Stop Criticizing Fracking and Pipelines

Many of my friends and colleagues often criticize me for refusing to embrace the popular anti-fracking rhetoric — or, as some like to fallaciously describe it — my “pro-fracking stance”. There’s a reason I refuse to condemn fracking, and it’s the same reason I wouldn’t jump on the ultra-fashionable anti-pipeline bandwagon; and I believe it is an important reason. Getting off of fossil fuels should be one of our highest priorities as a species. To persuade those who disagree, we need a bulletproof argument. Invented boogeymen like fracking and pipelines, when presented as reasons to get off fossil fuels, weaken that argument. When our loudest messages are so weak that they collapse under the slightest scientific scrutiny — as do the pop criticisms of fracking and pipelines — we are gravely harming the process of moving away from fossil fuels.

You can say that a given pipeline will harm water supplies, but it’s trivial to show that a century of tens of thousands of such pipelines have not had any such consequence. Your argument is a poor one. You can say the alternative (tanker trucks) is safer, but the statistics easily show you are dead wrong.

You can list any number of the trendy claims about fracking: that it also harms water supplies (its safety record is, in fact, remarkable; and the additives in the water are not dangerous to begin with), that it causes earthquakes (it doesn’t, though some evidence suggests that deepwater injection wells, which are unrelated to fracking, have been correlated with a number of harmless earthquakes), or that it makes your tap water catch on fire (it has nothing to do with this). All such arguments collapse under their own silliness when you shine even the faintest light of science on them.  (My full episode on fracking is here.)

There are immutable proofs that we need to get off of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. I discussed just two of them here. Building an argument around such evidence as this is rock solid. It cannot fall apart based on its facts, because it is proven scientifically.

Moreover, focusing on these small “symptoms” of fossil fuel reliance is a distraction from the real problem, and the real target: the need to move completely away from fossil fuels.

Science advocates who agree with the need to get off fossil fuels should stop using weak, fallacious, and provably false arguments to make the point. Many who listen will not give you a second chance, and your opportunity to persuade will have been lost. Stop criticizing fracking and pipelines, and keep your eye on the ball.

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
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22 Responses to Stop Criticizing Fracking and Pipelines

  1. How do you determine the Fracking additives are safe if they not revealed?

  2. Mike says:

    I appreciate your integrity. Some in the skeptic movement have embraced the anti-fracking stuff because they want to continue to appeal to their audience.

  3. Vere Nekoninda says:

    I agree with your thesis that we need solid arguments for moving away from fossil fuels, combating climate change, or to support any other scientific position. I’m confused by a couple of your examples. You say that over the last century, pipelines have not harmed water supplies. This is contradicted by a web search for “US oil pipeline spills 2016”, which turns up more than two and a half million hits. Checking just a few of them shows good documentation of petroleum getting into rivers and other elements of the water supply during 2016, and more examples are easy to find for earlier years. I think that leaking toxic chemicals into the water qualifies as harm. Can you explain why you don’t see it this way?

    Regarding earthquakes, a recent Science Friday episode featured an employee of the US Geologic Survey and a university professor agreeing that Oklahoma now has the highest rate of earthquakes in the US, up hundreds or thousands of times (I forget the exact numbers) above previous norms, and exceeding the traditional leaders, Alaska and California. They stated that this was due to fracking and related oil and gas extraction activities. This contrasts sharply with your statements.

    As far as the chemicals used in fracking, you say that “the additives in the water are not dangerous”. Given that the fracking industry has successfully prevented the release of information about what chemical additives they use, your statement is hard to defend. A recent Scientific American article says that “former EPA scientist Dominic DiGiulio has proved that fracking has polluted groundwater in Wyoming”, and many sites list specific toxic chemicals linked to fracking, in spite of the impossibility of obtaining a complete list of what is used.

    Is it your position, that these and all related articles are all factually inaccurate?

  4. Wm J Granger says:

    Brian, I am glad someone like you has the guts to speak the truth on this [pipelines]. My wife and I were just talking the other day about this and how foolish it is to think a pipeline is more environmentally unsafe than thousands of trucks hauling oil, gas, whatever all over creation. Yes, there have been pipeline malfunctions and spills, but considering all the material carried by pipelines, I think they have an enviable safety record.

  5. Paul Carter Block says:

    I fear you may have lost some support here, Brian. We in the UK are bulldozed by a Conservative administration, with published links to the fossil fuel industry, into accepting trial frack wells in national parks and, literally, under our feet. Even these small-scale trials have been proven to cause minor earth tremors. Countryside is destroyed and lives threatened in order that the already mega-wealthy can grow yet richer.
    I agree that fleets of 30,000-litre road barrels is a vastly more horrific prospect than pipelines but to say that pipelines are safe? Ask the people of Venezuela and Nigeria about safe pipelines and cover your ears when the answer comes back.
    Other than that, keep up the fine work.

    • AlexandriaNick says:

      Nigeria, the same country where people will try to tap into pipelines to steal gasoline and then cause explosions? That’s your counter argument?

  6. Adam says:

    Can you provide a third party analysis of the safety of fracking? If that answer is no then you can not claim it is safe. If you can please provide a link in your comments.

  7. Bogdan says:

    Hi all,
    Just as a quick review of the process that leads to fracturing: you drill borehole (lets say onshore), introduce a casing and cement it in the space in between formations drilled and casing metal. Continue drilling with smaller diameter, introduce casing or liner (a short casing that anchors itself in the previous casing). Let’s say hat this casing is the last casing, the production casing (or liner). Just as a mention, usually the last hole diameter is 8.5 or 6″. The proceeds to perforate the casing and the zones of sandstone and limestone (in case of “normal” wells) or the shales (in case of shale gas well), and the fracture will be initiated from these perforations. Fracturing has been done many times for the so called reservoir type rocks (with high enough permeability to produce significant hydrocarbons volumes in a given time) in order the pass with some kind of hydraulic conduct far from well bore wall, where some plugging of pore space might have occurred during drilling phase (in this case the fracture length is quite small). Nowadays, the fracture is done in shales that have undergone some special geo-chemical process in which previous trapped organic matter is transformed to gas. In shales, the pore space (pore throat) are very small, and the permeability very small…still, there is a significant amount of gas in some of these shales. The idea is that if you have a big fracture going in two vertical wings like structures (at 180 degrees from each other) with heights roughly equal to that of the shale interval with gas and going laterally for hundreds of meters… the surface area from where production occurs is greatly increased (thinks of borehole area vs. fracture area) as the process involves the generation, propagation during which the fluid that has in suspension particles similar to sand is entrapped in the fracture (after the high fracture propagation pressure is released and the fracture tends to close back).
    The main process is not meant to propagate the fracture to the surface. For one thing, those shales that have organic matter that was converted to gas are at large depths as those transformation require high temperatures (usually below 2000m, as temperatures increase on average with an gradient of 3degC/100m). Most of the permeable formations above the zone of interest are saturated with brine. For a company to fracture up to surface would be a disaster because the main fluid that is produced would be water. The main issue is the cement defect between the casing and formation that would allow gas to flow via another route to the surface, that is also not wanted as the gas is meant to be produced from inside the wellbore. That being said, cases like these do occur, but is not limited to shale gas wells… almost any normal gas and even oil well can have this problem (gas can be associated with oil). It all depends on the regulations in place and how well the controls and reporting are made. In the company I’ve worked, there were wells that were producing and gas was bubbling in the cellar of the well (an small excavated and cemented volume around well bore filled with water in this well’s case)…which was bad from many points of view. The main concern (if regulation are adequate and applied) is the presence of faults that have unknown geometries. Even though the case in which reactivation of a fault is rare event, it could potentially have disastrous effects. Mapping faults is not an easy task as they confirmation must be from multiple sources (investigation wells, seismic data interpretation, outcrop analysis).

  8. Steve says:

    Brian, I’m confused, you say we must get off fossil fuels and yet this article is about drilling for Gas. What do you suppose the gas is made of isn’t it a fossil fuel as well?

    Presumably you’re actually talking about getting off coal and oil?

    • mudguts says:

      1) He has been pretty pro nuclear since the get go.
      2) gas is the backup for renewables.

      I would have thought that both were patently obvious to Skeptoid fans and visitors

  9. Robert Wyatt says:

    Your stance conveniently ignores decades of pipeline leaks which have polluted water supplies resulting in Superfund cleanups as well as a half-century of science saying that injection wells (which use essentially the same technology as fracking) do indeed cause earthquakes. Have you asked the folks of central Oklahoma how they feel about their “tiny” tremors?

    • Noah Dillon says:

      Actually, the first concern is addressed in the second paragraph. The second complaint is covered in the third paragraph. The process of fracking has not been found to cause earthquakes. Instead, it’s the disposal of waste water that is causing them. That should be prevented. You’ll only do that by accurately identifying the cause and litigating it, not by conflating two different processes.

      • Vere Nekoninda says:

        Noah, I disagree that “the first concern is addressed in the second paragraph.” Rather, it is dismissed without evidence. Brian says that “it’s trivial to show that a century of tens of thousands of such pipelines have not had any such consequence.” That’s a bizarre assertion. To show that harm to a water supply has never happened, across a hundred years and many thousands of pipelines, totalling hundreds of thousands of miles, is a mighty difficult thing to document. Proving the absence of something requires evidence covering every the time and location of every possible occurrence.

        On the other hand, proving the presence of a pipeline’s harm to water only requires documenting an instance of harm. There are thousands of reports of oil from pipelines polluting various water bodies. Some of them may be false, but Brian is saying that it is trivial to prove all of them false. I’d like to see one of you do so. Here is a recent report from CNBC. There are photos. This is not as good as a peer-reviewed scientific journal, but it is one of the many incidents that must be disproved, in order to make Brian’s statement credible.

  10. Tim says:

    Methane is NOT the answer. And it is a BIG problem for us.

    Recent Harvard study: “… which comes on the heels of other aerial surveys showing big methane leakage, suggests that our new natural-gas infrastructure has been bleeding methane into the atmosphere in record quantities. And molecule for molecule, this unburned methane is much, much more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.” And,
    “If you want to compare the warming power of the two greenhouse gases, you have to pick a length of time to average over. Including the way methane interacts with aerosols involved in cloud formation, the latest research puts the pound-for-pound greenhouse potency of methane at about 105 times that of CO2 over a 20 year timeframe. Consider the difference over a century, however, and the multiplier drops to about 33 times.”

    The sources for the above statements can be found in numerous journals.

    We have put ourselves in the position of having to worry greatly about the short term wherein Methane is quite literally a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

  11. Richard1941 says:

    Correlation does not establish causation and a sample size of one is not a statistic.

    However, I notice that many of the anti-fracking advocates are opposed to the idea of a strong, energy-independent capitalist America. It is a fact that our dependence on foreign petroleum has twice in the last century disrupted our economy and global stability. Much of our international difficulty is an echo of that situation.

    One of the women I have breakfast with every Sunday at the Democratic Club is best described as a progressive communist. She is rabidly opposed to fracking and will countenance no factual information about it, as if it is a commandment handed down from the FSM.

  12. As a Unitarian Universalist and who has many people very close to the political Left, it is often very, very difficult to make people clear about the current scientific data regarding fracking. It is amazing how powerful is a documentary such as _Gasland_ in order to convince people of how “bad” fracking is. I am ultimately against fracking in the sense that I’m against gas and other fossil fuels as our main energy source. Yet, I do favor gas as a transition tool towards renewables (no problem with that) and nuclear (a no no in the Left). I favor GMOs as a way to deal with methane and CO2 emissions (another no no in the Left). I point out that some statements made in the Left about climate change are exaggerated (another no no).

    Following science is really one of the toughest propositions and paths (I even consider it my spiritual path as a Religious Naturalist) that you can choose regardless where you are in the political spectrum. As a philosopher of science, I’m committed to science. Yet, it is really hard to do so due to peer pressure from your social (and in my case academic) circle.

  13. Vere Nekoninda says:

    Noah? Brian? Would you explain how the information shown on the NOAA website below is consistent with your statement, “You can say that a given pipeline will harm water supplies, but it’s trivial to show that a century of tens of thousands of such pipelines have not had any such consequence.”

    Another spill documented as having polluted a water source (tributaries of the Mississippi River):

    Lakehead Pipeline Company
    Grand Rapids, Minnesota | 1991-Mar-03
    1,680,000 Gallons!

  14. Shane Harvey says:

    I guess this shows we all have our skeptical blind spots. Jane Goodall’s belief in bigfoot, Michael Shermer’s belief that fairness and virtue are not just promoted by free-market capitalism, but are inherent. Bill Maher’s antivax position. All have rational but flawed reasons for believing in these ideas.

    I realise there is more than one kind of skepticism, the type of skepticism of a scientist in one field may be different from someone who works in another. A chemist for example may apply a methodological form of skepticism where as a theoretical physicist would apply a more philosophical . Prior plausability and occhams razor isn’t as useful in quantum physics or string theory as it is in chemistry or biology.

    I prefer to trust recognised mainstream scientific institutions like NASA rather then the fossil fuel lobby or the American EPA which is currently run by a climate denier.

    The Dodgy Brothers.

    And the whole Dodgy family.

    The Flatulent Earth Society

    The Biggest Farters

    Silent But Deadly

    The Dog, err… cow Did it.


    I should have avoided the curry.

    A bad case of the squirts.
    It just scrolls forever, like Scrooge McDuck’s Christmas list.

    And now for you reading pleasure, the rest of the Planet.
    Short and sweet like Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s Christmas list. Or possibly a dead maggot.

    There are as many problems with the pro nuclear option as their is with the pro LNG solution to climate change, the least of which is the too little, too late problem. About 30 years too late. And the same could be said for Renewable energy and battery storage but better late than never. Many of Australia’s power stations built in the sixties were designed to be converted to nuclear if the government ever chose to go down that path. The cost to do it now would be to cost prohibitive at a minimum of two billion per reactor but closer to eight, the government would have to heavily subsidise the construction. It would be a very long time before they could begin to turn a profit, just like most of the hydro electric dams. We will be overtaken by climate change long before that can happen. Unless we go unregulated cheap and nasty, but who wants a Chernobyl disaster two or three times a year.

    I try not to be pro or anti anything except for the extremes. But reality keeps getting in the way. Just when something looks good, like thorium molten salt reactors, I find out the real reason the technology was abandon. It was just far to expensive. It had nothing to do with not being able to produce weapons grade plutonium, they can. Just not very much.

    I try to stare into my blind spots when I find them, but I’m not always sure where they are. That’s the trouble with blind spots.

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