The second round of unabashed and one-sided bashing of the oil and gas industry, and in particular shale gas, played on HBO Tuesday. Gasland II opens with comments from Robert Howarth, a Cornell professor who has questioned the climate benefits of natural gas relative to coal with his own estimates, which wrongly assumed that all methane not accounted for as production was released into the air, rather than being captured or flared. EPA’s latest estimates show fugitive methane emissions well below the breakeven benchmark with coal burned in power plants. Estimates due any day from a joint effort by the Environmental Defense Fund, University of Texas and several operating companies are very likely to corroborate EPA’s findings.
The relatively esoteric issue of fugitive methane gives way to some really outrageous statements. The most egregious is linking seismic events associated with a few deep injection wells in several states used to dispose of fracking wastes (the largest probably being a 5.7 on the logarithmic Richter scale) to a study of what would happen to Los Angeles if an earthquake releasing about 80 times the amount of energy (7.2 magnitude) occurred! No one has yet linked fracking itself to any seismic events that most people can feel, much less a large, destructive quake.
Anthony Ingraffea, another Cornell professor, explains in another scene how groundwater can be polluted by methane and various fluids in flowback and produced water. He draws only one cement barrier on the chalkboard (multiple barriers are common) and then leaves the novice listener with the false impression that “failures” of cementing and casings mean that groundwater becomes polluted. “Failure” in this case is a generic term for pressure anomalies that show something is not right in the wellbore, and these do happen quite often – he says 5 percent immediately and 50 percent over the well lifetime. How frequently groundwater is polluted in the process is not well understood in the scientific community, but, in any event, the frequency will be less than that for “failures.”
One helpful point made indirectly by the movie is the lack of transparency and information about this topic because industry practice in settling claims and lawsuits is to insist on silence from plaintiffs. Silence on the amount of the settlements is one thing. Silence on what happened is another. The public needs to understand what the actual risks are and by shutting in this information the industry does itself a disservice by giving the public the feeling that there is something big to hide. And, if there really is something big to hide, the industry needs to go all out to deal with it.