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Framing fracking

By  Daniel Tormey, Catalyst Environmental Solutions Wednesday, 03 August 2016 08:56
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Are hydraulic fracturing policies driven by science or public perceptions? Daniel Tormey from Catalyst Environmental Solutions explains.

Hydraulic fracturing. Image from Daniel Tormey.

Science and public policy don’t often get along well. While science focuses on measured data and testable hypotheses, public policy must also weigh public perception and fears. In recent years, the technical issues of genetically modified foods, widespread use of vaccines, climate change, and fracking have all experienced widespread and extreme controversy, with the public and policy makers finding a need to choose sides rather than considering the facts.

One characteristic of all of these issues is that each side says they want to find "the best science," by which they usually mean ‘the science that best supports my preconceived notions and fears’. Another, seemingly contradictory characteristic is to attack the scientists on the other side.

Can science which thrives by conjecture and refutation, and searches out the areas of most uncertainty in order to advance our knowledge, play a role in public policy, where each side seizes on any suggesting that the science is uncertain to push their policy agendas?

For upstream oil and gas in Asia, is the answer maybe yes? With the slowdown in oil and gas exploration worldwide, Asian governments have the opportunity to take stock of the current state of scientific understanding of the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing specifically, and the exploration and production practices more broadly.

Governments can consider the state of the science and of industry practices to determine those issues that warrant further regulatory protection, and those that do not. In a state of relative calm, such a review could best balance the facts with the public perceptions and fears to arrive at policy solutions that support both industry and the public good.  If Asia does not get it right, then they have only to look around the world to see the consequences.

The lessons of history

Worldwide, the well completion process of high volume hydraulic fracturing has become a touchstone for opposition to development of oil and gas resources from the shale and coal seam source rocks. In the US, hydraulic fracturing displaced global climate change as the most controversial environmental policy issue in 2011.

Public opinion about hydraulic fracturing has been shaped, especially in the last several years, by film and the Internet. Between 2009-12, Internet searches for the term ‘fracking’ quadrupled, although the term ‘hydraulic fracturing’ has shown hardly any relative increase.

With much of the world, including an estimated 85% of the public using the Internet for information, and most people getting their information on hydraulic fracturing through this medium, search word choices have been found to be particularly important with respect to the information that shows up in the user’s search results.

In this case, as of 2013, using the word ‘fracking’ in a Google search does not return the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website until the fifth page of search results. The term ‘hydraulic fracturing’ returns the EPA website, which hosts objective information on the practice on the first page.

In many ways, media coverage based on few facts or data has been the first generation of studies related to hydraulic fracturing and water quality, and has led to widespread public concern. Many countries instituted bans on the practice based solely on data-free concerns. Public perception and fears drove policy, without the benefit of measured data and scientifically based conclusions. This does not seem like a good way to run a regulatory program.

Our team at Catalyst Environmental Solutions conducted a peer-reviewed, comprehensive study of the physical and environmental effects of two specific hydraulic fracturing jobs at an existing oil and gas field in the center of Los Angeles. All of the measurements included data collected prior to hydraulic fracturing and after the hydraulic fracturing.  Some also included data collected during hydraulic fracturing.

The duration of the study was for some resource categories such as water quality, one year prior to hydraulic fracturing, and more than a year after hydraulic fracturing. The study was data-rich and directed towards all identified areas of environmental concern. The objective was to provide peer-reviewed, factual information supported by a high quality dataset to assist the regulatory process and support community involvement.

This study represents part of the second generation of studies addressing public concerns related to hydraulic fracturing with measured data rather than conjecture. None of the measurements detected a change due to hydraulic fracturing, including ground motion and induced seismicity, water quality, hydrogeology, methane migration, noise and vibration, air emissions, subsidence, community health, and well integrity.

The state of California commissioned their California Council on Science and Technology to address the state of the science on hydraulic fracturing in the state. In July 2015, conclusions were that the effects of hydraulic fracturing were small and manageable, and that other industry practices warranted further evaluation and possibly additional regulation.

At a national level, the EPA also in 2015 released the draft of their long-awaited study of the effects of hydraulic fracturing on water resources; both water quality and water quantity. The study concluded that the effects were minor and not widespread.

The progression has been three years of public policy driven solely by public perception.  This period was followed by three years of science and data taking the stage to respond to environmental concerns with community dialogue and scientifically based, peer-reviewed, studies to address the concerns. Now, slowly public policy is now being developed or revised to better reflect the needed balance between scientific facts and public concerns.

What about Asia?

China, which may have the world’s largest reserves of shale gas, is clearly being affected by environmental concerns with the process. Elsewhere in Asia the situation is mixed with protests in Thailand and industry growth in Indonesia. Although the primary constraints on development of shale gas and shale oil in Asia are technical and commercial, environmental concerns surfacing in the US also play a large role in the acceptance of the hydraulic fracturing in Asia.

With the drop in oil prices, further exploration and development has lagged. The US experience has been that a lack of sound environmental data led to widespread public concern and local bans. After environmental data was collected and analyzed and government regulation addressed remaining concerns, the practice has progressed.

With the lag in exploration in Asia, the regulatory climate and social acceptance could be positively affected by using the new environmental data developed in the US and elsewhere, thus, potentially avoiding an unnecessary regulatory maze.

Asia is well-positioned to use the results of the American studies described above, as well as those from other countries such as the UK that have become available in the last few years to help craft regulatory protections that focus on the key issues of concern. In this way, the region may be able to avoid unnecessary delays and opposition that have presented themselves elsewhere in the world.

Daniel Tormey is president of Catalyst Environmental Solutions that creates solutions for complex, multidisciplinary environmental challenges in energy, water resources, and land use. He was the principal investigator for the hydraulic fracturing study in Los Angeles; a member of the steering committee for the study of hydraulic fracturing effects in California led by the California Council on Science and Technology; and provides comments on the EPA’s hydraulic fracturing study. 

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