Fracking Sense – Science Before Policy


One of the bizarre developments of modern politics is the tendency of the two political parties charged with developing and implementing policy to abandon science.  The most reported story in the United States is on global warming and the Republican party.  But the uncovered story is the Democratic party’s denial of the overwhelming existing scientific consensus on oil and gas production including fracking.

It is always possible for the Republican party to find a dwindling number of dissident scientists to testify that climate change is not tied to man made activities.  The same phenomenon is ongoing now with fracking.  You can site to Gasland, or some of the preliminary EPA or Cornell University studies, but what you cannot do is present the scientific case against fracking as a majority consensus.  In fact it is not even as advanced  as the climate change denier’s case.

And into this breach of politics masking as science has stepped the Center for American West with a 5 year long National Science Foundation study on the effects of natural gas development. The study is staffed and overseen with a wide variety of researchers across engineering, science, social science, and environmental disciplines.  Most importantly it has represenatives from the environmental movement, academia, Native Americans, government, and industry.

It is beginning with a typical Center for the American West outreach to the community through a lengthy lecture series called Fracking Sense. I attended last Tuesday’s presentation on water quantity, which is a big issue in Colorado.  We have a limited water supply which we almost fully consume.  It is surely a legitimate question to ask if hydraulic fracking with its pressurized streams of water and sand will cause disruption or even disaster to Colorado’s water volumes.

I learned that Colorado consumes about six million acre feet per year of water.  Eighty percent of that use is for agriculture that is mostly used to feed livestock.  Projected fracking consumption assuming the most optimistic price, regulatory, and production assumptions would consume 20,000 acre feet per year.  Production companies in Colorado buy water on the open market from agriculture and cities with excess water.

If you happen to be pro-industry it is easy to say six million acre feet versus 20,000 with an operating free market and no disruption equals no problem.

But of course what it really does is set up one aspect of the study.  That 20,000 acre feet does not come out of the entire Colorado six million acre feet, but out of the watersheds that serve the relatively small number of counties that have oil and gas.  The question is not how will 20,000 acre feet affect the state, but those small number of counties, their watersheds, and the downstream interests.

But there is certainly no existing science to demonstrate a catastrophic disruption to the quantity of Colorado water supplies warranting a ban on fracking.  That is a metaphor repeated over and over in the science around fracking.  There is a rich field for research not an emotional reaction.

Another example is recycling of fracking fluids.  I learned that almost all fracking fluids are captured and recycled as part of the well flow back.  Even more interesting the produced water, ancient seawater trapped in the shale beds, is only partially recycled due to the high energy cost of desalination. With the right kind of technological and policy innovation even produced water recycling may be possible.

Again, not a reason for a ban, but plenty of fertile ground for research and innovation.

This study and in particular the Tuesday lectures is occurring in a charged political environment in Colorado.  Here in Boulder a vote on lifting a temporary ban will occur in the spring.  Longmont and Ft. Collins have passed bans and are facing poor prospects in resulting lawsuits.  In rural Colorado, even Weld County outside Ft. Collins, fracking has strong support.

But the Center for the American West’s focus on science kept the audience in check.  And that is really our problem with both political parties.  They cherry pick science when it is convenient to support their ideologies, instead of developing policy based on science regardless of ideology.

Join me at Fracking Sense to learn about science and hear the alternative to bans, ideologies, and bad policy from either party.