The Center of the American West takes as its mission the creation of forums for the respectful exchange of ideas and perspectives in the pursuit of solutions to the region's difficulties. We at the Center believe that an understanding of the historical origins of the West's problems, an emphasis on the common interests of all parties, and a dose of good humor are essential to constructive public discussion.

What I Have Learned about Hydraulic Fracturing Since Last Fall: A Status Report (November 6, 2013)

Original article can be found at The Denver Post

Originally published on November 09, 2013

By Patty Limerick, Faculty Director, Center of the American West


Note: You are free to share this document, but you must remind anyone who sees it that this is simply a personal statement and not an official report on the National Science Foundation Sustainability Resource Network grant on Natural Gas Production and Hydraulic Fracturing. Also, please note that this is an evolving document; I will be revising it frequently in response to helpful commentaries from readers. If you download it, make sure to keep track of the access date to avoid confusion over “version proliferation.” If you’d like to provide feedback about this piece, please email us at:

How This Document Came to Be

In October of 2012, the National Science Foundation Sustainability Research Network awarded a five-year, twelve-million-dollar grant to a consortium of scientists and engineers from nine different institutions, including and led by a team from the University of Colorado. The goal of the grant is to provide the material for a more productive, more evidence-based consideration of natural gas development, maximizing the benefits of this resource while minimizing the negative impacts—on human and natural communities—of its production. The Center of the American West holds the role of outreach and public communication in this collaboration. While we await the research findings of our colleagues in science and engineering, the Center, in February of 2013 launched an ongoing lecture series called FrackingSENSE. In the last year, I have been given remarkable opportunities for learning: moderating the FrackingSENSE series, attending a variety of workshops and conferences, reading articles and books, doing my best to keep up with fast-breaking news on community responses to natural gas development, and refreshing my knowledge of the patterns of extractive industry in the history of the American West. In reviewing this year of educational opportunity, I have tried to identify observations and propositions that seem increasingly convincing to me. Some of the ideas I present here call into question widely held convictions and opinions. My statements do not constitute either a defense of the oil and gas industry or a vindication of the industry’s critics. I do, however, make a case for exercising a more precise aim in identifying the most urgent subjects of public concern, worry, and alarm, particularly in distinguishing the potential dangers posed by the actual process of hydraulic fracturing, deep below the surface of the earth, and the dangers posed by leaks and spills closer to or on the surface.

An Idea Much on My Mind and, No Doubt, on the Minds of My Readers

Many citizens struggle to find sources of information they can trust on the subject of hydraulic fracturing. A practice that arouses strong feelings makes it difficult to let down one’s guard; when citizens encounter an author who claims neutrality, they have good reason for skepticism and for suspicions of a concealed authorial bias. Therefore, people engaged in a research project that features hydraulic fracturing must realize that when their findings come out, every remark they have ever made about the subject will be dug out and put up for inspection. Intemperate remarks, episodes of blurting of opinions, and any indication of prejudgment or conclusions reached in advance of evidence will directly and immediately undermine the credibility of their findings. Maintaining the steady state of neutrality is a difficult but necessary practice. If we stick by the commitment to follow the data where it leads us, then, by definition, we cannot have a destination in mind. As a form of conduct and expression, neutrality tests a writer’s capacity to distinguish between making statements on subjects where there is solid evidence, and making statements on subjects where evidence is not available or has not been—and perhaps cannot be—acquired. If readers see any remarks in this document that do not match up to the recognitions recorded in this paragraph, I am eager to have these missteps called to my attention.

What I Have Learned, and Begin to Feel Sufficient Confidence in to Put Out for Public Review

1. The technology now exists for dramatic increase in the production of natural gas, but the “social license to operate,” required to employ that technology on a big scale, is in a much more precarious state. A significant number of residents in proximity to sites of natural gas development are expressing an unwillingness to tolerate sites of industrial activity in proximity to their homes, and the question of their consent and cooperation—that is, the granting of this “social license to operate”—is unresolved. Will we have more communities putting in place moratoria and bans on hydraulic fracturing? Or will those measures come to seem unnecessary with tighter regulations and more regular inspections? Or, most optimistically, will more effective arrangements of communication and negotiation between oil and gas operators and neighboring communities expand in effectiveness and acceptance?

2. Many conversations are daily derailed by the unexamined use of two very different definitions of “hydraulic fracturing.” Some people use the term “hydraulic fracturing” to mean the particular and specific technique used to fracture oil-and-gas-bearing formations far below the surface. Others use the term “hydraulic fracturing” to mean the whole process of constructing and operating a well, plus maintaining and operating surface facilities like compressors, storage ponds, and pipelines. This disconnection in meaning sends a conversation into instant chaos. For instance, if you use the first definition and define hydraulic fracturing narrowly and precisely, the assertion—“There has never been a proven incident of water contamination from hydraulic fracturing”—is true. If you use the second definition and define hydraulic fracturing as the whole kit and caboodle of production and transport, the opposite assertion—“There have been proven incidents of water contamination from hydraulic fracturing”—is true. Here is the good news: careful, clear choice of terms can redirect a derailed conversation and give it meaning and traction.

3. Baseline environmental monitoring is a necessity for evidence-based findings on the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing. This is harder to achieve than it might seem. But without pre-development water and air samples, we will only be able to guess at impacts, with a lot of strong emotion shaping those guesses.

4. The public’s anxiety about the possibility of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing could benefit from a round of reconsideration. When oil and gas wells are properly constructed, the chemicals and fluids that play the crucial part in hydraulic fracturing far beneath the surface of the earth are unlikely to reach groundwater near the surface of the earth. If members of the public want to give their fears a more precise aim, they might express concern about methane leakage and about spills and accidents on or near the surface, as well as the emission of airborne pollutants. (For newcomers to this topic, methane is another word for natural gas.) Methane leakage from a wellhead is a big concern, since methane—uncombusted but released directly into the air—has a far more pernicious quality as a greenhouse gas than does carbon dioxide. In other words, methane leakage reduces the climate advantage of natural gas over coal. Plus, such leaks waste a resource of value. A pleasant aspect of this reallocation of worry is that these concerns can be directly remedied with attention to constructing and operating wells with care and foresight.

5. To speak in an illuminating way about the impact of oil and natural gas development on water, it is helpful to distinguish two sources of water, both capable of possible contamination of the surface. Flowback water contains hydraulic fracturing fluid injected into the earth and then flowing back from the depths. By contrast, formation water is naturally located in the earth, and brought to the surface as produced water. The water already in place in the earth can contain dangerous chemicals and compounds. In the opinion of the FrackingSENSE speaker, Dr. Bernard Goldstein, the public health impacts of “what’s already in the ground” may be more worrisome than the fracturing fluid that human beings inject.

6. Proportion is crucial to any appraisal of the impact of oil and natural gas production on water quantity. In Colorado, over 85% of water goes to agriculture. About 0.1% goes to oil and gas development (including hydraulic fracturing). This does not mean that the amount of water used for oil and gas development is insignificant, since the percentages could be quite different in small, particular locales and since there is a big difference between consumptive use for oil and gas development and non-consumptive use (comparatively speaking) for agriculture. And yet a person who speaks of hydraulic fracturing’s impact on water supply by using phrases like “large (or vast or enormous) amounts of water” would be wise to opt for more precise terms of expression.

7. Compared to other regions of the country, water is indeed scarce in the West; most rivers are already over-allocated, and episodic drought plagues water managers. Thus, treatment and reuse of hydraulic fracturing water offers a promising and problem-reducing response to the prospect of regional water scarcity. Treating the water until it is potable (drinkable by people) may be prohibitively expensive, but treatment sufficient for reuse as hydraulic fracturing water in additional wells is an important improvement in operations and efficiency.

8. Non-disclosure of the chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluid has been a very big source of public distrust and a distraction from worthwhile and productive discussion. If the majority of companies undertook voluntary disclosure, this would remove a lot of noise from the current atmosphere of public discussion. A trend toward disclosure, both from regulation and from voluntary actions by industry, is clearly under way, but a legacy of distrust from the era of nondisclosure seems likely to linger for a spell.

9. Of the nearly one thousand compounds that have been included in the list of constituents of hydraulic fracturing fluid, there are a few dozen to which we should limit our concern. Only a small subset of compounds possess three relevant qualities: they are hazardous to human health; they are mobile enough to get to humans; and they are persistent enough to avoid breaking down into something less hazardous while traveling to the humans. For this small subset of compounds to be considered a risk, there must be three additional necessary features: a source like a spill, a receptor like a family drinking water from a well or a farmer irrigating with groundwater, and a pathway that links the source to the receptor. Moreover, as they move, the compounds must have the property of not getting stuck to the minerals and organic matter in the formations they pass through.

10. Public health impacts of natural gas are difficult matters for conclusive study. The public’s concerns focus on possible causes of cancer, and yet cancer takes a long time to develop to the point of diagnosis. The best that scientists can do is to measure, in the air and water in a particular locale over a particular time, the presence of chemicals and compounds that the Environmental Protection Agency has identified as presenting a risk to human health, and thus to estimate the exposure a human being might undergo in that locale. This is a very different matter from an epidemiological study, substantiated by an actual population’s medical records, over a long spell of time. Just as challenging, findings expressed in terms of probabilities pose a great challenge in communication. The way that scientists arrive at probabilities of risk, and the way that “civilians” interpret those numbers, derive from fundamentally different forms of cognition. The scientists’ cognitive world involves calculating and estimating the probability of an undesirable thing happening. The public’s cognitive world accents a whole other question: “if there is a chance of risk, will I be the one who becomes subject to and injured by that risk?” The scientists are trying to speak in statistical terms about broad populations; a member of the public is asking, “Am I in danger?”

11. Stress is a serious factor in public health, but it is not easy to say to what degree it shapes human discomfort and misery. A person living in proximity to a drilling rig may have a genuine and unmistakable headache, but it is not always easy to determine if problems of air pollution cause the headache, or if the frustrations of having chosen a home for its rural or suburban quiet, and then having to face noise, traffic, lights, and disruption, cause the headache. The preferred and accustomed look of a home landscape provides a foundation for the human sense of well-being, and a person can indeed feel “sick” when this viewshed is threatened. Risk expert Peter Sandman declares that “Risk = hazard + outrage.” Concern, worry, and fear are exacerbated by the sense of powerlessness, of enduring an ordeal that the afflicted individual did not choose. Psychological factors and physiological factors intertwine when it comes to tracking the discomfort and, indeed, pain of having an industrial production site erected in one’s neighborhood.

12. Because of human error and mechanical failure, risk will never be entirely eliminated from the world of natural gas production (nor from the world of highway travel, cardiac surgery, food safety, recreational skiing, etc.). Despite a widespread popular hope for awaiting the full results of scientific research, and then letting (to use a popular phrase) “the science decide,” science as a human enterprise will never fully escape uncertainty, differing interpretations, and legitimate dispute in the enterprise of predicting risk. There is certainly wisdom in the precautionary principle—choosing not to take an action that might deliver unfortunate but unforeseeable bad results. And yet the “error bar,” with which scientists acknowledge the uncertainty of their findings, is a forceful reminder that scientific research cannot relieve citizens of the burden of making difficult decisions in the absence of entire, comprehensive, and certain information.

An Over-Arching Consideration: Giving Up On “Education”

The word “education” is on the verge—or perhaps over the verge—of becoming more trouble than it is worth in the public exchange over natural gas development. All sides declare that it is crucial to “educate” the public. With the rarest exception, “educate the public” can be translated to mean “say or write (or Tweet, or post on Facebook) something to get the public to agree with me.” The phenomenon called “confirmation bias” has a hold on every sector of the population, leading people to appraise new studies and their findings by one criterion, “Does this study confirm what I already believe?” Opening up the framework of public discussion to accommodate more listening and reflection would present a pleasant alternative to the assumption that “education” is a one-way, unilateral process in which one group produces and distributes information and all others simply absorb and believe it.


What I Will Never Forget, and Will Be Telling the Nurses’ Aides in the Assisted Living Place in the Decades Ahead

When you feel a surge of confidence in your ability to predict the future, be humble. Be very humble. Case in point: Ten years ago, the conventional wisdom was that the United States was in a precarious position in energy independence, with a declining rate of production of both natural gas and oil. Recently, the New York Times made this statement: “The United States is set to become the world’s leading producer of natural gas in 2015 and oil in 2017, according to the International Energy Agency (July 27, 2013).” Once-confident prophets of scarcity were shown to have taken a major misstep in their predictions of scarcity. This is a lesson that any individual, trying to envision the future, should keep constantly in mind.


Proprietary, Voluntarily Disclosed Limericks
(No “Halliburton Exemptions” in the World of Doggerel Verse)


Knowledge is tragically lacking
On the complicated practice of fracking.
Convinced they are right,
People rush into fight,
And no agency regulates yakking.

When you try to be neutral on fracking,
You’re a quarterback set up for sacking.
You can assert and declare
That you’re going to be fair,
But you still won’t escape frequent whacking.

Patty Limerick is chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado and writes monthly for The Post.