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Example of misinformation on fracking

i Sep 20th No Comments by

Screen shot 2014-09-20 at 09.52.32Just as not everybody says they believe in climate change, and some people say the Earth is flat, not everybody agrees about fracking.

As somebody with a degree in physics from Oxford University I am trained to look at the facts. And frankly I would love it if fracking were as safe and beneficial as some people say it is.

So, the announcement of a study by Stanford University was exciting to me. It offers the promise of an objective comparison of the environmental costs and benefits of fracking as compared against coal, nuclear, wind and solar energy.

Stanford has published an outline to the study here, published 12 September. And the full study is on this page.

Unfortunately, reading the outline, the problems start almost immediately:

“Society is certain to extract more gas and oil due to fracking,” said Stanford environmental scientist Robert Jackson, who led the new study. “The key is to reduce the environmental costs as much as possible, while making the most of the environmental benefits.”

This raises a red flag to me. Any true study would be open to the possibility of finding that fracking (or solar energy) was so dangerous that society should shut it down immediately. Surely that is what the study is trying to find out? Any ‘study’ that opens with  a statement, “Society is certain to extract more gas and oil due to fracking” has already reached its conclusions before it even starts. This is not a study at all. This looks like the setup for a whitewash job.

But I keep an open mind and read on.

“Fracked gas requires less than a hundredth the water of corn ethanol per unit of energy”

the outline says.

I am sorry, but there is a huge difference between ‘using’ water in the way that farmers use water to grow corn that is then turned into ethanol, and ‘using’ water in the way that frackers do so: polluting it with heavy metal salts and radioactive materials before then pumping it into aquifers from which drinking water is taken.

I read on.

“Fracking requires more water than conventional gas drilling; but when natural gas is used in place of coal or nuclear fuel to generate electricity, it saves water.”

Again there is a huge difference between ‘using’ water in terms of injecting it into the ground where it becomes laden with heavy metals and radioactive materials, and ‘using’ water in the sense that it is ‘used’ in cooling towers — heated up a bit and then returned to the river.

Growing corn for ethanol production and cooling towers in coal and nuclear plants ‘use’ water in a way that allows that water to be re-used again and again. Fracking uses water in a way that pollutes it forever, and poisons people, animals and crops.

But what about wind and solar? They use hardly any water at all.

Sure enough the paper says,

“Photovoltaic solar and wind power use almost no water and emit no greenhouse gas, but cheap, abundant natural gas may limit their deployment as new sources of electricity.”

Ah, so when they find a power source that does better than fracked gas against the measures they said were important (water and greenhouse gases) then suddenly those metrics no longer matter. Suddenly the only thing that matters is cost. And their preferred energy source scores better on that metric (or so they say). Suddenly cost outweighs all other metrics.

But they know their own statement is not true because they use the word ‘may’, which gives them a let out.

Reality is that this cost metric is also false. Because reality is that Citibank and UBS (among others) have been telling their clients that solar power will be cheaper than fossil-generated electricity for 80% of the world’s population by 2020. “It forecast that even Britain will achieve grid parity [for solar electricity] by 2020, a remarkable thought for this wet isle at 51 or 52 degrees latitude.”

Looking back I notice the language. Fracked gas is described as “cheap”, “abundant”, “natural”. These are not scientific words, they are a PR job. They’ll be calling it ‘organic’ next!

Dr. Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University clearly shows in this video how fracked gas is dirtier than coal (for CHGs) when considered over the full cycle (extraction and use):

In the same video he also smashes some of the engineering myths about it being possible to build a well that does not break. All wells fracture eventually. And more than 1 in 20 fail in their first year of operation. With 8-10 wells per pad and 8 pads per square mile, that’s a lot of failures.

So, are the Stanford authors incompetent or have they been ‘sponsored’ to write this paper?

I don’t know. But I do know that this page on the Stanford website says that:

“The Petroleum Investments Funds (PIF) provide an annual income stream for use at the discretion of the dean to achieve the strategic objectives of the School of Earth Sciences and to further its academic mission. The PIF is the school’s largest source of flexible revenue to support teaching and research.”

Finally, just to make sure that the outline hasn’t mis-read the original paper, here’s a quote from the full paper on water usage:

“Corn ethanol production uses substantially more water because of the evapotranspiration of the plants, 1,000 times more water than shale gas if the plants are irrigated (Table 2). For electricity generation with fossil and nuclear fuels, cooling-water needs are far greater than the water used to produce the fuel. Here, too, shale gas is better than most other fossil fuels and nuclear energy (Table 2). “

It is so full of holes that it’s not worth our time to read any of the rest of it.

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