THEGREENGROK

Drilling and Fracking and the Environment


by Bill Chameides | May 17th, 2013
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 8 comments
A rig in Arkansas where the technique of fracking is used in the drilling operations. Duke and USGS researchers found no evidence of groundwater contamination from shale gas production in Arkansas. (Timothy Kresse, USGS)
Water storage pond near fracking operations in Arkansas. (Timothy Kresse, USGS)

Water contamination depends on the local geology.

Initial Fracking Study Found Contamination

Back in May 2011 my Duke colleagues Avner Vengosh and Rob Jackson and other co-authors published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that caused a fracking firestorm or at least a media fracking-firestorm.

The authors found evidence for methane contamination in residential drinking water wells in Pennsylvania and New York overlying the Marcellus shale formation. The contamination correlated strongly with proximity to drilling sites that used the controversial technique of horizontal drilling and hyrdrofracturing (or fracking), and isotopic data linked the contamination to shale gas — a link possibly due to direct communication of the gas from the deep shale but more likely due to faulty well casings that allowed gas to leak from the well into nearby local aquifers.

(The possibility that faulty well casings and/or drilling practices may be a determining factor in causing drinking water contamination would appear to question the wisdom of the administration’s newly released rules for drilling on public lands, which only require testing a single well in an area.)

Water storage pond near fracking operations in Arkansas. (Timothy Kresse, USGS)

Study Questioned by Industry et al. but Confirmed by Other Studies

The May 2011 paper was met with derision and worse from the gas industry.

Despite the fact that the Duke paper reported no evidence of any water contamination from the fracking fluids — a major issue for those who oppose fracking and a finding that the frackers would presumably champion — the industry panned the work as “poor science” and accused the authors of having a political, anti-fossil fuel agenda that colored and biased their results.

To wit: “Once again, what you have here is a paper that draws pretty firm conclusions without much data at all to back any of them up,” Energy In Depth, a coalition of energy producers, said in a statement. The industry group America’s Natural Gas Alliance criticized the study for lacking “key data that would be needed to validate its conclusions.” (Read more here, here and here.)

Well, despite the barbs from the industry, the Duke team has continued their work, collecting samples around the country where fracking is occurring. And, lo and behold, what do you know, additional data from the Marcellus has largely confirmed the earlier findings reported in the 2011 paper. (See here and here.)

New Study Finds No Contamination in Formation Studied

This week that same Duke team, in collaboration with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, published a paper in the Journal of Applied Geochemistry on results of a study similar in design to that used for the 2011 study for the Marcellus shale but in this case looking at drinking water wells in Arkansas near fracking sites overlying the Fayetteville shale formation. The lead author of this new paper was Nathaniel Warner.

Sampling Operations in Arkansas - researchers taking samples

Researchers from Duke ans USGS take samples at fracking sites overlying the Fayetteville shale formation. (Timothy Kresse, USGS)

On the basis of 127 samples, the authors concluded that there was “no discernible impairment of groundwater quality in areas associated with natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in this region.” Lead author Warner says that “[t]hese findings demonstrate that shale gas development, at least in this area, has been done without negatively impacting drinking water resources.”

Water Contamination Depends on Local Geology

Does this mean that the authors are retracting their results from the Marcellus shale? Of course not. Here’s how Avner Vengosh explains the contrasting results:

“The hydrogeology of Arkansas’s Fayetteville Shale basin is very different from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale … variations in local and regional geology play major roles in determining the possible risk of groundwater impacts from shale gas development.  As such, they must be taken into consideration before drilling begins.”

So this latest paper leads me to wonder: what is the agenda of these guys anyway? Clearly not anti-fossil fuels given the Arkansas results, and no way pro-fossil fuels given the Pennsylvania result. Could it be that their agenda is scientific, and they report what they find regardless of who’s agenda is helped or hindered?

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8 Comments

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  1. Kenny Glenn
    May 30, 2013

    My main issue with fracking would be the control of quality procedures to insure ( without no letup) that no shortcuts are ever taken in controlling the chemicals or the methane release. As we well understand anything that is produced by man is also subject to mans mistakes. The earth and water is way more important and valuable than a few years of energy. We can sustain life without fossil fuels but we cannot without clean water. Kenny Glenn

  2. Trevor H
    May 20, 2013

    I think your reporting demonstrates that the real risk to landowners around oil and gas operations is just drilling, fracking is really a red herring. The risks of fracking are primarily in transporting the chemicals to the well site and proper storage and disposal of waste.

    The methane contamination has nothing to do with fracking as you noted. It’s caused by flaws in well integrity and is a risk in any well whether the well is fracked or not. The Keystone pipeline risks are similar in nature. Asset integrity is not the sexy part of oil and gas like exploration and drilling, so it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves by the industry (in which I work by the way).

    And normal human psychology about risk works against us also when it comes to proper investment in asset integrity. We like to chase gains more than avoid losses. Asset integrity doesn’t seem to make the company any money, even successful asset integrity feels just like a cost even though the actual loss prevention maybe worth millions or billions. Maybe if oil and gas operators were forced to escrow a million dollars per 25 wells that is dribbled back to them each year they go by without an incident the psychology around asset integrity would change.

  3. Dennis Xander
    May 20, 2013

    It’s hard to believe anything you say when you display a photo of a drilling rig and call it a “fracking rig”. Clearly, drilling and fracking are two very different things, and you obviously do not know the difference.

    You also fail to mention the findings of Penn State, commissioned and funded by the PA legislature.

    Clearly, you do have an agenda. But with a name like “Green Grok”, I would expect no less.

    • Bill Chameides
      Bill Chameides
      May 20, 2013

      Dennis – My bad. I was a little sloppy in the caption. I changed it to “A rig in Arkansas where the technique of fracking is used in the drilling operations.”

      • Dennis Xander
        May 20, 2013

        Sorry, but you are digging yourself a deeper hole. You clearly do not understand the process. “Fracking” is NOT a part of “drilling operations”. A drilling rig is not on the well when it is being fractured. If you are going to opine on oil and gas operations, I would adjure you to learn about how wells are drilled, cased and cemented, as well as how they are fractured. It is obvious from your comments that you know nothing about this, and that you are not qualified to render an opinion. If you understood the process, you would know that it is physically impossible for fracturing to impact surface water (absent surface spills). Feel free to contact me privately for a more detailed explanation.

        • Tod - Water Wells
          May 30, 2013

          Nice choice of words Dennis. Must be nice to be on the side that bashes for once instead of gets bashed. I disagree with you on it being “impossible” for water to be affected though. But hey not everyone can be right, including you. Check your sources.

        • Bill Chameides
          Bill Chameides
          Aug 16, 2013

          Dennis: You may be correct semantically but wrong essentially. The process of fracking involves sending probes down into the earth and fracturing the rock. You can say that’s not “drilling” but you would be putting a rather fine point on a tangential issue.

          Next you seem to be implying that I stated that fracturing had an impact of surface water. In fact this is what I wrote: “The authors found evidence for methane contamination in residential drinking water wells in Pennsylvania and New York overlying the Marcellus shale formation. The contamination correlated strongly with proximity to drilling sites that used the controversial technique of horizontal drilling and hyrdrofracturing (or fracking), and isotopic data linked the contamination to shale gas — a link possibly due to direct communication of the gas from the deep shale but more likely due to faulty well casings that allowed gas to leak from the well into nearby local aquifers.”

          And thank you very much, but I have spent some time at an actual drilling/fracking site learning about “how wells are drilled, cased and cemented, as well as how they are fractured.” And if you knew your geology, you would realize that is in fact possible (although not likely) for fracturing to impact surface water. http://es.slideshare.net/MarcellusDN/duke-university-study-on-potential-for-fracking-fluid-to-migrate-into-groundwater

  4. Michael Berndtson
    May 18, 2013

    Well sampling seems to have been done in 2011 for this work. Here’s the USGS paper from its website:
    http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2012/5273/sir2012-5273.pdf

    Equally as interesting is a review of shale gas production in the Fayetteville from Oil and Gas Journal:
    http://www.ogj.com/articles/print/vol-110/issue-5/exploration-development/well-production-profiles-to.html

    A lot more gas wells have been drilled since the study. The single water sampling event didn’t cover much of the gas production area. I wouldn’t have made the declaration USGS and Duke made about shale gas and groundwater (i.e. no impact). Especially after the Pegasus Pipeline spill and recently recorded shale gas operation impacts to both air and groundwater in and around central Arkansas.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Full-text of USGS-Duke Paper Finding No Groundwater Damage from Fracking in the Arkansas River | RFF Library Blog - [...] [Duke University Nicholas School Green Grok blog] …This week that same Duke team, in collaboration with scientists from the …
  2. Fracking, like politics, is local . . . - [...] Permalink | 0 comments A fracking rig in Arkansas. Duke and USGS researchers found no evidence of groundwater …

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