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Fracking and myths of oil, gas industry

An article by Edward Cross, president of the Kansas Oil and Gas Association, suggests concerns about the safety and environmental threat of hydraulic fracturing are unfounded. (The Wichita Eagle, "Business Perspectives: Don't give into fear tactics; get the facts about fracking," Feb. 19).

Proponents of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil, or fracking, claim it is a harmless and reliable technology.

We in the Sierra Club have looked closely at this issue and believe public concern about the effect of fracking is justified.

Here are several myths often made by supporters of fracking and facts everyone should consider about this increasingly widespread practice.

Myth: Hydraulic fracturing is not new.

Fact: While hydraulic fracturing first was employed more than 65 years ago in Grant County, there have been many technological advances since then. Early fracking was conducted in vertical wells at pressures of between 2,000 and 3,000 pound-forces per square inch. Pumps powered by less than 300 horsepower forced fluids into the wells. Today's fracking uses horizontal drilling at pressures of more than 13,000 psi, with 2,400 horsepower pumps forcing an average of 5 million gallons of water per frack. This is not your grandmother's fracking technique. And do we in Kansas have this much water to spare?

Myth: Hydraulic fracturing does not cause earthquakes.

Fact: According to a June 2012 report by the National Research Council, "Hydraulic fracturing has a low risk for inducing earthquakes that can be  felt by  people, but underground injection of waste water produced by hydraulic fracturing and other technologies have a higher risk of causing such earthquakes." The National Academy of Sciences echoes this concern. Recent instances of earthquakes in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Ohio and elsewhere have been connected to fracking.

Myth: Hydraulic fracturing never has caused groundwater contamination.

Fact: The oil and gas industry fiercely guards as "trade secrets" information about chemicals used in the toxic cocktail of fluids thrust into the ground with every frack. Thus, drillers can claim no connection between thousands of instances of groundwater and stream contamination throughout the country and fracking operations that recently have moved into these areas. There are more than 78,000 wells in Kansas, with a staff of only 90 people to oversee their safety. What possibly could go wrong? And what recourse will residents and landowners have when it does?

Myth: Hydraulic fracturing fluids are 98 percent water and 2 percent chemicals.

Fact: Tons of chemicals are used in every frack job. Some fracking chemicals are so potent just a few parts per million can cause severe disease from continued exposure, such as in well water used for drinking or washing. Yet specifics about these chemicals are kept from the public. At present, Kansas only requires drillers to disclose a general description of fluids to be injected (such as saying it is a lubricant).

Do we want to put the Ogallala Aquifer and other water sources at risk? Are we willing to rely on claims by drillers that fracking is harmless to humans and wildlife while they pump toxic chemicals into the ground?

This myth completely ignores naturally occurring harmful chemicals brought to the surface in wastewater from deep geological formations from fracturing, such as increased levels of hydrogen sulfide gas, radium, uranium radon, thorium, etc. These chemicals pollute water and air.

Myth: The chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing involve simple compounds at low concentrations.

Fact: The list of dangerous chemicals used as additives in hydraulic fracturing doesn't exist, due to proprietary reasons or "trade secrets."

The article by Cross led us to think combining fracking chemicals is like mixing peanut butter and jelly, but readers can decide for themselves if they're willing to consume toluene, benzene and other toxic chemicals with or without sliced bread.

Myth: Hydraulic fracturing has been regulated effectively by state governments and oversight agencies since its inception.

Fact: Kansas does not effectively regulate the extraction of oil and natural gas. How can fracking be regulated when the chemicals used are not even disclosed? And what of accountability for the condition of water after it is mixed with these chemicals to fracture stratified shale and limestone deep in the ground. Drilling for natural gas is highly toxic to air, as well as water. But there are no regulations in Kansas to monitor, minimize and capture methane gas and other air pollutants as they're released.

As recent as April 16, I attended the Induced Seismicity State Task Force meeting in Wichita and participated in a breakout session where all stakeholders had an opportunity to share their thoughts and ask questions of the presenters and commissioners. I asked one of the commissioners over UIC's what restrictions they have in place now because one alternative to regulation is to keep what is in place. The answer I received was they are pro-business but want to protect the groundwater; however, all they do now is ask an operator to dial back the rate and pressure. A number of the operators inject under pressure in Kansas.

In last year's legislative session, the Sierra Club's Kansas chapter supported a bill known as the Frack Act that would hold drillers accountable for the effect of hydraulic fracturing on our health and environment. A copy of the bill can be found at the Kansas Sierra Club website, kansas.sierraclub.org, along with more information about the dangers of fracking.

While the petroleum industry insists hydraulic fracturing is safe, both scientific research and anecdotal reports provide overwhelming evidence more information and regulation are needed.

Yvonne Cather is chairwoman of Sierra Club Kansas chapter.