A Terrible Rumor About Fracking Wrecks Scientific Research

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Researchers recently published a study about how to trace fracking fluid. The idea was to figure out how to identify potential groundwater contamination. And then the media spin cycle created a giant mess.

The problem was a media rumor that all the fluid used in hydraulic fracturing operations is harmless. But the scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder had never reached that conclusion.

An article in the Boulder Weekly does a splendid job at retracing the game of telephone that led the press to distort the findings of the study, which was published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.


The goal of the research, conducted by E. Michael Thurman and Imma Ferrer, was straightforward. Thus far, efforts to determine the extent to which fracking might contaminate groundwater have been stymied by oil and gas companies, who have been reluctant to share exactly what's in their proprietary fluid mixtures. And while state and federal regulations require companies to disclose what is being used in their fracking fluids, the resulting lists typically use broad chemical categories to describe the actual ingredients.

The scientists developed a technique at the university's mass spectrometry laboratory that allowed them to precisely identify some of the chemicals. Thurman said, "We found chemicals in the samples we were running that most of us are putting down our drains at home."


Unfortunately, that statement prompted the university to issue a press release with the misleading headline, "Major class of fracking chemicals no more toxic than common household substances."

"There were quite a few news outlets that missed the distinction that we were trying to make about it being one class of chemicals — it's an important class of chemicals, but it's not all the chemicals, and basically [headlines] left the impression that all chemicals in fracking fluid were safe," Laura Snider, the University of Colorado media relations staff member and author of the original press release, told the Boulder Weekly. "Ultimately, I feel like the news release is accurate. I feel like if I had to write again, I probably would make some things more clear or make some things that were down lower up higher, I guess. But I feel like it's all in there."


The initial signs that all was not well came in the form of phone calls to the researchers from perplexed environmental journalists. Colorado State University's news website, Source, then worked with the researchers to put out a story that provided a more accurate account of their findings.

But, as the Boulder Weekly reports:

The media buzz had already run away with CU's very different story.

The Boulder Daily Camera's front page headline the day following the CU press release declared, "CU study: Fracking fluid toxicity minimal: Researchers say liquid no more dangerous than household products." This headline and the first paragraphs of the story omit the fact that the researchers studied only about one-fifth of the chemicals in the fracking fluid samples they examined.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association also seized on the Camera's misleading headline when it tweeted that the research adds evidence to COGA's previous statements that fracking fluid toxicity is "minimal," and "no more toxic than common household products."

Thurman works in the Center for Environmental Mass Spectrometry at the University of Colorado's Department of Environmental Engineering as does his fellow researcher, Ferrer. They aren't toxicologists, he stresses, they're environmental chemists.

"We weren't out to find whether the [chemicals] were toxic or not," he says. "In the press release, [Snider] wrote the word toxic in there, but that wasn't our goal and we didn't do any tests to determine toxicity. ... What she wrote was not incorrect, but that wasn't the purpose of the study."

Thurman's focus was on identifying what percentage of the chemicals in flowback water from fracking operations are surfactants and to identify what type of surfactants were being used and produce what is essentially a fingerprint of those chemicals that can be traced.

Surfactants are known ingredients for hydraulic fracturing jobs, and are listed on FracFocus's Chemical Disclosure Registry website. Thurman and Ferrer had previously researched surfactants, and had the instruments necessary to study them.

"We thought, this is a class of compounds that we can analyze, so let's find out what percentage of the organic materials that they add to the well are coming out of the surfactants. So that was goal one," he says. "And goal two was could any of these surfactants be used to fingerprint the individual wells themselves."

The results provide a tool other labs can use to determine if groundwater has been contaminated by fracking operations nearby and, if there are multiple companies operating in the area, possibly identify which company's frack fluid had entered the groundwater.

"That, to me, is the valuable component [of the research]," Thurman says. "The toxicity question revolves around a lot of other compounds that are in there. There's biocides added and there's other compounds that maybe we haven't figured out yet, and who knows about how toxic they might be."


You can read the full account at the Boulder Weekly.