Fracking Impacts Many, Including Towing Industry

The Waterways Journal
20 January 2014
WJ Editorial

The growing use of hydraulic fracturing, a process that forces oil out of shale and other formations, has opened up new vistas for the energy industry.

Promising as the process is, however, and as many supporters as it has, it also has opponents by the score.

Congress and the Obama administration officially favor fracking. On December 20, 2013, Congress passed the so-called Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Streamlining Act, which created offices in North Dakota and Montana to approve fracking permits on public lands in those states. The act amended the Bush-era Energy Policy Act.

The 30-day public comment period for the U.S. Coast Guard's proposed policy for moving fracking wastewater by barge has ended. The proposed policy will allow shale gas companies to ship fracking wastewater on rivers and lakes of the U.S. During the comment period, environmentalists generated much sound, fury and suspicion on alleged potential hazards of barging fracking water, but few facts.

A 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office concluded that risks of air pollution, congestion or fatality were lower for barge transportation than for any other mode. A report by the National Waterways Foundation (promoted on, the White House's official website) notes that trucks lose an average of 6.06 gallons per one million ton-miles, railcars: 3.86 gallons — and barges 3.6 gallons, again the lowest rate.

As for the claim that fracking water is "toxic" and that companies "hide" the ingredients they use, Jonathan Hoopes, whose company GreenHunter Water is a leader in treatment of fracking water, notes that 99 percent of hydraulic fracturing fluid consists of sand, salt and water. Drillers post their ingredients on the industry website Frac Focus; one of the most common additives in fracking fluids is guar gum, also used as a food additive and in toothpaste.

The Corps of Engineers reports that 2,000 tons of radioactive waste, almost 1.6 million tons of sulfuric acid and 315 millions tons of petroleum products were moved by barge in 2010. All of these substances are much more hazardous than anything found in fracking water. The American Waterways Operators' Jennifer Carpenter has said. "We expect that shale gas wastewater can be transported just as safely."

Concern that moving the wastewater by barge is more dangerous than other hazardous cargoes is not well founded. While environmentalists warn of the possibility of spills contaminating rivers, it is a fact that barges are the safest and cheapest way to move the wastewater. To date. the wastewater has been moved by trucks and trains, neither of which are immune to spills.

If the fracking revolution continues, as seems likely, the industry will provide the barges necessary to meet the need — in an economical, environmentally sound and safe way.

The other major effect of fracking will be most likely to reduce tonnages as oil and gas liquids replace coal, which has long been the top waterways commodity by tonnage. In the past, this would have meant "decline," but there are many reasons why that is no longer the case.

Leading voices in the waterways community are pointing out that the barge industry is going to have to find new statistics to tell its story.

As these voices suggest. there are plenty of alternative figures. from the amount of barge- and boat-building, to the value of large project cargoes that cannot be moved efficiently any other way, to the onshore ripple effects of activities involving barging, jobs supported, and the environmental and safety benefits over other modes.

All of these figures have been supplied and discussed in reports in recent years, yet tonnage is still the default statistic too often taken as a gauge of the industry's health by friend and foe alike. That will have to change.