Drillers can now reach the country’s vast reserves of unconventional gas, it’s a potential game changer for the United States. With every process, there is always a risk involved. How can we thoroughly look at every risk involved while making an educated decision?
A scientific study has recently linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination. Along with the accusation of water being contaminated is the recent discovery that water from some water faucets can also be set on fire. Yes, you read that correctly, some water can actually be set on fire due to the contamination of the water.
The study, which is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, plays a significant role in answering the question, “Is drilling really safe?” Lawmakers and the public are currently unclear on whether drilling is safe and the current study begins to fill some gaps on whether drilling is safe.
All research was conducted by four scientists at Duke University. These scientists found that levels of flammable methane gas in drinking water wells increased to very dangerous levels when those water supplies were close or nearby to natural gas wells. The gas detected at high levels in the water was the same type of gas that energy companies were extracting from the ground. This fact alone, implies that the gas may be seeping underground through natural or manmade fractures.
The results of various testing shows evidence for methane contamination of drinking water systems and suggest important environmental risks accompanying shale gas exploration worldwide. 68 drinking wells were tested in the northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York. 60 of the wells were tested for dissolved gas and while most wells had methane, the water samples taken closest to the gas wells had 17 times more the gas level. This is said to be from drilling. Testing also defined an active drilling area as being one tenth of a mile from a gas well.
The study did not find evidence that the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing had contaminated any of the wells. However, it was clear that a danger is present since pathways do exist for contaminants to migrate within the earth..
Methane contamination of drinking water wells has been ongoing issue – especially amongst people who live in drilling areas. In 2004, an accident involving methane contamination took place in Pennsylvania which killed three people. In Dimock, PA, some residents’ water wells exploded or their water could be lit on fire.
While this appears to be a big danger to residents, the drilling industry and some state regulators described some of these cases as “unconnected” to drilling activity or classified them as “isolated problems.”
Methane is not believed to be harmful to drink, but methane is dangerous because as it collects in enclosed spaces, it can asphyxiate people nearby or lead to an explosion. To determine where the methane in the wells they tested came from, the researchers ran it through a molecular fingerprinting process called an isotopic analysis. Samples taken closer to drilling had high concentrations of thermogenic methane, while samples taken further from the wells contained a type of methane that can naturally appear in water from biological decay.
Other types of gas were also detected, providing further evidence that the chemicals were unique to the drilling sites. Propane and butane were also detected in some drilling area wells.
The group tested for salts, radium and other chemicals that, if detected, would have signaled and produced water or natural fluids in the well’s target zone were making it to the aquifers. But, those types of fluids were not found.
In an interview, Jackson said that gas was more likely to migrate underground than liquid chemicals. Based on his findings, he doesn’t believe the toxic chemicals pumped into the ground during fracturing are likely to end up in water supplies the same way the methane did. “I’m not ready to use the word impossible,” he said, “but unlikely.”
“It’s possible, assuming their measurements are accurate, that all they have done is document the natural conditions of the aquifer,” said John Conrad, president of Conrad Geosciences. He also stated that thermogenic methane could be occurring naturally. Conrad is stating that the researchers didn’t test enough wells to support their conclusion – though he couldn’t say how many wells would have been appropriate to test. Conrad said the most likely cause for the contamination identified by the Duke researchers—that the gas was leaking out of faulty well casings—seemed impossible.
“For their assumptions to hold up there would have to be more than just the occasional bad cement job,” he said. “They are implying that where you see hydraulic fracturing you should expect to see elevated methane. We are aware of faulty cement jobs. But we don’t believe that it is common and we certainly don’t believe that it is universal.”
The release of the Duke research has added a heated debate over drilling and hydraulic fracking – especially in areas where the research has taken place. This study is providing eye opening scientific evidence about methane contamination and the risks drilling poses on the water and water contamination.