Fracking Industry Crashes Academic Conference: But That Was Not Even the Worst Part

As an attendee of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this February, I expected to learn a great deal about the most pressing issues in environmental science and alternative energy, as well as do some networking with some of the greatest minds in the field with the majestic North Shore Mountains of Vancouver. This was to be a meeting of like-minded scholars, all of whom possess a genuine interest in promoting the health of the planet as well as that of humanity.

I expected any controversy on environmental topics to be generated outside of the scientific and communications communities inside the civic center hosting the event. That notion was shattered by a University of Texas-Austin study presented on the third day.

Hydraulic fracturing, or (hydro)fracking is the practice of shattering rock deep underground via a high speed injection of a toxic mixture of water, sand, and toxic chemicals (that reduce the surface tension of water). Natural gas is released and captured via this process, which pollutes groundwater and local wells with natural gas, as famously depicted in the 2009 documentary Gasland.

Surface smog in the form of nitrogen oxide and methane is also released around each well, each of which requires millions of gallons of water to frack.  When this water is collected in wastewater ponds on site, it can never be safely re-introduced into an ecosystem.

The Energy Institute at UT used the AAAS meeting to defend the booming hydrofracking business, blaming the pollution it produces on “groundspills or other mishandling of wastewater produced from shale gas drilling, rather than from hydraulic fracturing per se...”

Translation: Fracking is not the problem, it’s the lack of regulation and mishandling of its byproducts that are the culprit.

One cannot imagine how disheartening it was not only to listen to this, but to have the work go virtually uncriticized by a conference room full of the world’s greatest minds, scientists, and journalists.

Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, who led the study released at AAAS, called the hydrofracking boom of recent years a “revolution” and paints his study as an impartial attempt to separate fact from fiction, to lay groundwork for environmentally responsible natural gas extraction. Groat claimed there was “no direct link” between fracking and groundwater contamination.

Proponents of fracking rightly point out that natural gas has now displaced much of the use of a much dirtier and more expensive fossil fuel, coal.

This month, Groat was exposed in Science magazine as being a board member of Plains Exploration & Production Company, a fracking corporation.

The issue at hand is the local pollution produced. While Groat’s claims are specious at best, he got away with it due to a lack of scientific study of groundwater pollution around wells.

This month, the Society for Risk Analysis dispelled this notion.  Stony Brook researchers published a study of the Marcellus Shale formation proving the harmful effects fracking has on groundwater, rivers and drinking water. 

Despite these revelations, the study is being used to promote fracking operations development in eastern Europe, on a continent where the lack of natural gas is allowing a real revolution in alternatives to fossil fuel energy.

The UT study is about to be investigated by a three-person panel of academic and industry experts, one that includes a former CEO of Lockheed-Martin.  This is not encouraging for environmentalists or anyone interested in academic integrity.