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SHERIDAN — The Powder River Basin Resource Council recruited a nationally recognized fracking expert to address its audience of 120 attendees at the organization’s 41st annual meeting Saturday night at the Holiday Inn here.
Anthony Ingraffea, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University in Ithica, N.Y., said the future looks bleak for the environment if the oil and gas industry continues business as usual in regards to hydraulic fracturing.
Ingraffea’s keynote speech, titled, “Fracking for Oil and Gas, Bridge or Gangplank?” squarely addressed geologic concerns of the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing as a method of fossil fuel extraction.
“I’m constantly confused by this notion of using gas and oil from shale as a bridge to a sustainable future,” Ingraffea said. “The purpose of a bridge is to go from here to here without falling in what’s under there. We’d have to accept the notion that we would build the bridge with gas and oil to stay out of gas and oil.”
Ingraffea gave a brief background regarding the mechanics of hydraulic fracturing and unconventional wells. He said most people have a misconception of what the process actually entails.
“I hate the word fracking. It’s a misnomer and a mistitle for the problem, but it’s the word that everybody’s latched on to and it’s the word that’s the most confusing and misunderstood,” he said, adding that he defines fracking not only as the actual technique used to extract oil and gas from shale rock thousands of feet underground, but also activities associated with that process, to include construction of the well pad, drilling, compression, storage and transmission.
He said many people are also unaware that one unconventional well pad usually hosts multiple wells with far-reaching lateral extensions.
After a horizontal well is established, millions of gallons of water are pumped into existing cracks within deep shale formations to release pockets of oil and gas, which can then be collected in the well.
“What we’re currently doing to get gas and oil from shale is what I refer to as ‘Frankenstenian’,” Ingraffea said. “We’re bludgeoning the poor rock to death. It’s what happens when you get a bunch of Texans together.”
Ingraffea said the fracking process allows developers to collect only about 6 or 7 percent of the oil and gas that exist within the shale formation, and there’s no going back to get the rest — ever.
Ingraffea said the water pumped into the shale formation during the fracking process denatures the shale formation and makes future mining impossible.
“What do our kids and grandkids get? Zippo. We’ve just buried our children’s and our grandchildren’s inheritance forever for today’s shareholder return on investment,” he said, pointing out the irony that Wyoming oil and gas laws encourage safe, efficient and effective extraction practices.
“It ain’t safe, it ain’t efficient and it ain’t effective,” he asserted.
Ingraffea also discussed the detrimental environmental effects of nonconventional oil and gas drilling. He said aside from the industrial footprint left from well pads, methane and carbon dioxide emissions from the industry’s operations are contributors to global warming.
While natural gas is sometimes embraced as a “clean” alternative to traditional fossil fuel consumption, Ingraffea said fracking is anything but, largely because the wells are likely to leak volumes of methane, which is several times more destructive to the environment than carbon dioxide.
“The problem with methane and natural gas is it is purposely leaked or accidentally leaked or vented at literally all phases of its lifestyle — during drilling, flow back, leaking wells, liquid unloading, gas processing, transportation, storage,” he said.
“There’s never been a pipeline invented that doesn’t leak. There’s never been a compressor station that doesn’t vent. There’s never been a processing unit that doesn’t vent.”
Ingraffea also presented evidence that as as many as 35 percent of horizontal wells “fail,” meaning they spring a leak in the concrete gasket that encloses the steel well pipe.
He said well inspectors in Pennsylvania have had their authority to issue violations for leaking wells outsourced to offices in industry headquarters.
In addition, he said he believes the water tables there became contaminated due to fracking activities, and oil and gas companies insinuated the tainted water outdated their drilling activity.
In order to combat evidence of a high incidence of leaking oil and gas wells, water contamination and environmental pollution created by franking, Ingraffea said the fossil fuel industry publishes studies that are vulnerable to lack of objectivity. He said much of what the industry calls “peer-reviewed” literature lacks established safeguards to maintain the integrity of the information.
“The reviewer have to be competent, objective, have no conflict of interest and has to be anonymous. That never occurs in publications from the oil and gas industry,” he said.
Ingraffea encouraged local landowners with private water wells to get baseline water testing done before developers move into the area, which he predicts will happen on a massive scale.
While there’s presently only one franking operation currently established in Sheridan County — located north of Sheridan on Highway 14 toward Ucross — wells are popping up throughout neighboring counties, and Sheridan County probably isn’t far behind.
“It is coming, and it is bigger than anything you’ve ever seen before,” he said.
Ingraffea concluded by indicating the fracking process was unleashed before its environmental implications were fully understood.
“Nobody — not the (Environmental Protection Agency), not the (Department of Environment), not the industry, not academia — no one had gone out and measured how much methane was leaking into the atmosphere from gas and oil wells for the entire length of time, but yet we have , ‘Drill baby drill, all of the above,’ policy.
“In the best of all worlds, you don’t have a policy until you understand the science,” he said, indicating the ideal scenario is a national energy policy that focuses on alternative and renewable energy sources.
PRBRC organizer Bill Bensel acknowledged Ingraffea’s comments represent an unpopular message in Sheridan County, where some developers are hoping for more oil and gas development to kickstart the lagging economy.
“It’s never easy,” he said. “We’re an energy state.”
While Wyoming relies on energy as a primary source of income, Bensel said the PRBRC is working to make sure development is done responsibly.
“We want to have the resources of clean water and clean air for future generations. We want to do it right,” he said.
In addition to Ingraffea’s address, the PRBRC meeting included a banquet dinner and silent auction to raise funds for the council’s activities.