Review by John McFerrin
The Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking is a compilation of evidence outlining the risks and harms of fracking. It is a public, open-access document that is housed on the websites of Concerned Health Professionals of New York (www.concernedhealthny.org) and Physicians for Social Responsibility (www.psr.org).
While not nominally a book, at 361 pages it feels like one. It lacks a plot, character development, sex, suspense, and all of the other elements that make some books so riveting. What it lacks in plot, etc. it more than make up for in information. It is also surprisingly readable. Even if the title screams “snoozer”, it is clear and easy to read. While it is, by its very nature, dry in spots, it is much more readable and accessible to the general reader than it could have been.
It is also comprehensive. Here are the topics it covers:
Inherent engineering problems that worsen with time
Occupational health and safety hazards
Public health effects, measured directly
Noise pollution, light pollution, and stress
Earthquakes and seismic activity
Abandoned and active wells as pathways for gas and fluid migration
Threats to agriculture, soil quality, and forests
Threats to the climate system
Threats from fracking infrastructure
Sand mining and processing
Pipelines and compressor stations
Liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities
Gas-fired power plants
Inaccurate jobs claims, increased crime rates, threats to property values and mortgages and local government burden
Inflated estimates of oil and gas reserves and profitability
Disclosure of serious risks to investors
The Compendium has a summary with two or three pages on each of these topics. A reader who does not want to tackle the entire thing can learn a lot from the summary. The rest is made up of more detailed discussions of the topics.
Many people have strong opinions on fracking. Bias is possible in any publication that addresses it. Fracking has been banned in New York; the Compendium contains some of the information that was available to inform that decision. It is undeniable that human beings have biases, both conscious and unconscious. In considering the bias of the Compendium, it is useful to consider both what is included and what is excluded.
So far as what is excluded, the Compendium says this:
While advocacy organizations have compiled many useful reports on the impacts of fracking, these, with few exceptions, do not appear in our Compendium unless they provide otherwise inaccessible data. We also excluded papers that focused purely on methodologies or instrumentation.
So far as what is included, the Compendium relies upon sources that have been published in peer review journals. Although there are some references to newspaper stories, the vast majority of the statements are supported with references to articles in peer reviewed journals. There are hundreds of footnotes. Anyone who is interested in the details of any topic can go the publications referred to. Academic writing being what it is, there is an excellent chance that the footnoted articles include some real snoozers. At the same time, their publication in academic journals assures that they were done by serious scholars.
Here are a few of the nuggets of information found in the Compendium’s summary:
A new analysis shows that a 100 percent renewable energy system in the United States would reduce electricity costs.26
This body of evidence indicates both potential and actual harms. Specifically the Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy’s statistical analysis of the scientific literature available from 2009 to 2015 demonstrates that:
- 69 percent of original research studies on water quality found potential for, or actual evidence of, fracking-associated water contamination,
- 87 percent of original research studies on air quality found significant air pollutant emissions, and
- 84 percent of original research studies on human health risks found signs of harm or indication of potential harm.34
Earlier scientific predictions are now bolstered by extensive empirical data, confirming that the public health risks from unconventional gas and oil extraction are real, the range of adverse environmental impacts wide, and the negative economic consequences considerable. Our examination of the peer-reviewed medical, public health, biological, earth sciences, and engineering literature uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health. (Emphasis in original)
In the United States, more than two billion gallons of water and fracking fluids are injected daily under high pressure into the earth for the purpose of enabling oil and gas extraction via fracking or, after the fracking is finished, to flush the extracted wastewater down any of the more than 187,000 disposal wells across the country that accept oil and gas waste. All of that two billion daily gallons of fluid is toxic, and the wells that ferry it pass through our nation’s groundwater aquifers on their way to the deep geological strata below, where the injection of fracking waste demonstrably raises the risk for earthquakes.
Much of the methane emitted from drilling and fracking activities and associated infrastructure originates not from accidental leaks but from purposeful losses that are inherent to the design of the machinery or to normal operating use and are, therefore, not possible to mitigate. (See footnotes 1147-1149.) Methane is vented into the atmosphere during routine maintenance on compressor stations and pipelines; to create evaporative cooling for LNG storage and transport; during the flowback period after a well is fracked; and as an emergency procedure to control pressures. Inactive, abandoned wells are also significant methane emitters. Methane leakage at the levels now being documented, using multiple approaches in measurement and modeling, negates previously hypothesized benefits from burning methane instead of coal in most existing power plants.
Cases of drinking water sources contaminated by drilling and fracking activities, or by associated waste disposal, are proven. Contamination occurs through three confirmed pathways: spills; discharge of fracking waste into rivers and streams; and underground migration of chemicals, including gas, into drinking water wells. Methane and fracking-related contaminants can reach drinking water sources through cracks in well casings, through spaces between the casing and the wellbore, through naturally occurring fractures and fissures connecting shale layers with aquifers, and through abandoned wells. Methane migration into drinking water aquifers can change water chemistry in ways that mobilize metals or release hydrogen sulfide. (See footnote 248.)Drilling and fracking operations are exempt from federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards designed to prevent catastrophic releases of toxic, flammable, or explosive chemicals in workplaces. They are also exempt from OSHA rules written for the construction industry designed to prevent falls and other accidents on the job. Although announced by the agency as forthcoming in 1983, federal safety regulations for the oil and gas industry have never materialized.66, 67 Instead, inspectors can only apply the “general duty clause” which is generally recognized as grossly inadequate for an industry with unique hazards and a fatality rate far above the national average. Fatality rate data for the oil and gas industry are limited, but available data in the seven years leading up to 2015 show fatality rates in oil and gas extraction that are four to seven times the national fatality rate. In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, 81 oil and gas extraction workers died on the job, accounting for 72 percent of the fatal work injuries in the mining sector, which overall has a fatality rate nearly four times the national average.68, 69
A variety of radioactive substances including radium, thorium, and uranium have been detected in fracking wastewater. A 2018 study in the Marcellus Shale region showed that extreme salinity, as well as the chemical composition of fracking fluid, interacts with the shale during the fracking process in ways that mobilize radium and make fracking wastewater radioactive. (See footnote 497.)
More detail on these and other topics is in the Compendium. For even more detail (and maybe more than you really wanted to know) there are always the articles which are in the footnotes.
From time to time The Highlands Voice reports on published studies, summarizing key findings. This is impossible here; there is just too much. At 361 pages it is book length; in the topics it covers it is encyclopedic. There is no way to hit all the high points’ there are too many high points.
To read the whole thing, go to Concerned Health Professionals of New York, & Physicians for Social Responsibility. (2019, June). Compendium of scientific, medical, and media findings demonstrating risks and harms of fracking (unconventional gas and oil extraction) (6th ed.). http://concernedhealthny.org/compendium/
The public radio show Living on Earth featured the study in a July program. To see a transcript of that program or listen to it, go to https://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=19-P13-00029&segmentID=1. The interview was the basis for a story which you can see at https://www.pri.org/stories/2019-07-31/fracking-causes-environmental-damage-and-birth-defects-new study-shows.
Both the radio program and the story based upon it are mostly an interview with one of the study’s principal authors. From it you can get the flavor of the study although not the detailed findings.