Thursday, January 26, 2012

NATURALLY GASSY

"Fracking is the exact same as licking the spoon and the bowl clean after Mother Nature's frosting is all gone."

Drill diagram
Oil companies are a bit unsavory and untrustworthy. Like any huge, vastly wealthy corporation, they're willing to let ethics and even humanity slide in the name of profits and it becomes far too easy to incrementally ignore more and more of what you know is right. It isn't that they're any more evil than, say, the average person, its that they have far more opportunities and varied ways to let that evil come out. That's what wealth and power does: you're no more responsible than the powerless, you just have more opportunities.

Yet at the same time, the oil companies aren't uniformly awful and evil, either. They do a lot of good, not the least of which is power our entire civilization. An in fact, almost nothing they do is unethical and evil, the vast majority is either ethically neutral or beneficial, like most of us.

The problem is, the perception generally held is that oil companies are particularly wicked and evil, that they're some special nexus of satanic destruction to the world and humanity. That's just not the case, they're just another company made up of ordinary and extraordinary human beings trying to make a living and provide a service or product.

Because of this general perception, its easy for someone with an agenda to make them look awful and find an audience, while difficult for the oil companies to defend themselves. Everything they say people figure "yeah, that's what they would say, who did they pay to lie for them?" No one wants to give them the benefit of the slightest doubt, while those who attack and criticize them are met with credulty: we want them to be right, even if they don't really present the facts.

Now, no industry that makes hundreds of billions of dollars a year needs my help or protection. The fact that they do so in ways that I find problematic at times makes me even less interested in helping them out.

At the same time, I like the truth, and I especially like finding out truth when I've been told lies or distortions my whole life. Its one of my favorite times, when I read or learn something that shatters a bit of conventional wisdom and I think "aha!" Its like learning some secret or gaining a treasure: I've gained something precious and rare. And I want to share that when it happens because I want everyone to know the truth.

Then there are times when the truth isn't certain but I want people to hear and consider both sides rather than just pick one and cling to it for some reason or affection. So with that long winded introduction, I'd like to pass on a bit of information about natural gas drilling, "fracking" and the problems with one particular faux documentary called Gasland. Its one of many in the Michael Moore genre of "documentaries" which are not meant to dig into the facts and inform, but to shape opinion and attack. They are, in effect, propaganda for a cause.

I can't stand that kind of thing. If it was presented as a fiction, like Oliver Stone's history-mauling JFK or Cameron's similarly history-mauling Titanic it would be one thing. Those are bad enough, even though they leave people thinking they know the real story when its just someone's fable. But when you put out a documentary, people tend to think they're getting the unvarnished, bold truth by a crusading filmmaker against tough odds.

So Gasland basically tries to make the case that drilling for natural gas using "Fracking" is a horrific environment-destroying monster that is causing water lines to burst into flame and terrible poisons to destroy crops, kill children, and force people to run over puppies.

At Zero Hedge, Marin Katusa of Casey Research took a close look at the film and its claims and found them desperately wanting. And its not just him, the EPA (no friend of fracking or the oil companies) has been trying for years to find proof that the process is evil, and never had any success. They thought they'd found some, but they had to dig a well many times as deep as anyone ever does for water before they ran into negative effects of fracking. In essence, they dug into the natural gas layer and... found the stuff pumped into the ground to fracture the ground and release the gas. Shock of all shocks.

Like any good agit prop work, Gasland relies on distortions more than outright falsehoods. For instance:
  • Fracking is exempt from the clean water act! (Only because its a state-level affair, and thus not affected by federal rules. States do regulate the procedures.)
  • Frac fluids that flow back out of a well are often stored in pits in the ground that aren't even lined, where a lot of the fluid just seeps into the ground. (in the past this has happened, but the regulations and company policies require careful storage now, and its a booming business to design and build better storage units).
  • Frac fluids are toxic mixtures of 596 deadly chemicals. (There are 596 chemicals used in fracking but only a few of them in any given operation, similar to how cooking takes thousands of ingredients, but a recipe only takes a few. Fracking fluid is typically a bit under 91% water and 9% sand with traces of other chemicals).
  • People who live near fracs have been found to have elevated levels of benzene in their blood. (Only smokers in the area had the elevated levels. Non smokers showed no such change an all smokers have elevated levels of benzene in their blood.)
Then there are the outright inventions, complete falsehoods which they simply assert, either due to ignorance, misinformation, or malice:
  • Fracking contaminates ground water! (The shales that contain natural gas are 5,000 to as much as 18,000 feet below ground. The aquifers we tap for drinking water are at about 500 feet. That means roughly 2 miles of rock lie between aquifer and frac.)
  • Fracking causes water to become flammable! (methane in the water table does this, and it always has in these areas. The fact that you find methane gas in the same areas as shale gas is not exactly surprising. Methane pockets are quickly expended and harmless.)
  • Drilling companies refuse to disclose just which deadly chemicals they use to create their frac fluids. (Actually they are required by law to show what they use, and do, on Material Data Sheets which are freely available, if a bit confusing to a non-professional.)
  • The EPA has never really studied fracking. (They have done two studies, the latest of which just came out and had the false positive from drilling too deeply.)
Again, its not like the oil companies are saints here. They're as cheap, sloppy, and quick as they can get away with, because they're in the business of making money, not taking care of the environment.

There are real concerns that need to be addressed, which Marin freely discusses, such as storage of the waste water, how much water is needed (millions of gallons), and the fact that they think the procedure may have caused very small earthquakes in California(!). Granted releasing small amounts of built up pressure in tiny earthquakes is better than waiting for a Japan-level one to rip loose, but its not really anything we can control.

But they're closely watched, regulated heavily, and aren't murdering people and destroying farms like is being portrayed in this movie and an insulting, preachy CSI episode. And its good to have the facts out, or at least another side of the issue, to avoid being completely taken in by someone with an agenda.

Because while we knjow what the oil companies agenda is, and they keep it out in the open - get as rich as humanly possible - the agenda of guys making movies like Gasland is a bit more hidden, deliberately. And if we're going to be well informed and honest, we should consider both.

1 comment:

Eric said...

A lot of these problems come from oil companies moving into states and areas where they haven't had a large presence in the past. I have a lot of friends that have left Oklahoma to go work in the gas fields of New York and Pennsylvania, and one thing the repeatedly comment on is how LITTLE regulation there is in those areas. One wouldn't think energy production in a state like Oklahoma would be dramatically more regulated than New York, but when you think about it, it makes sense: they've been drilling huge amount of gas and oil in Oklahoma and Texas for over a century, and over time these states have identified the environmental problems caused by drilling and passed laws to make them safer... in states where they haven't had as much experience with drilling, there was no need for those laws.

And that's where you get into an interesting argument about businesses and the environment and regulations... because oil companies that KNOW dumping frak waste into a municipal sewage system is not legal in Oklahoma won't think twice about dumping that waste into a New York sewage system if it is legal for them to do so. That's pretty bad behavior on their part, and it invites people to make documentaries about how evil they are.

On another note, the real problem with fracking is that it doesn't produce oil or gasoline, only natural gas, and the USA has been terribly slow at finding ways to exploit our huge natural gas reserves, with the result being that natural gas prices are so low that these companies are starting to lose money on productive new wells. A lot of the big natural gas companies here in Oklahoma just announced they are making major reductions in new production this year, focusing instead on drilling for oil, which is more profitable but much less readily available.