In today’s societal and political climate, many wouldn’t want to be known as “The Fracking Guy.” But it’s a moniker Isaac Orr embraces. Orr, who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm and studied political science and geology at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, now pursues a career as a Research Fellow for the Heartland Institute, focusing on the controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Orr can trace his interest in geology and policy back to a lack of water pressure in his family’s farm house, where his grandfather was born in 1930. Some days, particularly in the summer, the cows drank so much there wasn’t a lot of water left over for the family in the house.
Fast forward to college – a friend suggested Orr take an environmental geology class because the professor was a “total nerd,” down to his pocket protector. Orr ended up learning a lot from that professor, who piqued Orr’s interest with a discussion of hydrology, which tied back to his family’s water pressure woes, and the policy side of geology.
“The professor was political but not biased one way or another; he acknowledged issues around land use and mines, and talked about that a lot. I was already interested in political science but he opened my eyes to the policy side of geology,” says Orr.
After college Orr worked for a state senator, then thought he might want to be a standup comic instead. The senator’s office asked if he’d like to keep working remotely and Orr jumped at the offer of a steady paycheck. While pursuing standup, among other tasks he wrote a weekly email update for the senator. The Heartland Institute president emailed Orr and complemented his writing, saying he’d instruct his staff to write similarly. Orr thought it would make more sense if he just wrote for the Heartland Institute, but they didn’t have the funds to hire him on at that time.
“I didn’t hear anything for three months, and then on April 1, I got an email saying, ‘Hey, do you want to write this 15-page paper on fracking?’” Orr says. “By the time I got into the project and started looking at all the aspects that should be covered, the paper ended up being 34 pages long.”
Soon after, the Heartland Institute created a position for him and he works there today as a Research Fellow who specializes in fracking.
While Orr never did make a career as a standup comic, his time cracking jokes was invaluable as a fracking researcher.
“Standup was great public speaking experience,” he says. “No one has anything on the hecklers I encountered while doing standup. Most environmentalists are amateurs compared to people who heckled me while I did standup!”
Orr is unabashedly pro-fracking. When asked what he wished more people knew about the practice, he immediately responded, “That it’s safe.”
“I want people to look at your phone and that battery icon. I want you to visualize that your battery is charged by the energy we consume in society, and imagine that as a representation of your battery. We only get 0.4% of our energy from solar and 1.7% of our energy from wind, so if you’re looking at that battery, it would be only 2.1% charged if we’re only using wind and solar,” he says.
According to Orr, the country’s energy supply is comprised of about 35% oil and 28% gas. 51% of our oil and 67% of our natural gas come from fracking. For Orr, it’s not a question of fossil fuels vs. renewables, but of importing energy or producing it here.
“We have better environmental protections here, and with fracking we can put people back to work and be less reliant on other countries,” he says.
Is fracking truly safe? Scientific studies suggesting the contrary didn’t much phase Orr. It’s clear he’s done his research, and whether or not you can accept his answers, one of his main goals is for you to do more research too.
Citing a study published in 2013 in Geophysical Research Letters by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Earth System Research Laboratory and the University of California, Davis, who took air samples and estimated about 4% of methane could be leaking into the atmosphere around some fracking sites, I asked Orr about methane leaks.
“There’s never a situation where there’s a 100% capture rate, but whenever people talk about methane numbers, a lot of it is guesswork. Flyover tests use ethane as a proxy, because it’s easier to detect with an infrared camera. Scientists can try to determine how much ethane is in the atmosphere and then use a conversion to guess the methane. The problem is that in some places like North Dakota, there’s a high amount of ethane and a low amount of methane,” Orr says. “This is such a complex topic and everyone wants an easy answer but there isn’t one.”
What about earthquakes? In 2014 scientists from institutions in the Czech Republic and the UK published a paper also in Geophysical Research Letters connecting seismicity to the interaction between fracking and a fault. Orr cited another instance in Canada, where fracking was also connected to earthquakes (although he also said the area was already “very seismically active”). On the whole, he said any earthquakes that do result are from wastewater disposal, not fracking itself.
“It’s an important distinction because we can modify wastewater disposal practices to limit or prevent earthquakes. In the United States, any earthquakes are probably about 98% due to wastewater disposal and maybe 2% from fracking. Most earthquakes caused by fracking are a one or a two on the scale, and aren’t really strong enough to be felt on the surface. You might have threes or a 3.5, but you would feel about the same vibration as a heavy truck driving by. They’re nuisances but most likely they aren’t going to cause any lost property value. I like to tell people we are getting better and better at extracting resources from the ground with less of an impact on the environment. Fracking is only maybe 10 years old, and we are continually improving practices so these issues will go away.”
In terms of wastewater disposal, Orr admits accidents happen.
“There have been cases where trucks hauling wastewater have gone off the road and there’s been leaks,” he says. “A lot of states require them to report spills and take remedial action. There are frameworks in place to mitigate damage but yeah, it’s an industrial process and we’re all human and we make mistakes. It’s all about trying to mitigate those mistakes.”
What about contaminated groundwater? Orr cited a recent EPA study that found “no evidence of widespread and systemic impacts on drinking water.” While the study isn’t perfect – and Orr noted some wanted more discussion of case studies in Wyoming and Pennsylvania, he said, “They stand by their conclusions and that’s good enough for me.”
While natural gas resources could only last 100 to 150 years, Orr pointed out how far we’ve come in the past 150 years.
“150 years ago we were still using horses. In the next 150 years we can only imagine how far technology will progress,” he said. “They may have renewable energy down by then, or they may be doing something we can’t even conceive. In a worst case scenario, we could start burning coal again — there’s a lot of coal.”
There are more scientific studies out there talking about both the dangers and safety of fracking. As Orr said, it’s a complex issue. He described his current job as a translator; he said he scrutinizes scientific articles and then explains them in a way that’s relevant.
“One of my goals is that people will be more aware of the process and more appreciative of how that process gets them the items they want,” he says. “Everything you have is essentially a petroleum product or has some petroleum in it. I want people to be better informed and make informed decisions.”
To get that information, Orr joked people should look “anywhere but Gasland.” He suggested a video from Stanford geologists, the recent EPA study, and of course the Heartland Institute’s resources on fracking.
“It has all the work I’ve done on fracking. I’ve done a lot of research into every component, and the Heartland Institute has spent a lot of money trying to be a good resource for fracking,” he says. “We’ve assembled scientific documents in a place where people can easily access them and try to hit as many of the issues as possible.”
Follow Isaac on Twitter! @TheFrackingGuy