Don't frack this up! What really needs to happen to make hydrofracking safe

WSJ reporter Russell Gold says fracking's many problems are fixable -- if the proper steps are taken

Published April 5, 2014 8:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Brennan Linsley)
(AP/Brennan Linsley)

How many of us are directly affected by fracking? Russell Gold, the senior energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal, has done the math: He found that since 2000, wells have been drilled within a mile of at least 15.3 million Americans -- more people than live in New York City. Economically, of course, it affects even more of us than that -- fracking technology is allowing the U.S. to get an extraordinary amount of natural gas and even oil out of the ground, enough so that by 2020, and perhaps even sooner, America could become the world's largest oil producer. The name of Gold's new book sums that up succinctly: it's called "The Boom."

But as we know, the advantages come at a heavy price -- what Russell describes as a Pandora's box of consequences both to the people living near those wells while the oil and gas is being extracted, and to the climate. The most disconcerting part of all that is how little we understand those impacts, and how quickly, despite that, we're continuing to drill: 100 wells a day, every day. Gold contends that it's unrealistic to stop fracking, but says it's vital that we slow down and hold the industry accountable -- and not let up on them for an instant.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You start off the book as a reporter having to make a decision about fracking that’s going to have an immediate impact on your family: Chesapeake Energy called your parents and offered them $400,000 plus royalties to drill for natural gas under their property in Pennsylvania. How did that personal angle affect the way you approached the issue?

I think it actually helped me be a better reporter. Sometimes, as a reporter, you can see things on a very 3,000-foot level. You see it as a very abstract issue. And by having to think about this as a personal issue, affecting land that I grew up in and around, made me really see these issues in just finer detail, made me really think and feel it more. And then I would go back to reporting for the Journal, I think it just made me a better reporter.

Even before I got the phone call, I visited my first fracking job in 2003, back before we even called it fracking. We would just talk about the industry, about unconventional gas back then. So I had the experience by the time other people really started talking about fracking, it was a little bit of a head-scratcher because what people were saying didn’t really dovetail with what I had seen, in visiting communities and reporting on this the previous five years. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book is that this polarized dialogue that came out just didn’t really seem to reflect reality as I’d seen it.

In the book, you make the effort to dispel some of the fictions about fracking coming from both sides. What are the most pervasive myths you’ve encountered?

Let me highlight a couple. One is that, when it comes to this future of energy, you either have to be pro-fossil fuel or pro-renewable -- there’s no middle ground, you have to make a choice. That’s just not true. The people I know who are thinking a lot about the future of energy see a world where the only way we can get to 30 or 40 percent renewables is by using lots of gas from fracking. The two can go together. So that’s one myth, that you either have to be for renewables or for fossil fuels; there’s not a way to bring them together.

The other myth that I would highlight is that fracking itself -- the act of cracking rocks 7,000 feet deep -- poses a threat to groundwater. That’s not true. Well construction, sure, that could pose a risk, but not fracking itself.

And that has to do with newer methods of fracking compared to how it was done before. There are a lot of mixed messages about how old fracking is -- the industry just celebrated its 65th birthday …

I actually take a very different approach to that, because that’s also become very polarized and politicized. How old is fracking? The industry wants to say it’s very old, to try to calm everyone down, to say, “Look, this is not new, we know what we’re doing. And people who are opposed to fracking want to say this is newfangled and we don’t know the risks yet.

My approach is that modern fracking started in the summer of 1998, and what I mean by that is, lots of water, lots of pumping pressure into shale. That’s the breakthrough of 1998. And so, that’s relatively new. That’s less than 15 years old.

The industry has been fracking -- has been pumping water mixed with some chemicals into formations -- since just after World War II, since 1947. That’s probably where the 65th anniversary comes from. I actually date it back even further: If you look at what’s called the torpedoes that were used and put into wells, right at the beginning of the petroleum age in the 1860s and early 1870s in Western Pennsylvania, the purpose of those torpedoes was to create fractures. It says right in the original pact, they were to create fractures in the rock to try to drain the oil out better. So in some ways this has been going on since the first wells were drilled.

But is what’s going on now at all comparable to that?

Well, OK, that’s a good question. What is going on now is not comparable to what began in the 1860s and '70s. I bring that up to suggest that this effort by the industry, to break open the rocks, to crack open rocks, is very old. If you look at what was developed in the 1940s, what they call the hydrofrac treatment, that is comparable. It’s the same idea, you’re pumping water thickened with chemicals into a formation, and that was used quite a lot in relatively porous rocks: sandstone, for instance.

What happens in the 1990s is that it’s applied to shale, to these very dense rock formations. And the reason that’s so important and revolutionary is that shale is where oil and gas come from. It’s the sedimentary rock which, under lots of pressure and time and heat, bakes the tiny little zooplanktons into fossil fuel, it’s what creates it. And that’s why there’s so much oil and gas in these rocks. And the ability in the 1990s, and into the 2000s, to get into the rocks and get the oil and gas out, that’s really the turning point, and that’s why we have an energy boom right now.

Right, and that’s what’s having this huge economic impact.

Absolutely. Economic impact, impact on our societies, impact on our environment, everything. It’s having a very large impact in many places in the United States.

What about the impact on a local scale? When you’re going into communities where the drilling is occurring, you have the benefits of increased job creation, or people receiving money from signing over their land rights, compared to the negative impacts drilling might have. What’s the sort of thing that you see when you go to these places?

One of the things that I see a lot, the number one complaint that I hear isn’t air, isn’t water -- it’s trucks. People don’t like all these trucks on their roads driving around. You hear that all the time. Some variation of the story: “Well I used to be able to drive the 10 miles from here to my job and I’d see maybe a couple different cars, and I knew who was driving them, and now it’s jammed with trucks.”

And that’s true. I mean I’ve been to very rural places in South Texas and turned a corner and seen a line of trucks. It’s rather remarkable. The local community impact is significant. When the industry is getting in there, and building the frack pads and drilling the wells, there’s no question it has a major impact. After the drilling is over, the impact lessens. And that’s sometimes what people forget. That the really intensive period doesn’t last that long. Now we have some really important, outstanding questions about what are some of the long-term impacts on the water and on the air. And those questions are being asked, and to an extent answered, right now.

Let’s go back to that idea of natural gas as a bridge fuel. I think one of the things that’s really important -- and that you acknowledge -- is that we just don’t have a lot of information about the impact it’s having, on the environmental level and on the climate. And you know the big argument against the bridge fuel idea is that natural gas is, if not just as bad for the climate as oil because of methane leaks and that sort of thing, bad enough that the climate at this point can’t handle it. How do you respond to that?

Well, the issue of methane leakage is absolutely crucial. And I think it’s too bad that we’re 10 years-plus into this boom, and we’re only now really starting to ask really difficult questions about methane leakage. It really would have been great if we had had the foresight to do that five years ago.

There’s no question -- and there have been many peer reviewed scientific papers -- that the industry as a whole needs to cut down on the leaks. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. It simply cannot be allowed to leak out in the amounts that it is right now.

The good news is that, even if at the current amounts of leakage, even at the high ends of what I’ve seen, it’s still better than coal in terms of its impact on the climate. And there’s a lot of low hanging fruit, there’s a lot of relatively easy plumbing that can be done to fix those leaks. It’s just now starting. We’re seeing some real interesting moves in places like Colorado to try to detect and shut down leaks. This is one of those areas where I think the industry regulators and the community needs to be very vigilant, it’s a really important area.

But why not just jump straight to renewables? In the book you mention Germany, which was pretty much able to do that. An argument would be that having this supply of natural gas is keeping us from just getting right to that point that we’re going to have to get to eventually. So why wouldn’t what worked for Germany work for us?

Well because if you look at what happened in Germany, their emissions have actually gone up, because while they’ve added a lot of renewables onto the grid, they’ve also had to add a lot of coal to backstop it, especially since they decided to move away from nuclear energy. So their emissions are actually up.

I think it would be a great idea if we could go completely renewable right now. I just don’t think that’s practical. The energy system is so large and so important to modern society, it just can’t be turned very quickly. It’s going to take two or three decades to change over the system. And I think what’s encouraging to me is that all this abundant natural gas will give us the time to make that turn.

One of the things I point out in my book is that we can as a society kind of fall asleep on this, and just use lots of natural gas and think, “Oh well, this is better than coal.” That’s not good enough. We have to use the gas to an end, to advance further and further with each year down the road towards a low carbon or ultimately no carbon future. We really don’t have much of a choice. But the good news is that we can get there. It’s a very complicated engineering problem. Natural gas gives us some opportunity to move much further down that road than we would otherwise.

And is that something you see happening, or do you think people are getting a bit complacent?

I think it’s happening. The growth rates for solar and wind are still remarkably high. We’re talking double-digit growth rates every year in the United States, and that’s starting to spread around the world. We’re seeing renewable energy going to places it hadn’t been a few years ago. Latin America is building a lot of renewables. We’re seeing a lot of renewables going in, and that’s very encouraging.

So no, I don’t think there’s complacency. One of the things I’m always wondering is, with the rapid, rapid growth of renewable energy over the last few years, people sort of assume that if it wasn’t for natural gas that it would have grown even quicker, and I’m just not sure that’s the case. We’re building solar panels about as quickly as we can. And even at the pace we’re building them we’ve had some quality problems, so you can’t just snap your fingers and quadruple, or quintuple the number of solar panels that you’re building every year, and then do it again next year, and next year. Energy is a vast and complex problem, and it eludes simple solutions.

There’ve been some problems with the energy companies fighting solar panels also, trying to make it less advantageous for people to put them on their homes.

Oh yeah, I mean that’s one of the fascinating stories right now, of the last 12 months, the way some utilities and solar companies have been fighting each other over net metering and over what type of reimbursement there’s going to be for solar. It’s a really important question.

As to some of the other questions that haven’t been answered: You say there’s still a lot of research still being done about health impacts; we’re also finding out after the fact that some of these wastewater wells are being linked to earthquakes. What else do we need to do to push fracking to be safe enough to no longer be a problem, as you see it?

Well, I think there are two or three, maybe four really important things that we can do.

One we talked about, is to focus on methane leakage. No question about that. The second thing we can do is really insist on better testing. Every time a new well is drilled and fracked we should test the water, the aquifers, so we have some sort of base-line test, and the air quality as well. So if there are significant changes to the water quality or to air emissions, we’ll know. I mean that really would benefit everyone. Companies wouldn’t have to face lawsuits unless they were warranted. I’m not explaining this very well, but there would be a lot of good information. More testing, because we need more data.

The third thing we could do is make sure the wells are being built right. If you want to protect the water supply, you need to make sure the wells have the right integrity and are going to stand out for thirty, forty, fifty years in the ground. And the final thing that makes a lot of sense is, there are still a lot of states where the oil and gas regulator, the watchdog, is the same agency that’s the cheerleader that’s trying to drum up business and encourage economic development. I really don’t think those two functions can live under the same roof. You can’t have the cheerleader and the watchdog under the same roof; they need to be split up.

I think that definitely speaks for itself. What did your family end up doing? Did they end up signing the lease or not?

Yeah, they ended up signing the lease. There have been two wells drilled on the property that will ultimately host about six or eight. It’s been a good story so far. There’s been no impact on air quality or water quality, thankfully. In fact, the entire neighborhood, or entire region, has had a good experience so far.

But there were some things that made me a little uncomfortable as well. My father tried to get more information about what the company Chesapeake had done to ensure the well was built properly and would withstand decades underground, and he was never able to get any information. And at one point, either in 2012 or 2013, the company Chesapeake was installing a gathering line on their property and they had a leak of a type of barite [a mineral] that they use to drill through rock. Some of it ran into a local creak and there was a small localized fish kill. That obviously was disconcerting, and also troubling was the fact that the state of Pennsylvania didn’t see fit to issue any fines. They investigated and didn’t fine or sanction the company. Which I thought was troubling. This clearly was some sort of mistake and something should have happened.

But the good news is that my family still goes up there, my kids go up there now, and it’s still a beautiful part of the country. Lots of wildlife. That hasn’t been ruined.

Hopefully many people had the same experience. Look, fracking’s an industrial process and it’s an industrial process quite often in places that aren’t used to industry. But at the same time I can tell you, if you visit a place like Fort Worth, Texas, which has had hundreds of wells drilled inside the city limits, this is a big city. The city is really no different than it was. It can co-exist, but the only way to do it is if the communities, the regulators, the company are all very focused, and very open to making changes and fixing problems as they arise.

So in your view, we just need to find that balance?

I did a TV taping this morning, and one of the things I said was “Look. We can very easily build an energy system that gives us lots of good, cheap energy and trashes the environment, or we can build an energy system that absolutely protects the environment, and we have really expensive energy and that’s a regressive tax. It’s a lot harder for people to get it, and you’ve got health effects because you don’t have access to energy. We need to find a balance between those two."

And there is no one balance. We always have to be finding that balance. You find it once and you can’t rest on your laurels, and you need to kind of keep pushing. Thinking back to a woman I interviewed named Emily Krafjack -- she didn’t want a well to be drilled near her but when it was, she taught herself, and she learned, and she became this incredible community resource to all of her neighbors to say, “Okay, what can we do?” Not, “How do we stop it?” But what do we do to make sure these wells are drilled right, and so they’re not causing us to choke in our own homes. At the end of the day, I guess she would describe herself as an opponent of this, but as a constructive opponent.

There’s a lot more good news about people working to figure out the problems than often gets out, and personally, I feel that’s really encouraging, because we’re going to use energy. And if we’re not producing it here in the United States, we’re going to import it from West Africa or somewhere else. And I have a lot more confidence that these issues can be handled appropriately, that we can do it in a more environmentally sensitive manner, a manner that doesn’t destroy communities here in the United States than elsewhere, and I think if we’re going to use all that energy, it’s kind of incumbent upon us to figure out how to do it right.

By Lindsay Abrams

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