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Sean Hackbarth University of Cincinnati main entrance. University of Cincinnati main entrance.

Something fishy is going on at the University of Cincinnati.

Energy In Depth reports that a 2015 study published in the scientific journal, Environmental Science & Technology, showing that hydraulic fracturing exposed people to unhealthy levels of air pollution in Ohio, has been retracted because of an “honest spreadsheet error.”

The math correction “changes air concentrations significantly relative to those reported in the published article. This correction also changes some of the conclusions reported in the original article,” the researchers wrote.

The original version of the paper found Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) “from fracking operations may pose an under-recognized health hazard to people living near them.” The corrected version of the paper, to be published soon in the same journal, now finds that PAH levels are actually “below the U.S. EPA’s acceptable risk level” [emphasis mine].

EID’s Seth Whitehead points out that the study was flawed from the start:

Not only were the study participants recruited by an anti-fracking activist group, the researchers did not use random testing, did not account for sources of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) other than oil and gas activity, and assumed worst case scenarios in their cancer hazard assessments. A Carroll County landowner also informed EID that some of the highest PAH levels detected by the researchers were collected on his property, which is more than 10 miles from the nearest shale gas well. This completely refuted the researchers’ summation that high PAH levels correlated directly to close proximity to shale gas wells.

An odd thing about this study is how the University of Cincinnati promoted it. As Whitehead notes, the air pollution study was published “just three months after it was completed.”

Contrast that paper to the fiasco surrounding the UC geology department earlier this year when scientists released findings that showed there was “no evidence” of fracking contaminating Ohio local water supplies.

Like the air pollution study, the results were first presented to a local Ohio anti-fracking advocacy group. It was at that event  where Professor Amy Townsend-Small, head of the groundwater research team, acknowledged that anti-fracking funders of the study stopped supporting the research after seeing its results.

Also, unlike the air pollution study, no press release was sent to publicize the water pollution study.

In fact, the water pollution findings remained a local Ohio story until Energy In Depth, Above the Fold, and state officials demanded that the public have access to it. The university conceded by releasing the research in the form of a master’s thesis and stated that it would be submitted to a scientific journal.

It’s been three months since the thesis was released to the public and nearly a year since the thesis was completed and yet the university hasn’t said if or when the findings will be published in a scientific journal.

Why such a rush to publish a study showing fracking is bad but dawdling to publish another study showing that fracking isn’t harmful?

The answer is likely confirmation bias against fracking. People often see what they want to see. If you think fracking is dangerous, you’re inclined to notice evidence of its harm and are less likely to be skeptical of it. And if you come upon evidence that runs counter to your preconceptions, you’re less likely to give it the same weight as it otherwise should.

We see how this played out at the University of Cincinnati. When scientists got results “proving” fracking produced harmful levels of air pollution, it was quickly publicized. EID points out that one of the co-lead authors of the retracted study, Dr. Erin Hayes, took part in an anti-fracking event.

But when another team of scientists undercut the anti-fracking narrative by finding that it wasn’t polluting water, there was little in the way of publicity and research funders walked away from supporting it.

Critical thought is needed to break through confirmation bias—especially at a university or at a peer reviewed journal like Environmental Science & Technology. Scientists have to be careful their judgements aren’t clouded so they miss things like math errors.

Fracking is a valuable technology that has transformed the energy landscape. Scientists at universities and government agencies have found again and again that it safely produces abundant energy.

In policy debates it’s critical that we have good facts for making decisions. Instead of jumping to conclusions, researchers need to make sure the science is done right and that they don’t let their biases get in the way.

Sean Hackbarth Sunset on the horizon in the Chukchi Sea.Sunset on the horizon in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's coast. Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Obama administration has made it harder to tap into American energy when it will be needed the most. Unintentionally it advances the “Keep it in the ground” movement.

The Interior Department finalized new regulations on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean, Bloomberg reports:

Energy companies that hunt for crude in icy Arctic waters will have to stash extra equipment nearby and take other potentially costly steps meant to prevent oil spills in the fragile, remote region under regulations the Obama administration imposed Thursday.

The Interior Department estimates the measure will cost as much as $2 billion over the next 10 years, with the bulk of that coming from a new requirement that energy companies have a backup rig nearby to bore a relief well in case of an emergency, at rental rates that can reach a million dollars a day. Those compliance costs could shrink if oil companies agree to pool resources and collaborate on emergency response, following a model that has been used in the Gulf of Mexico since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

This $2 billion cost doesn’t include the value projects not started because of higher regulatory barriers.

Right now, low oil prices are keeping companies from exploring in the Arctic, but that will change.

Tom Walsh, the owner of Petrotechnical Resources of Alaska, told The Hill, “The prices will rebound, and they will come back up, and [companies] are going to have cash again, and they’re going to want to invest again.”

The National Petroleum Council estimates there is 34 billion barrels of oil off the Arctic coast of the U.S. Unfortunately, these new regulations will make it harder to get at that energy.

npc_arctic_energy_potential_800px.jpg National Petroleum Council chart on Arctic energy resources.National Petroleum Council chart on Arctic energy resources.

While not intentional--federal regulators have been putting up obstacles to Arctic Ocean energy exploration years before environmental activists cranked up their demands to a new level of extreme--this action advances the “Keep it in the ground,” anti-fossil fuel agenda.

Raising the regulatory hurdles to energy exploration makes it less likely that companies will take a risk developing energy in the Arctic and locks energy away from energy-hungry businesses and households.

Add this to the administration’s many steps to limit fossil fuel production and consumption:

EPA’s Clean Power Plan Unnecessary regulations on methane A moratorium on coal leases on federal lands Closing off the Alaska Natural Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to development

The next chapter in the Arctic energy story will be seeing if the Interior Department includes Arctic oil and gas leases in its next schedule of offshore lease sales. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is worried because of how it will affect the future of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

“We must continue to fight to boost the throughput in that pipeline, which is vital to the energy security of the United States,” she said at a June Senate hearing on energy infrastructure.

If oil stops flowing by law the pipeline must be dismantled. If that happens, under the current permitting environment it would be nearly impossible to rebuild it—see Keystone XL.

Vast quantities of American energy would then be off limits.

While it’s far away from most Americans and out of mind, locking away energy resources could end up costing American families when that energy will be needed the most.

Sean Hackbarth An Anadarko oil rig in Fort Lupton, Colo. An Anadarko oil rig in Fort Lupton, Colo. Photo credit: Jamie Schwaberow/Bloomberg.

Hail, shale! Viva la fracking!

Fracking, maligned by activists who would prefer we “keep it in the ground” and avoid the benefits of abundant energy, has made the United States an energy superpower.

Not only is the United States the top producer of petroleum and natural gas, a new report shows, but the U.S. also has the largest oil reserves of any country on earth--more than Russia and Saudi Arabia--The Financial Times reports:

Rystad Energy estimates recoverable oil in the US from existing fields, discoveries and yet undiscovered areas amounts to 264bn barrels. The figure surpasses Saudi Arabia's 212bn and Russia's 256bn in reserves.

The analysis of 60,000 fields worldwide, conducted over a three-year period by the Oslo-based group, shows total global oil reserves at 2.1tn barrels. This is 70 times the current production rate of about 30bn barrels of crude oil a year, Rystad Energy said on Monday.

rystad_oil_reserves.png  Top oil reserves countries.Rystad chart: Top oil reserves countries.Source: Bloomberg.

The combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has made oil and natural gas trapped in shale rock--once practically impossible to reach--now technologically feasible to produce. The result has been a gusher of increased oil production over the past few years.

atlas_us_oil_production.png  2007-2016.Chart: U.S. oil production: 2007-2016.Source: Atlas.

Only a few years ago, the United States was importing a large fraction of the oil it consumed. Now, it is exporting to hungry world markets.

Fracking’s importance won’t be going away anytime soon. The Rystand report finds that 30% of global recoverable oil is “unconventional”—meaning fracking will be needed to get it out of the ground.

In the U.S. more than 50% of its oil reserves are unconventional. Texas, home of the Permian Basin where fracking is used in the country’s most-productive oil patch, holds more than 60 billion barrels of oil.

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Here are two points to take from this news.

First, state-led regulation of fracking is working at safely producing abundant amounts of energy and making vast quantities of domestic energy available. Unnecessary federal interference by EPA, the Interior Department, or other agencies will only stymie this success. In an environment of low oil prices, the federal government shouldn’t put U.S. producers at a disadvantage with duplicative regulations that make fracking more expensive.

Second, oil consumption isn’t going away anytime soon. As the middle class grows in countries like China and India, the demand for vehicles—and gasoline—will increase. One market research firm estimates that 2.1 billion light duty vehicles will be sold by 2035—the vast majority will run on petroleum. Now that they’re allowed to export oil, U.S. companies can help satisfy those growing markets.