Duke Study Confirms Industry Claims: Fracking Fluid Doesn’t Contaminate Fresh Water Aquifers

In spite of what you may have read elsewhere, the most compelling finding of the Duke Natural Gas and Water Study is not that shallow drinking water systems within 1000 meters of active natural gas drilling had methane levels 17 times higher than fresh water aquifers further away from active drilling sites.  It is not that these levels are considered dangerous and can allow for explosive levels of gas to build up in enclosed spaces. It is not even that the authors of the study aren’t calling for banning the practice, but instead see a need for better stewardship of the industry “to ensure the sustainable future of shale gas extraction and to improve public confidence in its use.”

Methane contamination has long been acknowledged by the industry and the Pennsylvania DEP who have “documented cases of gas migration from Marcellus wells around Dimock in Susquehanna county and in Bradford county.”

Duke also finds that the gas migrating is thermogenic and is not biogenic gas or gas that is encountered when a water well itself is sunk. This too is consistent with DEP conclusions.

DEP furthermore fond that the gas that was migrating in the Dimock areo was Devonian gas located at about 1,000 to 3,000 feet. Devonian gas is above the Marcellus gas. DEP concluded that the Devonian gas had not been isolated as a result of poor drilling practices.

Bradford and Susquehanna counties have had many more gas migration problems than counties in the Southwest Pennsylvania. Had Duke done this study in Washington, Greene and counties in the Southwest it would have reached different conclusions. The reasons for the geographic difference in the incidence or rate of gas migration include geological differences in the counties, quality of the gas drilling in the respective areas, or some of both.

Authors of the Duke Study, Rob Jackson and Avner Vengosh wrote an opinion piece published in the Philadelphia Inquirer today entitled, “Strong Evidence That Shale Drilling is Risky.” This I knew, as does any responsible person who would consider hydraulic fracturing as a source of both income and energy independence. The question that must be asked is, “Do the ends justify the means?” The authors of the Duke Study seem to think they do:

Environmental scientists often have the unpleasant task of exposing the drawbacks of different technologies, and this study shows one downside of fracking. But other energy resources have drawbacks, too, and in some cases they’re big ones.

Over the past two years alone, deepwater oil drilling led to a catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico; an earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster in Japan; and a flood of coal sludge inundated homes and spilled into a river in Kingston, Tenn.

Given such incidents, the conclusion we take away from our study is that the United States needs to focus on developing alternative, renewable energy resources that are greener and safer.

We’ll likely be using shale gas for some time, and the problems we’ve highlighted can probably be solved. It would be inaccurate and unfair to say our study proves that fracking should be banned.

John Hanger, a self described expert (for good reason) on energy, environment, and the green economy has served as the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Commissioner of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission who writes at his blog, Facts of the Day,adds this to the methane controversy:

In the case of 19 water wells contaminated by methane from drilling around Dimock, 14 of the 19 had methane removed by December 2010.   DEP required the drilling company to plug and repair gas wells that reduced the gas migration. At some water wells there were measurable declines in methane contamination shortly after gas wells were repaired or plugged.

Furthermore a settlement in December 2010 between DEP and the drilling company required payments to the families near Dimock where gas had contaminated their water wells that averaged $200,000.

DEP also proposed new gas drilling rules in 2009 that became final in February 2011.  The new rules raise standards for the design, construction, and operation of gas wells to reduce gas migration pollution.

Gas migration has been a problem in Pennsylvania for decades, well before the first Marcellus well was drilled in 2005. The new, strong rules and the attention to this problem make this the time to reduce it sharply.

If I may add, the methane issue is fixable thanks to good old American ingenuity!

Living in upstate New York I have had to endure being lectured to by my environmental betters that hydraulic fracturing will result in fresh water aquifer contamination by the fracking fluid. For months I have heard that these fluids will permanently contaminate our fresh water sources. The Duke Study found no evidence what-so-ever to support this contention. This argument is the narrative upon which the hydrofracking fallacy has been hoisted. The Duke Study goes a long way to disrupt the narrative.

So when you read flashy headlines like this one at Green Car Congress, or this one at USA Today, or even this at the Huffington Post, or when your local environmentalist tells you that natural gas drilling causes methane contamination of fresh water supplies, just keep in mind that the basis of the whole argument has been sunk and understand the true motivation, using safety concerns to hamstring an entire industry.

South of 5 and 20 draws my attention to an article at Investor’s Business Daily that argues that the Obama administration seeks use the idea of safety as it pertains to hydraulic fracturing in the same way it was used in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and spill. That is to shut it down.

The safety mantra was raised once again last Thursday when Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the appointment of a seven-member panel to study hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking,” and come up with new safety standards that address concerns raised by environmentalists.

Environmentalists contend these chemical additives contaminate ground water supplies.

“America’s vast natural gas resources can generate many new jobs and provide significant environmental benefits,” Chu said. “But we need to ensure we harness these resources safely.” It was a similar “but” that led the Obama administration to impose a seven-year ban on offshore drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, off both coasts and in the energy-rich Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska.

We believe the safety issue is a cover for the Obama administration’s ideologically driven animus toward fossil fuels and its deliberate campaign to raise energy prices — and thereby to make its favored “green” alternatives look more competitive and attractive.

Yeah, that’s what I think too!

Cross posted at Pundit Press