or smog, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and metals contained in diesel fuel combustion,” with exposure to these pollutants “known to cause short-term illness, cancer, organ damage, nervous system disorders and birth defects or even death.”

A massive study in Pennsylvania has provided some solid evidence for concern. Researchers from Princeton University and others took the birth records for every child born in Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2013 – more than 1.1 million infants in total – and looked at the mother’s proximity to a fracking site. Infants born to mothers who lived within two miles of a fracking well were less healthy and more underweight than babies born to mothers who lived even a little further away.

US organization Physicians for Social Responsibility has compiled numerous studies indicating human health impacts from proximity to fracking operations, including premature births, mild to severe asthma exacerbations, and various combinations of migraine headaches, chronic rhinosinusitis, and fatigue symptoms. They cite a study from Wyoming: “In 2016, researchers working collaboratively with local residents near oil and gas operations in Wyoming reported.… Toxicants and their metabolites, including BTEX6 chemicals known to damage multiple organ systems, were detected in air samples and in the urine of residents.”

BC Inquiry

In March, the BC government fulfilled an NDP election promise by appointing a three-scientist panel to examine fracking impacts on seismicity and water. Human health and greenhouse gas impacts were excluded from the scope of the study, which is due by December 2018.

Physicians for Social Responsibility, Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (2018)

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