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Fracking not as safe as industry claims

Image courtesy of Gasland the movie. Click here to see the Gasland website.

 

By Steve Jones

ON MAY 9, A STUDY CONDUCTED BY FOUR SCIENTISTS FROM DUKE UNIVERSITY determined that natural gas, found in residents’ drinking water wells in New York and Pennsylvania, was probably coming from shale gas drilling operations located close to the contaminated wells.

This finding will come as no surprise to some residents in the Pavillion area of Wyoming, who have been suffering from methane gas and other toxic oddities showing up in their wells for the last 8 to 10 years.

Some of these residents, such as Louis Meeks, had clean, fresh water for decades until developers began fracking near the domestic wells. The correlation seems rather obvious.

But following the release of the Duke University study, industry representatives mounted a campaign to discredit its findings.

This campaign, it turns out, had a central and disquieting irony, as described in this excerpted report from ProPublica:

For years the natural gas drilling industry has decried the lack of data that could prove—or disprove—that drilling can cause drinking water contamination. Only baseline data, they said, could show without a doubt that water was clean before drilling began.

The absence of baseline data was one of the most serious criticisms leveled at a group of Duke researchers last week when they published the first peer-reviewed study linking drilling to methane contamination in water supplies.

That study—which found that methane concentrations in drinking water increased dramatically with proximity to gas wells—contained “no baseline information whatsoever,” wrote Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the industry group Energy in Depth, in a statement debunking the study.

Now it turns out that some of that data does exist. It just wasn’t available to the Duke researchers, or to the public.

Ever since high-profile water contamination cases were linked to drilling in Dimock, Pa. in late 2008, drilling companies themselves have been diligently collecting water samples from private wells before they drill, according to several industry consultants who have been working with the data.

While Pennsylvania regulations now suggest pre-testing water wells within 1,000 feet of a planned gas well, companies including Chesapeake Energy, Shell and Atlas have been compiling samples from a much larger radius—up to 4,000 feet from every well. The result is one of the largest collections of pre-drilling water samples in the country.

“The industry is sitting on hundreds of thousands of pre and post drilling data sets,” said Robert Jackson, one of the Duke scientists who authored the study, published May 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jackson relied on 68 samples for his study. “I asked them for the data and they wouldn’t share it.”

Why would industry representatives criticize a study for not analyzing baseline information, when it is the industry that has that information but refuses to divulge it? Either the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, or they just simply hoped no one would notice the hypocritical inconsistency.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council has co-sponsored showings of the documentary Gasland in Laramie and Cheyenne (with more to come soon in Jackson, Bondurant, Cody, and Powell). The movie illustrates this problem in dramatic fashion, showing, for example, rural residents who can light their faucets on fire as a result of the methane gas in their home water supply systems.

One criticism of the movie—some industry promoters argued—was that there was no proof that the methane found in the water supplies was coming from the natural gas drilling that was going on nearby.

Another possible source, it was argued, could have been from the biogenic production of gas, such as that generated by manure or compost piles.

But this groundbreaking Duke study tested for such a possibility. It found that residents’ water wells with high concentrations of methane close to drilling activities had thermogenic gas—the type of gas recovered in natural gas drilling.

The proximity of the water wells to gas drilling operations, with these high levels of methane, was also, in the view of the researchers, a clear indication that the methane in the water wells was a consequence of the natural gas drilling operations.

The study noted three likely avenues for the contamination to reach the wells: (1) “. . . the substances could be displaced by the pressures underground,” (2) they “could travel through new fractures or connections to faults created by the hydraulic fracturing process,” or (3) they “could leak from the well casing itself somewhere closer to the surface.”

In a very basic sense, the act of hydraulic fracturing changes the situation underground. It creates new cracks and fissures so the gas can escape–which is, of course, the whole point.

But this study, and the experience of several families in Pavillion, seems to strongly suggest that the results are not as predictable or as controlled as industry spokespeople would like us to believe.

Another possible route for contamination that perhaps should have been mentioned in the study are abandoned drill holes and bore holes that can serve as conduits for contamination from deep in the ground, if such holes are not properly cemented and plugged.

Notably, the study did not test for the presence of hydraulic fracturing fluids used in the fracking process. Considering what the U.S. Department of Health’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has documented in Pavillion—where the wells of 11 homes have been found to have chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing—this should be considered an oversight of the Duke study.

The researchers expressed some doubt about whether hydraulic fracturing chemicals were likely to be found in the water wells—even if they had been tested—since radium and other suspected indicators of hydraulic fracturing fluids were not found. But this, in my mind, is a rather poor assumption, since one of the obvious sources of hydraulic fracturing fluids in domestic water wells must be cracked or leaking well casings at or near the surface, which also would not carry radium or other “deep fluid” indicators.

In fact, one of the most likely scenarios for water contamination by fracking chemicals would be a spill or spills at or near the surface that would work their way into the groundwater.

It must be hoped that another ongoing fracking study, this one being conducted by the EPA, will fill this gap in knowledge. This study, which the agency initiated in 2010, will include the Laramie County area of Wyoming, where oil and gas production is just taking off on the Niobrara Shale play.

But considering the politics of this issue, it may not play out well. Just recently, Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, who was holding hearings in his Science and Technology Committee, attacked the EPA and its fracking study, claiming, “objectivity is not EPA’s strong suit.” He also noted he was hearing complaints that the EPA’s fracking study was “far too broad.”

Let’s hope, for the sake of people’s health, that partisan politics doesn’t derail this important project.

Steve Jones, the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s watershed protection program attorney, can be contacted at steve@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org or 307-332-7031 x12.

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