Fracking Really Isn't So Bad

When Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last year that hydraulic fracturing would be banned in the State of New York, he cited the lack of scientific data on public health effects. He also said more study needed to be done to determine where emissions were coming from in the fracking and extraction cycle.

That study has now been done. Chemists at the University of Texas at Arlington published a study that indicates contamination from fracking wells are highly variable but result more from operational inefficiencies than from the extraction process itself.

In other words, it’s sloppy drilling methods that are the worst part of fracking.

The study, “Point source attribution of ambient contamination events near unconventional oil and gas development”, was published on Friday in the Science of the Total Environment. The researchers found highly variable levels of benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene compounds (BTEX) in and around fracking sites in the Eagle Ford shale region in South Texas. BTEX compounds in high concentrations can have harmful health effects in humans.

What was important was that the emissions were not from the fracking itself, but from a variety of onsite activities that were carried out in a poor or sloppy fashion.

Most studies on fracking have focused on rogue methane emissions. While methane is a potent greenhouse gas, rogue emissions do not have an immediate effect on human health because their concentrations are hundreds to thousands of times below what is required for acute health effects or asphyxiation.

But toxic vapors are another matter.

The authors presented an analysis of BTEX in the Eagle Ford shale region of southern Texas where fracking has increased enormously in the last decade. Using a novel mobile mass spectrometer mounted in the passenger seat of an electric hybrid car, real-time air quality measurements gave BTEX concentrations up to 5,000 parts per billion (ppb) originating from various onsite activities.

These include gas flaring units, condensate tanks, compressor units, and hydrogen sulfide scavengers. Mechanical inefficiencies in these systems, not the fracking process itself, cause the majority of emissions from these sites. While these measurements on their own do not fully portray emissions at all sites, they strongly suggest that contamination from fracking wells can be monitored, controlled, and reduced through better procedures and practices.

We’ve noticed this before with respect to fracked wells. Fugitive methane emissions come more from a poor cement job during sealing of the wells, than from fracking itself. EPA considers emissions from natural gas systems to be fairly low, even compared to agriculture and organic digesters (Duke University; Forbes Opinion).

Plus, no one believes fracking for gas to be anywhere near as environmentally destructive as getting coal or oil out of the ground by any means.

America’s carbon emissions are lower than at any time since 1989 and there are two big reasons for this - the Great Recession and the shale gas fracking craze.

Last year, EPA cut its estimates of methane emissions from natural gas production by 20%, bolstering industry claims that the fuel has a lower carbon footprint than coal and prompting new calls for the agency to soften its 2012 air rules for the sector (EPA).

Over the past ten years, electricity from coal has decreased by 25% and electricity from natural gas has increased 35%. Gas is being installed as the primary back-up to renewables. Gas is replacing nuclear in some unregulated markets. So expect natural gas use to double in the coming decades.

If natural gas is going to become the major energy source in America, the industry needs to clean up its act. They can get to it on their own, or we can go through the laborious route of regulations.

Since just being careful will reduce both methane and toxic vapor emissions, addressing both climate and human health, then not being sloppy should be a no-brainer.

Of course, not sure what to do about the fracking-related earthquakes induced by the associated injection wells.

I have been a scientist in the field of the earth and environmental sciences for 33 years, specializing in geologic disposal of nuclear waste, energy-related research, planetary surface processes, radiobiology and shielding for space colonies, subsurface transport and enviro...


Dr. James Conca is an expert on energy, nuclear and dirty bombs, a planetary geologist, and a professional speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jimconca and see his book at

Author: Dr. James Conca