Lies, Damn Lies, and Fracked Statistics

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

The statement is ubiquitous.  Every time an oil and gas public relations type tries to downplay concerns that neighbors might have about the noisy, smelly, lit-up-like-Christmas 24/7, industrial traffic, activity, machinery, infrastructure and chemicals right smack in their midst.

“99.5% of fracking fluid is just water and sand.” 

But is it?  Has anyone in the media actually fact-checked this number?  With thousands of wells being fracked every year in Colorado, multiple times per well with millions of gallons of fluid that is a pretty stark, precise, and definitive claim, when you get down to it: “99.5% of fracking fluid is…”

There it was again yesterday, in a letter printed in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel from a former longtime Grand Junction TV news anchor (now representing yet another recently formed oil and gas PR creation, the Piceance Energy Action Council):

“Fracking fluid (consisting of 99.5 percent water and sand)…”

No nuance, no context just a statement that it is so, like "my door opens onto my porch…".  In print even.  From a ‘trusted’ and familiar voice.  Rinse, repeat, transcribe.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long to poke holes in the “99.5%” claim, such is often the case with such certain and precise numbers. According to (the site where disclosure is mandated by state law) many fracking fluid recipes do in fact reach, or get close to, that number.  But here's the thing, others do not.  And that’s all it takes to turn a statistic into a lie.  Furthermore, the precise number itself is less important than the willingness of industry to dismiss any concerns out of hand with rote talking points and empty 'factoids.' 

It should also be noted that there remain questions about how well the FracFocus site captures what is really happening in a useful timeframe to inform citizens about what type of potentially dangerous activity is occurring in their towns and communities.  But setting that aside and just considering the data that are available to the public–and in this case, I admit, I only did a cursory review–I ask: Is the reality that “most fracks are up to 99.5% water and sand” the same as the claim “fracking fluid [consists of] 99.5%” water and sand?  If not then industry’s own spokespeople are either misinformed or dissembling. 

What is the difference between 89 percent and 98 or 99.5 percent?  When considering compounds that have acute toxicity measured in parts-per-million, like 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene (part of a recent frack in La Plata County consisting of 75% water and sand—and 23% liquid nitrogen), it can be significant.   Aromatic hydrocarbons, a recurring ingredient in many Colorado fracking fluid recipes, are just one class of chemicals used suspected in causing long-term harm. These, and many of the other chemicals used also fall into a class known as ‘endocrine disruptors,’ that could very likely  cause harm at levels significantly below those that cause the type of acute response generally measured by toxicity levels (like in the above EPA fact sheet from the early 1990s).  

And as much as industry  types might wish to be able to sweep all this under the rug with slogans and suspect fact-like statements, the research—and evidence of harm—is mounting regarding chemical exposure to the public health and to the health of  our environment, including our water sources and the air we breathe. 

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, in a second (web-based only so far) letter, the Piceance Energy Action Council response to legitimate and fact-based concerns about the toxicity of this activity in people’s midst, is to attack the recently deceased globally famous pioneering Western Colorado researcher, Theo Colborn, whose work led to much of the understanding surrounding these poisons–as 'obscure,' 'agenda-driven,' and making 'wild and unsubstantiated claims.'  

Ironically, the PEAC describes its purpose on its Facebook site as:

PEAC is a council of citizens dedicated to educating the community of Western Colorado, using facts and science, on the importance of responsible energy development and its benefit on generations to come.

Indeed, the PEAC is a primary proponent behind the slogan (and thin ‘white paper’) the ‘West Slope Way,’ currently being pushed as a model of interaction and dialog (the storyline goes) that resolves conflicts through collaboration. 

The "White Paper" includes a breakdown of what has been branded as the West Slope Way, a system that anticipates community problems with the oil and gas industry and works directly with producers for solutions.

So out of the marketing bubble and back to reality, here’s what we have: a supposed model of local dialog being pushed by discounting local concerns, dismissing local scientists, disparaging local citizens, and built on inflated claims not quite supported by the data.  Pushed by a Facebook group with the mission of educating Coloradans using 'facts and science.'       

Recently we learned that the oil and gas industry spent upwards of $11 million on the last Colorado election cycle, which certainly buys a lot of PR.  But it’s hard to cover up what is right in the middle of people’s lives, and until and unless the industry sits down with communities to really listen to what they say, including accepting they may hear ‘no, you cannot do that here,’ there will be no resolution to the ‘fracking wars.’ 

Meanwhile I suggest that Coloradans tune their malarkey-sniffers up, and remember the words of Mark Twain, that there are ‘lies, damn lies, and statistics.’   


22 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. Konola says:

    Thank you for this post. Another one of those "facts" is that there is nothing more dangerous in fracking fluid than what is found in an ordinary laundry room. I first heard that comment when it was made by Ray Scott in a Club20 debate with me during the last election cycle. Later I saw it as a headline in a story about a study funded by industry and completed by the University of Colorado. Two points about that claim: at, frequently the first ingredient listed is hydrochloric acid, which would make doing laundry quite interesting (obsolete because of the holes in fabrics?); and I don't pour laundry soap and/or bleach into my drinking water supply, so how is it a good thing that fracking fluids are no more dangerous than chemicals in a laundry room? Would you drink bleach?

    • Voyageur says:

      What.  You never had a rum and Chlorox? What a sheltered life you lead!  Of course, it's best with a water and sand chaser.  

    • ardy3 says:

      Actually, Konola, yes I would drink bleach. I have many many times. I'm guessing you have too. I put a capful of bleach into a 20 liter container of water every week for years while living in a part of the world with no clean water supplies (our water was pulled out downstream of the stock watering area!). Even in the US, most of my life has been spent drinking water with bleach in it (some utilities call it "chlorine"). 

      So, your point is well taken, but you need to be a bit more careful about which chemical additivess you demonize.

    • Old Time Dem says:

      If you've swum in a swimming pool, you've likely swum in hydrochloric acid, since it is the most common acid used to adjust the pH of pool water.  It is also used to sanitize drinking water.

      Bleach, of course, is used to sanitize public drinking water supplies, so it is more than likely that you have, in fact, drunk bleach.

      The issue, obviously, is how dilute the chemicals are.

  2. PKolbenschlag says:

    The scientists that issued that report came out and noted it was being misused.  It only looked at one set of chemicals used, not all fracking fluid, or even all the ingredients in most fracking fluid.  Presumably at least some of the industry folks that repeated it in its inaccurate form knew better, at least one hopes they do given the nature of some of the compounds involved.  

    • ardy3 says:

      PK, what was especially disturbing was that it was the CU press release that went all gross-scientific-misuse on their own researchers. Those witty PR folks titled the press release

      Major class of fracking chemicals no more toxic than common household substances

      and they never bothered to correct it or release something less sensational. I'm thinking the CU PR folks may be a wholly owned subsidiary of the CU Leeds School of Misleading Economic Fabrications about Fossil Industries.

      • PKolbenschlag says:

        On that note, the spin machine is loving Leeds latest.  The latest study based on speculated, provided by industry guessimates–after acknowledging they actually have no idea how non-existent regulation might possibly affect some unknown something–that range from 25% – 50%; of minerals that may or may not exist in the anticipated quantity developed, perhaps, at the same costs considering, maybe, say $70, scratch that $60, better make it $50, $45… a barrel oil… that could be impacted by the possible setback.  

        I thought this one was particularly weak, being speculation layered on speculation, but it still got widely reported.   

        • mamajama55 says:

          Great diary, PK. That meme that fracking fluid is just like toothpaste or ice cream is indeed being pumped out like methane from a 24-hour flare.

          The CU researchers' concluding sentence really chaps my hide:

          What we have learned in this piece of work is that the really toxic surfactants aren’t being used in the wells we have tested,”  (emphasis mine)

          WTF is that supposed to mean? Why didn't they test toxic wells? How is this supposed to be real science if they cherry-pick the ice cream and toothpaste wells? Grrrr. 

  3. ardy3 says:

    Thanks again, PK, for keeping tabs on this and for your updates to COPols.

    In case anyone wants to read that slim (but colorful) "white" paper, it was submitted as part of public comments during the December Task Force meeting in Rifle. The document is on the O&G TF website. Under "What's New" on the right side of this page, you can find the link titled "Public Comment for January – Packet No. 1." Before you click on this last link, be aware that it is a 128 page pdf document and make take some time to download. The slick and colorful "white" paper begins on page 89.

    As for the "since it only comprises 0.5% of the volume, these miscellaneous chemicals can't possible affect people, not to mention be harmful" deception, it might be useful to recall from high school biology (or Wikipedia!) that testosterone concentrations in the blood of adult male humans is a mere 10ppb (or 0.000001%) whereas in adult female humans is approx. 1ppb (or 0.0000001%). Clearly these concentrations are so small, they must, by O&G definition, have no effect. Hemoglobin is a mere 1.5% of blood. Maybe this has a very tiny effect? Thyroxin is approx. 100ppb of blood volume. Clearly there can be no consequences if your thyroid quits producing it.

    We can all play "O&G Definition" games! It's fun and entertaining for the entire community (or at least those who live within 1000 ft of a tank battery).

  4. MichaelBowman says:

    In farm country we use 12oz. of Glyphosphate (Roundup) per acre mixed in 40 gallons of water. The net effect is a solution that is only 0.0022482% active ingredients; a solution that is 99.78% water.  That doesn't mean I'd serve up a glass of the solution to a fellow human being.

    • Old Time Dem says:

      12 ounces mixed in 40 gallons of water is 0.22%, not 0.0022%.  The most common formulation of Roundup is 360 g of active ingredient per liter of concentrate, though, so the concentration of active ingredient in the made-up solution is approximately 0.08% (with water of approximately 99.92%).

      • MichaelBowman says:

        Thx For the correction, OTD.  I didn't mean to have the % sign after the equation but couldn't fix it. I still wouldn't serve it up to another human being – or have them bathe in it. That mixture will kill anything green – unless it's been genetically-modified to resist the application. 

  5. PKolbenschlag says:

    Who can forget


  6. ajb says:

    99.5% by weight or volume? How much is sand (density 2.5) vs fluid (density ~1)? 

    Picky, I know, but 50% sand by volume is 71% sand by weight. 

  7. PKolbenschlag says:

    Piceance Energy Action Council responds in the Facebook comments below.  I even get a little shout out for my long time work.  

    • PKolbenschlag says:

      In their FB response, the PEAC provides hyperlinks to 'confirm what it claims are "numerous studies from government agencies and academia" with the top link 'from Berkeley' that is an undergraduate paper, in an undergraduate research journal (reviewed by faculty). No offense to undergraduate students, just saying: My source was the specific data complied by the state as submitted by industry on the FracFocus site.  

      The PEAC comment, obviously, just reinforces my point that they are quick on attack and light on substance.  

  8. Old Time Dem says:

    Where exactly in the website does it list the composition of fraccing fluids?  I see a list of chemical components, but nothing with concentrations.

    • PKolbenschlag says:

      Percentage is listed in the pdf documents for individual wells, by mass.

      Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Composition:

      Total Base Water Volume (gal):  
      Trade Name Supplier Purpose Ingredients
      Abstract Service
      (CAS #)

      Concentration in
      (% by mass)**

      Concentration in
      HF Fluid
      (% by mass)**



  9. Benita Phillips says:

    My letter to the Editor of the Daily Sentinel, published in the first newspaper for  2015 sparked quite an uproar and Pete Kolbenschlag swooped in to support and define the issues with great clarity.  Thank you Pete.  I hope PEAC now realizes their pithy saying is just that…a pithy empty slogan.

    I'm about to write another LTE to take this conversation down the road a bit further.  Pete, please be there with your facts and if I get anything wrong, I always expect to be re-taught or at least the attempt is made.

    The next LTE will be on the economics of extraction.  I love to write a controversial LTE.  Being a Republican, I know it does crimp the style of those who think the Republican party should all be using the "Sarah Palin" or Mitt Romney brain to make decisions….I think they mean that literally.

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