Holy Rizzoli: Is That Fracking Fluid Going to Kill Me? (No)
The plot line for the recent episode of Rizzoli & Isles – a “torn from the headlines” crime drama on the TNT Network about a female police detective in Boston — is Hollywood at its worst. Rizzoli stumbles onto an illegal shale gas fracking operation, but the evil frackers catch her before she can call for back-up. They have to kill her. Sure, they could shoot her, but the evil frackers decide to tie her up in an abandoned car in the path of toxic spill water coming from the illegal fracking operation. Naturally, Rizzoli is rescued just in time, and the evil frackers are sent off to prison where they belong for being dirty polluters. My beef is not with the Blofeld-like decision not to shoot Rizzoli, but with the nonsensical representation of shale gas fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) is a natural gas extraction technique in which a mixture of water, sand and a tiny amount of chemical additives are pumped deep underground through a well-bore to fracture shale rock and release trapped natural gas. The disparity between the plot’s take on shale gas fracking and the facts could not be greater.
For starters, shale gas fracking is not illegal in Massachusetts, where the TV show is set. Indeed, there is no fracking in Massachusetts because there is no shale to frack in Massachusetts. More fundamentally, the notion of death by toxic fracking water is unrealistic in two respects. The water-sand-chemical mixture used in fracking operations is not toxic, and in any event there are no discharges of raw fracking water.
“Chemical” Does Not Equal “Toxic.” The minute amounts of chemicals added to the water-sand mixture used in fracking operations have drawn intense scrutiny and criticism. Fears over dangers posed by these chemicals, however, are greatly exaggerated. The US Department of Energy reports ( Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer, April 2009) that these chemical additives collectively account for less than 0.5 percent of the fracking fluid; the other 99.5 percent is water and sand. Moreover, the vast majority of chemicals added are innocuous surfactants used to enhance the “slipperiness” of water used in fracking operations. It is possible that the water may accumulate small quantities of naturally occurring elements after being pumped down into the shale rock formation, as well as brine, but that hardly renders the water toxic.
No Discharges of Raw Fracking Water. Moreover, raw fracking fluids held in retention ponds are not simply discharged. Water is too scarce a resource to simply discharge, so it is typically recycled. When particulate matter in fracking fluid builds up to the point that reuse is no longer practical, the fluid is either pumped into disposal wells regulated by EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or treated and discharged through a permitted outfall. To the extent treated water is discharged, the operator must obtain and comply with a permit under the Clean Water Act. The permitting program – the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System or “NPDES” permit – requires the operator to have treated the effluent to remove contaminants before discharge.
Could a fracking operation illegally discharge untreated return flows of water? Sure it is possible. There are bad actors in every field. For Hollywood to stigmatize the natural gas industry with a scenario that bears no relation to industry practices is simply irresponsible. Don’t they have fact checkers and science advisors on this show’s staff? Had they done even minimal research, they would have run across Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports that document the largely innocuous list of chemicals used in fracking fluids, the low concentrations of such chemical additives, and that return flows are subject to regulation at both the State and Federal level. Rizzoli & Isles’ take on fracking isn’t “torn from the headlines;” it’s divorced from reality.
Unfortunately, Hollywood is not the only one getting its facts wrong. Even the New York Times has misstated the facts. In the April 17, 2011, edition, the NYT reports: “Oil and gas companies injected hundreds of millions of gallons of hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals into wells in more than 13 states from 2005 to 2009, according to an investigation by Congressional Democrats.” The April 15, 2011, CRS report that is the source of the quoted figure, however, did not characterize the injected chemicals as hazardous or carcinogenic. Indeed, according to other CRS reports, the vast majority of the chemicals used are harmless. Granted, a few of the chemicals added to fracking fluids are not harmless, but they make up a tiny percentage of the chemicals used, and an even tinier percentage of the water-sand-chemical mixture ultimately injected into underground disposal wells. Facts are pesky things, aren’t they?
Peter L. Gray is a partner with McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP, where he chairs the Environment, Energy and Product Regulation Department.
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