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Back to the Blog The Left’s War on Fracking and Domestic Oil Production


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On today’s edition of Coffee and Markets, Brad Jackson and Ben Domenech are joined by Kathleen Hartnett White to discuss the Left’s smear campaign against fracking and how the technology can open up large tracks of oil and natural gas right there in the U.S.

We’re brought to you as always by BigGovernment and Stephen Clouse and Associates. If you’d like to email us, you can do so at coffee[at]newledger.com. We hope you enjoy the show.

Related Links:

The Fracas About Fracking (Excerpt)
The Fracas About Fracking (subscription required)
The Fracking Panacea?
Ben: Gasland’s False Fire Water Claims
Gasland director tries to ban journalism
Fight goes on against Gasland censorship
Kathleen Hartnett White at the Texas Public Policy Foundation


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Jackson: On the show today Kathleen Hartnett White from the Texas Public Policy Foundation is here. We’ll discuss the left smear campaign against fracking and how the technology can open up large tracts of oil and natural gas right here in the US. I’m your host Brad Jackson. You’re listening to the June 14, 2001 edition of Coffee and Markets.

Kathleen, thanks for taking the time to join us today. We appreciate it.

White: It’s my pleasure to be speaking with you.

Jackson: I wanted to start with sort of a basic question. Can you explain to us what “fracking” is for those of us, for those listeners who may not know?

White: I’d be happy to. And I might begin by just point to the word hydraulic really means, has to do with pressure and water. And fracking, you know, the word root of fracturing, fracture, fraction, fractious, is cracking something. And it can be a tiny one or it can be a big one and that’s, I think, part of the misconceptions about hydraulic fracturing, but the process has really been around, as far as a means of extracting oil and gas for decades. People used, it’s dated in 1948. It was not used prevalently, but was used here and there for these many decades since then. But it took the determination, and the creativity, and the willingness to invest his own money, of really one man who has spent 15 years in the ‘80s and early ‘90s to really refine this technology until he really had a breakthrough technology, which has now opened up vast stores of oil and gas that many people knew we had, but did not have to get to them.

The way the process works as a technology, it involves pumping water, sand, and some trace chemicals under high pressure into the well board and then with highly engineered electric pulses it creates small fissures in the well. It’s being particularly used in drilling now. That involves going very deep vertically, perhaps a mile vertically, and then, or two miles vertically, and then another mile horizontally. And the fracking, particularly for natural gas in most areas, is done at that very deep level with a horizontal line. It’s also being used with some little variations that it’s used on vertical wells, and also for oil. And it has allowed access to all of these resources that traditional drilling which used natural pressure that when the well was drilled the natural pressure in the well would really bring the gas or oil to a reservoir that then could be mechanically pumped out. Many people, including the Department of Energy, often have, I believe the Department of Energy’s figures are that in most wells that first easy oil or gas from natural pressure is maybe only 10 or 25% of all the oil and gas in the geological formation right around the drilling site. So, in part what fracking, hydraulic fracturing and its nickname fracking is doing, is allowing access to what is far more oil or gas that’s been extracted before, but that we did not have access to.

Jackson: Yes. You talked about the access that is now available. Talk about the new shales (phonetic sp.) that are sort of going to be opened up. I know that’s a hot topic right now.

White: There is in all parts of the country there is credible activity going on in Texas, probably the most activity in the country is going on in an area called the Barnett Shale now which is really wrapped around our very big Dallas-Fort Worth urban region. There is also in the Permian Basin (phonetic sp.) where long known for its high quality crude oil. It’s being used to get at more oil, more so than natural gas. Some natural gas there, and fracking there in many of the wells are used vertically and not in this horizontal drilling. In another area of Texas, the Eagle Ford (phonetic sp.) there is a major oil shale boom and it is going, every time I look at the numbers and then don’t look for 10 days they’re bigger, and bigger, and bigger. It is amazing. And many of these areas, I know that Eagle Ford is estimated to maintain this productivity for 20 to 30 years.

Then you go to the east coast, the Marcella (phonetic sp.) shale which covers parts of New York state, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. To give a very dramatic statistic again, according to the Department of Energy, the Marcella shale holds the equivalent of energy measured in British thermal units to the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia. Very, very bad. There are also areas in Arkansas. I believe that’s called the Fayetteville shale. There’s another one that wraps the border of Louisiana and Texas called the Haynesville (phonetic sp.), the Balkan (phonetic sp.) and that’s oil up there in the Dakotas, is incredibly, incredibly productive. The early estimates, when they realized that technology would give access to that oil, was about 6 billion barrels. Now they’re talking about maybe 26 billion barrels.

And I know there are places in New Mexico. I believe there’s even a few in the Midwest and then there are the vast oil shales in the western, what I call the western United States, Utah, Colorado, and all that. But something to think about, for the most part where there are all kinds of activity going on and literally you have to check yourself you’re not exaggerating as far as the scale of this (unintelligible), where literally a hundreds of thousands of jobs are being created, that seems to be kind of the theme of the day on why can’t we produce jobs. But it’s on private land and in states where the state regulatory agencies are supported. That doesn’t mean they’re not regulating and enforcing, but they’re not trying to shut it down.

And it’s interesting on the East Coast the contrast between New York state and Pennsylvania. New York state opted for, what people describe as a de facto moratorium. They didn’t actually legally issue a paper that said thou shalt not drill using hydraulic fracturing, but they did freeze it, prohibit all of it, pending the completion of a state developed environmental impact statement. Pennsylvania, on the other side of their border, is well underway and I know some of their state statistics that in a couple years they’ve produced about 140,000 jobs. So, the real difference on private land where you do not have to have the permission of the Federal Government and really different where the state agencies are not only supported, but I’d also say have experience. Our state regulatory agencies on oil and gas have regulated this for 60 years, so we’re familiar with it. And it is not that it’s not regulated, it’s just that it’s familiar with it. We are, our regulatory agencies understand the process.

One of the differences with this boom in Texas and perhaps somewhere off on the east coast is that in the Barnett shale it’s really appearing in a highly populated area. And there’s been a lot of push back from some of the local governments and from residents there. I think understandably just because they didn’t welcome it being amidst so much industrial activity, and so many trucks, and so much dust, and a whiff of sulfur or something that, but a lot of that has been translated into what, in my judgment, are highly exaggerated, really misinformed environmental fears.

(Commercial break)

Domenech: All right. Kathleen, let’s talk about sort of the socio-cultural side of this. It was interesting to me to see, you know, several months ago the reaction to a post that I wrote entirely based off of my own research, in response to Gasland, a movie on a so-called documentary film which was shown on HBO, and got an Oscar nomination, and got a lot of attention. It didn’t win, which I think was sort of surprising and gratifying. But it’s come under fire in recent months for exactly the kind of criticism that I had, which was that it was making claims regarding the consequences of hydraulic fracturing that really seemed to be overboard.

I wonder if you could give us sort of a thumbnail sketch of the kind of claims that have been made about this method and also some of the –

White: Well I –

Domenech: – and also some of the responses that you might have.

White: I am happy to, because Gasland really takes the cake, at least currently, for a highly, highly distorted misleading exaggerated documentary. I’m actually looking at some of the script from the movie and it’s worth, if I might do this quickly, to just –

Domenech: Absolutely.

White: – if I could read it very quickly to show. At one point the narrator says that, “Fracking blasts a mixture of water and chemicals 8,000 feet into the ground. The fracking is like a mini earthquake with the mix of over 596 chemicals.” For starters the, probably the average width of the fracks of the fissures are about 1 millimeter. That is one twenty-fifth of an inch, unless my memory is failing me at this moment. They are fissures. It is not a fracture like a shattering, like a blasting. They are carefully controlled fissures for one thing. And the, instead of a mini earthquake they are, as I mentioned early, highly carefully engineered mini, mini earthquakes. And I believe that technology has gotten so sophisticated, now I can’t speak for every operator that is fracking, but what I hear from people in Texas, that they are, that you can actually image what is going on under the ground while you’re doing it. You can actually physically see what you’re doing. And such that you can verify that this is not something’s that fracturing or causing an earthquake.

On 596 chemicals, that is probably from some list that he developed or found, of any possible chemical that could be used in there. In fact, there are trace amounts of chemicals. Of the fracking fluid over 99% of it is water and sand. That tiny other portion is a mix of a few chemicals and I don’t, people use different combinations, but I know that one of the most important and prevalently used is something called gwargum (phonetic sp.) which is an emulsifier that’s used in ice cream and not considered at all harmful. I also want to add that there’s lots and lots of water involved and so the, and there are regulations for how they have to treat and dispose of the water. But what is itself a very, very small amount of chemicals is also diluted in millions of gallons of water.

Domenech: You know, it seemed, you know, really obviously an exaggeration to me from the get go that any documentary or any of the claims that were made about fracking that came from the perspective of the sort of the quantifiable ramifications of putting these chemicals into the ground. Obviously Gasland was making the claim that people could light their water on fire because of this, you know, when anybody who has had a well that has had a methane issue in the past knows that this is something that just comes with the territory.

White: Right.

Domenech: But I wanted to quote to you something from a recent piece by Richard Epstein (phonetic sp.) who is, you know, obviously a respected libertarian thinker and I think somebody –

White: Yes.

Domenech: – who has a good take on this.

White: I do, too.

Domenech: He writes that, “We must proceed cautiously when it comes to fracking. Euphoric predictions that fracking will solve the energy crisis are suspect, as are doomsday predictions that fracking destroys everything that lies in its path. One intermediate strategy that bears promise is this, start fracking in remote regions of Texas and the Dakotas and hope that improved fracking techniques will allow for exploration at a greater range of sites.”

Do you think that that’s a reasonable position to take and I wonder if you could talk about –

White: Well, I think it’s reasonable also he gets to the end.

Domenech: Sure.

White: Because I also think, as a former regulator, any time you have the, I would conclude on the basis of history that there is nothing inherently damaging, destructive, or high risk about the fracking technology. The Society of Petroleum Engineers has concluded that over the world probably two million wells have used hydraulic fracturing over the last 60 years. And on the basis of The Society of Petroleum Engineers conclusion about a two million worldwide, I think I misspoke, one million in the United States and not one of those wells has ever been persuasively, definitively connected in this case to contamination of ground water used for drinking water. So, its safety record is, I agree with his lead up to what’s been, that he specifically recommended do this in remote areas until we know what we’re doing. I think we do know what we’re doing. I think that if you, anything where you have the volume of activity increased 20 or 30 fold, you need to look at very carefully, because you’ve –

Domenech: Sure.

White: – never had that before. And I speak from Texas where, as opposed to states like New York and Pennsylvania, we have regulatory agencies which have worked with oil and gas production for 60 years and we feel familiar with it. But the industry itself through the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission which is, actually I think governors appoint people to that. This was formed quite a while ago, actually to be a national source of information for regulators about oil and gas production of all stripes. And then they created later something called The Groundwater Protection Council of the Interstate Oil and Compact Commission. That has always been where a lot of expertise on this where risks were assessed, solutions to any kind of problem that looked like it was repetitive or had a pattern, and those entities are very active on this right now.

And one of the mechanisms, they then created a third kind of offshoot that has, I believe the acronym STRONGER which stands for, and I can’t remember the exact environmental review, but its purpose is that these entities which are composed of state regulators and people in the industry, are going to want to take a much more focused granulars, is the word of the day, look at all the risk involved. And what risks might there be when you have, as in the Barnett shale, wells went from like 1,200 three or four years ago to 14,000 now. And as a regulatory, yeah. That needs to be looked at. That doesn’t mean it needs to necessarily be stopped or only used in remote areas. Being from a remote ranch in Texas my groundwater’s health is just as important as (unintelligible). So the issue of, but I think that any industrial, intensive industrial activity around an urban area troubles the population and it’s more often a land use issue than it is an environmental harm issue. But I do think serious review of what, the kind of volume of activity going on and the very, very current nature of the technology being used, including the chemicals, is warranted. But that should go on as it has through this Interstate Compact Commission and through state agencies, and not through EPA.

Domenech: Yeah. Let’s talk about the EPA for a minute. Obviously there’s a report that’s due on hydraulic fracturing in 2012 and there was a hearing that was held earlier this year on this subject.

White: Right.

Domenech: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your feelings regarding the EPA, their approach to this subject, and frankly, whether they are actually looking at this from a scientific perspective or whether they are looking at it from a more political perspective.

White: Well, the testimony and a lot of the documents that EPA had to submit to the committee for the hearing about which you speak most regrettably showed as if, that there is this, that this is going to be a very, very troubling study because of the way the EPA has structured it. I could give several reasons, but the most important is, EPA has no one on the study review panel that really would be controlling the methodology of the study, and overseeing and having final say on the conclusions of the study. There is no one who has any professional familiarity with hydraulic fracturing or oil and gas production.

There is, this is a common theme under the Obama Administration in my experience. Another example was the so-called study done by experts after the spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. There was also no one on that panel that had any expertise, real expertise in the industry. I guess because they associate them with industry and somehow think that sullies their perspective or makes it impossible for them to be objective. If you don’t have the real technological experts on the technology and the people that know what it’s like to put that in practice miles under the ground, you have no basis to make judgments. And that and several other ways they sort of set up the methodology. They are only going to use out of hundreds of thousands of candidate wells, they are only going to use at that point had selected four to do what they the four full forensic analysis, which is a very, very robust hydro-geological study.

So it has, unless that is altered their methodology is off, altered and unless they allow real experts in the technology and industry practitioners, to me they will have no basis to make an accurate conclusion.

Jackson: Kathleen, thanks again so much for coming on the show. We appreciate having you here.

White: Well, thank you very much. It was nice to talk to you guys.