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Tina Casey headshot

New Fracking Studies Sum Up Pope Francis on Climate Change

By Tina Casey

Advocates for natural gas certainly didn't get much help from Pope Francis last week.

When His Holiness staked out the official Roman Catholic position on climate change in the form of an encyclical titled "Praise be to you, my Lord," he also exposed the messy truth behind the supposedly "clean" fuel that the natural gas industry promotes. That truth has been further underscored by the release of three new fracking studies this month.

1. The new fracking and earthquake study

While natural gas is a relatively clean fuel at the burn point, the widespread emergence of fracking (short for hydrofracturing) raises a host of unsavory lifecycle issues.

Fracking is a drilling method that involves injecting huge quantities of chemical brine deep underground at high pressure, in order to jar oil and/or natural gas loose from shale formations.

Huge quantities of fracking brine come back up to the surface in the form of wastewater, which is typically disposed by injecting it, often at high pressure, into a derelict or unused well.

To a relatively small degree fracking has been linked to earthquakes, among other local impacts. The much more widespread problem is the apparent linkage of earthquakes to injection wells used for fracking wastewater disposal. Evidence has been mounting that confirms the connection, and the latest study appears to be definitive.

The University of Colorado, Boulder is the source for the latest fracking and earthquake study, published last week in the journal Science.

The new study has some serious cred behind it, with the U.S. Geological Survey as a lead partner. Here is the conclusion, as described by lead researcher Matthew Weingarten:

"This is the first study to look at correlations between injection wells and earthquakes on a broad, nearly national scale. We saw an enormous increase in earthquakes associated with these high-rate injection wells, especially since 2009, and we think the evidence is convincing that the earthquakes we are seeing near injection sites are induced by oil and gas activity."

2. Water quality also at risk

So far, the earthquakes linked to fracking wastewater have resulted in little more than property damage -- if you discount the stress and anxiety inflicted on local residents.

Of more tangible concern is the impact on human health, specifically regarding water quality.

The fracking boom of recent years was partly enabled by the creation of a Bush-era loophole in federal clean water regulations, which has allowed oil and gas drillers to keep their fracking ingredients largely secret.

The result has been a patchwork of state regulations and a partial, voluntary disclosure system supported by the industry. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was charged with a major study of the connection between fracking and water quality, which was just released last month. Considering the lack of complete and consistent data on fracking fluids, the agency came up with a "state of the science" report that pointed out serious gaps in the information chain. The report concluded that significant vulnerabilities exist, but hard evidence of actual impacts is thin.

Industry advocates were cheered by the EPA report, but that was before the latest study on fracking and water quality came out, from the University of Texas, Arlington. According to the study's authors, this is the largest analysis of water quality in aquifers overlying a shale formation in which fracking operations have been occurring.

The study looked at 550 water samples in the Barnett shale formation in Texas over a three-year period. In addition to elevated levels of methanol and ethanol, they found:

"... multiple volatile organic carbon compounds throughout the region, including various 60 alcohols, the BTEX family of compounds [benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylenes], and several chlorinated compounds."

As with most previous studies, this one could not definitively connect the pollution with specific drilling operations. However, the authors point out that many of the compounds are known to be associated with fracking brine, making a strong case for additional monitoring and analysis.

3. Fracking and life

Of the three new studies, the third most clearly underscores the way in which Pope Francis argues for climate action as a reflection of the sanctity of human life.

This new fracking study was released earlier this month by a research team from the University of Pittsburgh under the title, Lower Birth Weight Associated with Proximity of Mother’s Home to Gas Wells.

As with the University of Texas study -- and for that matter, the EPA study -- the Pitt researchers make a clear case that closing the information gap on fracking is imperative.

While the study is on firm ground with the raw numbers linking lower birth weights to geographical location (15,451 babies in three counties from 2007 through 2010), the research team, and the university's media office, have been very careful to note upfront that the causal link has yet to be explored.

Here is the conclusion as described by study co-author, Bruce Pitt:

"Our work is a first for our region and supports previous research linking unconventional gas development and adverse health outcomes. These findings cannot be ignored. There is a clear need for studies in larger populations with better estimates of exposure and more in-depth medical records."

If further studies support the Pitt findings, the results could be devastating for the natural gas industry. The findings are not incremental, but substantial:
"Mothers whose homes fell in the top group for proximity to a high density of such wells were 34 percent more likely to have babies who were 'small for gestational age' than mothers whose homes fell in the bottom 25 percent. Small for gestational age refers to babies whose birth weight ranks them below the smallest 10 percent when compared to their peers."

Taken in consideration of Pope Francis's views on human responsibility for climate change and other lapses in environmental stewardship, it's little wonder that the natural gas industry has pushed back forcefully against Pitt's findings.

The industry-supported website Marcellus Drilling News dismisses the study as "a new anti-drilling-backed so-called 'study' by students at the University of Pittsburgh making wild claims about babies born near Marcellus Shale fracking sites having lower birth weights than those not born near frack sites."

However the natural gas industry tries to short-sell it, the Pitt study does back up a similar 2012 study undertaken by Cornell University, which pulled no punches on the linkage between low birth weight and fracking in Pennsylvania.

The Cornell study looked at single births (as opposed to twins or more) in Pennsylvania, between 2003 and 2010, and demonstrated this result:

"The introduction of drilling increased low birth weight and decreased term birth weight on average among mothers 2.5 kilometers of a well compared to mothers 2.5 kilometers of a future well. Adverse effects were also detected using measures such as small for gestational age and APGAR scores, while no effects on gestation periods were found."

The Cornell research team factored out possible negative effects from water supply and concluded that air pollution or other stress from "localized economic activity" was the cause. Their conclusion:
"These findings suggest that shale gas development poses significant risks to human health and have policy implications for regulation of shale gas development."
Another low birth weight fracking study, by a research team comprised of Princeton, Columbia and the Massachusetts Institute Technology, was presented last year at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, and reached similar conclusions.

It's also worth noting that neighboring state New York banned fracking last year, based on a recommendation by acting Health Commissioner Dr. Howard A. Zucker.


For some perspective on the position adopted by Marcellus Drilling News, consider that the website's slogan is, "Helping People and Businesses Profit from Northeast Shale Drilling."

Now take a look at the Pope's encyclical (here's that link again). In the English translation provided by the Vatican, the second paragraph lays out the connection between profit and destruction:

"[The earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will ..."

As for "what would Pope Francis do" if he were CEO of a drilling company, perhaps His Holiness would at least acknowledge that the latest fracking studies are concerning and worthy of further investigation, rather than dismissing them out of hand.

Image credit (screenshot): Courtesy of University of Colorado-Boulder.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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