As someone who specializes in evidence-based environmental decision-making, I am regularly disappointed by the dismal level of discourse in the environmental field. Organizations and individuals you would expect to provide useful insight end up doing exactly the opposite. No group has disappointed me more than the MDs at the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment BC (CAPE).
It has come to the point where when I see a piece by one of their representatives, I assume I will need to spend time correcting the record. Not surprisingly, their latest missive: Most of us are blissfully unaware of how much fracking takes place in B.C. in the Vancouver Sun represents another example of inaccuracies piled on top of out-of-context anecdotes. It leaves me wondering if these individuals are ill-informed, uninformed or attempting to misinform.
My issues with this article starts with the choice of cover photo. The story is about the BC natural gas industry and the photo used is of an oil facility taken near Buttonwillow, in California.
Why is this important? It is important because the photo shows flaring and in doing so implies that flaring is regularly associated with BC natural gas. The truth is that venting and flaring of natural gas is strictly controlled in BC. Flaring is common in US oil fields, where the product being sought is oil, but efforts have been made to eliminate it in natural gas production and routine flaring was eliminated in 2016. As described by the BC Oil and Gas Commission with respect to associated gas:
In 2010, the BC Energy Plan target of eliminating all routine associated gas flaring was achieved. Routine associated gas flaring is defined as the continuous flaring of solution gas that is economical to conserve. Associated (solution) gas is gas produced from a well during oil production.
Certainly the BC regulations allow limited flaring and venting in exploration wells, where the companies are looking for natural gas; but flaring is simply not done at that scale at production wells. Why would it be? The point of a production well is to collect gas for sale, not burn it away into the atmosphere.
Moreover, unlike in the US, in BC most wells used for production are “green completed”. That is the pipelines and connections are prepared before the well is fracked. This allows the gas recovered to be caught for sale and not lost to the atmosphere. Moreover, in BC most of our infrastructure is newer and newer infrastructure is just that – newer – which means that it meets the current generation’s best practices and typically includes in-line monitoring and leak detection. Finally, our gas is being extracted from extremely deep formations which provide less opportunity for seal failures or for gas to migrate to the surface to leak.
Now I would love to Fisk this article, but doing so would take too long so I will only address its most egregious claims. The article starts with an anecdote and goes into a discussion of fracking.
Fracking is an industrial process used to extract underground natural gas deposits from shale rock. The technique involves drilling a shaft vertically for up to four kilometres into the rock, and then horizontally for up to three more kilometres.
Massive amounts of water, combined with sand and chemicals are injected under high pressure into the well, inducing micro-cracking and fissuring of the rock to release the natural gas known as methane.
In the article the doctors note that the gas is located 4 kilometers beneath the surface. Think of that number again. We are talking about 4000 m of rock. If you were to start walking down the street at average human walking speed it would take you 48 minutes to travel the depth of this gas…all through layers and layers of virtually impermeable rock. Sour gas, meanwhile, is poisonous and as a result it is dangerous to vent.
These two considerations are very important because the deeper the gas the more buffer zone to prevent infiltration of methane and fracking fluids into our drinking water aquifers and the nature of sour gas means that our regulators are far more cautious about fugitive emissions as any releases can have serious medical consequences for anyone near a drill site. Later in the article they write:
The ad fails to inform the reader that the fracking process results in a considerable amount of methane escaping into the atmosphere…And so far, the technology has not been able to prevent these leaks. Because of this, scientists are concluding that fracking natural gas is actually worse for global warming than oil or coal.
As I discussed above, their claim about leaks is simply not generally applicable in the BC context. Thanks to our geology, and our regulatory structure, fracking in BC does not result in considerable methane leaking into the atmosphere. That might be true in parts of the US (where the authors seem to get most of their information) but it is not the case here.
As for the claim that the technology does not exist to prevent leaks. That is simply not true. Certainly leaks happen, but to suggest that leak-free installations are impossible is simply wrong.
As for the point about “scientists” concluding “that fracking is actually worse for global warming than oil or coal” that is also untrue. What they mean is that a couple activist scientists, led by an Ecologist named Dr. Howarth have made that claim and lots of activists with no experience or knowledge in the field have repeated the claim.
Dr. Howarth is something of a feature at this blog since he has produced so much hopeless work on this topic. I have repeatedly argued that Dr. Howarth’s research is not applicable in the context of BC LNG. My opinion is consistent with the peer-reviewed academic literature on this topic.
Dr. Howarth’s most recent paper claims that shale gas is responsible for the increase in global methane emissions. The only problem with his hypothesis? It runs contrary to a global monitoring effort which includes monitoring points across the continent that failed to observe the massive increase he claimed was occurring. Put simply, the claim that fracked gas is worse for the environment than coal is simply and categorically untrue. Looking further they write:
Each fracking procedure uses more than 10 million litres (36 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of clean water. In parts of the U.S., drinking water wells have dried up due to withdrawals for fracking.
This section combines misinformation with out-of-context information. Certainly fracking can use a lot of water; however, efforts are made to recycle water for fracking so each well doesn’t use “clean water” and in BC water use is also strictly regulated. In BC drinking water wells are not drying up to allow for fracking. This explains why these doctors rely on US anecdotes, because they can’t find any Canadian examples to cite.
Let’s look at the next line:
The ad also fails to mention that the chemicals added to frack fluid to help maximize methane extraction have the potential to cause cancer and disrupt hormonal activity in both humans and animals, through the release of polluting and carcinogenic chemicals into the atmosphere and water.
This paragraph presents a common anti-science game used by anti-LNG activists. It includes the use of the term “chemical” which is code in the anti-science world for “dangerous stuff you won’t understand“. Any scientist knows that everything is made from chemicals, but in the anti-science world “chemicals” are always bad. As for fracking fluids being toxic.
Certainly fracking fluids include compounds that you wouldn’t want to drink….but that is because fracking fluid is literally being injected into geologic formations full of hydrocarbons. You wouldn’t go out and drink gasoline, so why would you expect that the fluids that are pushed into these formations should be drinkable? As for the part about release to the environment. That is simply false. In BC fracking fluid is carefully monitored and captured. In a typical fracking activity no fluids are released to the environment. Later the doctors write:
Fracking also produces large amounts of contaminated wastewater containing both the carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting chemicals initially added to the frack fluid, but also radioactive chemicals and heavy metals released from deep underground. One study showed radium levels (a chemical known to cause cancer) in fracked water 200 times greater than background levels. Some of this contaminated water will eventually leak into the water table.
As anyone familiar with fracking knows, the water generated by fracking in BC is strictly regulated. It cannot be released to the environment. Instead it is carefully managed and eventually either re-used in fracking, or injected into the subsurface into old wells that we used for extraction. Fracking water doesn’t cause harm and there are no records of fracking fluid damaging a drinking water source in BC. The claim: “Some of this contaminated water will eventually leak into the water table” is simply not true.
Higher rates of leukemia have been found among people aged five to 24 living near fracking operations. More babies born with congenital heart defects and higher rates of pre-term birth have been found in people who live close to fracking sites. Research has shown an increase in hospital visits among asthmatics living close to fracking sites.
As for this factoid, I have already written a couple thousand words debunking these claims by CAPE doctors. As I concluded in that post: “Decisions about energy policy shouldn’t be made based on anecdotes and first-person narratives, no matter how compelling they may sound. First person narratives can inform further research but decision-makers need to consider real evidence assembled by people experienced in ensuring that the data is not the result of unexamined confounding variables. Epidemiologists have compiled those results and the current output from those experts indicates that the northeast is not a “sacrifice zone” but rather has absolutely typical diseases incidence rates“.
For all these reasons, a recently published article in the peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine called for policy makers to reject the false promise of natural gas.
This appeal to authority appears intended to strengthen their case while omitting the fact that the article in question is simply another opinion piece and it relies on the Howarth paper I discussed earlier that makes conclusions that have been thoroughly debunked by the results of real-world studies. The article concludes with the lines:
Many of us living in urban centres in southern B.C. are blissfully unaware of how much fracking is taking place in the northeastern part of the province, where some rural and Aboriginal community members have described themselves as living in a “sacrifice zone.”
Natural gas is not a clean fuel and the misleading advertising on B.C. Ferries should be removed immediately.
The reference to “the sacrifice zone” deals with a series of presentations made by CAPE around BC that I discussed above. In the presentations they mix anecdotes and bad epidemiology to completely misinform the public.
The article ends where you expect, with a false claim that any serious energy scholar would dismiss. The doctors at CAPE, in this editorial, remind me of the piece of advice my father (an MD) gave me in my youth: “never trust an MD on any topic that is not related to medicine”.
He explained that most MDs were the top students in their classes and the brightest lights in their peer groups. Because of this, most physicians tend to believe that their insights are more informed than those of everyone around them. Professionally, physicians spends their days being more informed than their patients and spend a lot of time explaining things to others. This can lead to an unjustified sense of self-confidence that may spill over into fields outside their area of expertise.
While I trust MDs on matters relating to my health and wellness, I will stick with subject matter experts on topics that are not related to medicine. With this in mind I would suggest my readers do likewise and take any BC CAPE newspaper editorial with a very healthy pinch of salt. As I have shown above, this particular article deserves to end its life on the bottom of a bird cage and the Sun needs to stop printing these pieces without a thorough fact-check.