Claim: Study links Marcellus fracking with drinking water contamination

“The methane, ethane and propane data, and new evidence from hydrocarbon and helium isotopes, all suggest that drilling has affected some homeowners’ water.”

The media release is below.

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Stray gases found in water wells near shale gas sites

DURHAM, NC — Homeowners living within one kilometer of shale gas wells appear to be at higher risk of having their drinking water contaminated by stray gases, according to a new Duke University-led study.

Duke scientists analyzed 141 drinking water samples from private water wells across northeastern Pennsylvania’s gas-rich Marcellus shale basin. Their study documented not only higher methane concentrations in drinking water within a kilometer of shale gas drilling — which past studies have shown — but higher ethane and propane concentrations as well.

Methane concentrations were six times higher and ethane concentrations were 23 times higher at homes within a kilometer of a shale gas well. Propane was detected in 10 samples, all of them from homes within a kilometer of drilling.

“The methane, ethane and propane data, and new evidence from hydrocarbon and helium isotopes, all suggest that drilling has affected some homeowners’ water,” said Robert B. Jackson, a professor of environmental sciences at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “In a minority of cases, the gas even looks Marcellus-like, probably caused by faulty well construction.”

The ethane and propane contamination data are “new and hard to refute,” Jackson stressed. “There is no biological source of ethane and propane in the region and Marcellus gas is high in both, and higher in concentration than the Upper Devonian gas found in-between.”

The team examined which factors might explain their results, including topography, distance to gas wells and distance to geologic features. “Distance to gas wells was, by far, the most significant factor influencing gases in the drinking water we sampled,” said Jackson.

The peer-reviewed findings will appear this week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Hydraulic fracturing, also called hydrofracking or fracking, involves pumping water, sand and chemicals deep underground into horizontal gas wells at high pressure to crack open hydrocarbon-rich shale and extract natural gas. Accelerated shale gas drilling and hydrofracking in recent years has fueled concerns about contamination in nearby drinking water supplies.

Two previous peer-reviewed studies by Duke scientists found direct evidence of methane contamination in water wells near shale-gas drilling sites in northeastern Pennsylvania, as well as possible connectivity between deep brines and shallow aquifers. A third study conducted with U.S. Geological Survey scientists found no evidence of drinking water contamination from shale gas production in Arkansas. None of the studies have found evidence of contamination by fracking fluids.

“Our studies demonstrate that distances from drilling sites, as well as variations in local and regional geology, play major roles in determining the possible risk of groundwater impacts from shale gas development,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School. “As such, they must be taken into consideration before drilling begins.”

“The helium data in this study are the first from a new tool kit we’ve devised for identifying contamination using noble gas isotopes,” said Duke research scientist Thomas H. Darrah. “These tools allow us to identify and trace contaminants with a high degree of certainty.”

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33 thoughts on “Claim: Study links Marcellus fracking with drinking water contamination”

  1. I would have to agree about the usage of water when it comes to this kind of drilling. As stated above, water is a precious resource and while it’s used for many, many things and in some is required to be used, we still have to look at how much for what purpose. With the overall amount of damage I see to wells, especially in those for drinking, it’s not worth the damage to the community. Find area that won’t harm the environment/community somehow, the way is there, we just haven’t found the right path to get there.

  2. What I find really strange is that water is used in conventional drilling, too. Are you opposed to all drilling?

  3. Ben, thanks for your points. I am aware they are different issues, but we need to be mindful of how we use and spend water in all cases. I am asking a very basis question about the use of water before it is deployed. We can argue points all we want, but frackers and farmers are fighting over water now. My concern is we need to understand the issue before we wind up with precious little water. This is not an inconsequential concern. On one hand, people are saying show me the analysis of the toxicity of fracking. On the other hand, we say don’t analyze the use of water. This issue is too important, and when people want to rush into it, to be frank, it gives me pause. We have a Senator here in NC who wants to rush into everything – he is a ready, fire, aim person on any issue. He is trying to jam fracking down everyone throats without proper study. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and are asking a committee to develop as safe a means possible learning lessons from other states. By the way, no one has answered my Cheney question. Thanks again for the comments. I do appreciate your position and information. This is a complex issue. All the best, BTG

  4. Silt runoff is an erosion control problem. This is why we have building permits, discharge permits, and erosion control programs. It’s a completely different department of the enforcement agencies. Agreed, it’s a problem, but completely unrelated to the topic at hand.

    From my tagline, you know my state. Drought is a constant struggle, and water rights are extremely important. Perhaps you could encourage something akin to our watermaster programs.

  5. BTG, you’re thinking in the wrong scales. Water is measured in acre-feet for a reason. Even small, neighborhood duck-ponds have 3-5 Mgal of water, and an inch of rain on a square mile of land is 19 Mgal. Industrial plants can easily use several million gallons a day. In comparison, a one-time use of a few million gallons (Chesapeake says 5MGal per well. I can’t find an agency claim) is nothing. Plus, water is an infinitely reusable resource. It isn’t like an injection well, the vast majority of the water is recovered. After proper waste treatment, the water goes right back in the river or evaporates right up into the sky.

  6. Actually, I am asking that the question should be understood and debated. This question is not usually even discussed in the debate until the newspapers report on the water fights later. Since you use Gamecock, I am assuming you have some ties to SC and may live there. One of the key water concerns for SC is the flow of the Catawba River from NC. Right now, SC gets a lot of the silt run off from houses built along the river upstream. This is the kind of stuff that needs to be discussed openly. My thesis is we need to discuss it before the deployment of water, not after. NC had a severe drought two summers ago and I would wager SC had an issue, as well. Fracking will impact water usage, so that should be a factor in decision-making. Thanks for your comment, BTG

  7. “First, since fracking does take so much water at 2 to 6 million gallons per frack, with 10 – 12 fracks per well. With 1,000 fracking wells in a region that is 20 billion to 72 billion gallons of water. Water is a dear resource. So, what I do not get a good answer to from people making decisions to allow fracking – is this best place to use our water?”

    6 million gallons per frack !!! OH, MY !!! What if it were 6 billion gallons per frack ?!?!

    Frackers get local water use permits. You substitute your judgement for the local people’s judgement.

  8. Thanks Jim for your response. Per Bill, I realize I only have opinions, but I still struggle with two things about fracking. First, since fracking does take so much water at 2 to 6 million gallons per frack, with 10 – 12 fracks per well. With 1,000 fracking wells in a region that is 20 billion to 72 billion gallons of water. Water is a dear resource. So, what I do not get a good answer to from people making decisions to allow fracking – is this best place to use our water? Farmers and frackers are fighting over water now and did so last summer. Second, help me understand if fracking were so safe, why did VP Dick Cheney, former President of Halliburton, find the need to place in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 words to exempt frackers from the clean air and safe water drinking acts? This puzzles me. I have enjoyed the banter. Many thanks, BTG

  9. Many claims, i.e. your opinions, without any substantiation; that is why I left the Democrats (or they left me) and became a conservative. I actually like and trust companies more than the government since if they produce a product that no one wants they go out of business whereas the government just keeps rolling along, with bribes and graft and bullying bureaucrats.

  10. BTG, I don’t think anyone thinks fracking is a “saint”. All industrial technologies have trade offs, both good and bad. Still, I’ll settle for REALISTIC, science based regulation and oversight, something the states have been pretty good at to date. The biases already shown by EPA and it’s sue happy envirobrethren promise none of that.

  11. Ben, thanks for your response. Fracking may not be the villain it is being portrayed as, but it certainly is not a saint either. I would note it is the industry that has the attractive spokesperson who goes on the TV commercial to say how safe and secure fracking is. It is not, as nothing is. Water finds a way to get in places you do not want it. The fracking engineers who go on record say, there is no way to harvest all the gases released. The industry funded University of Texas study shows there are concerns. We need more transparent information about what is going on. My big question is this where we want to spend our dear water? Read Steven Solomon’s book on “Water.” It is the best history book I have ever read, but also looks forward with concern. That has to be factored in. Thanks for your comments. I appreciate greatly the give and take. BTG

  12. BTG, you are ignoring the other side. There is a LOT of money tied into the environmental movement. Billions upon billions. This isn’t David versus Goliath. It’s Titans versus Giants. And one side has a whole lot more political good will while the other is hobbled by restrictions, regulations, accusations of buying politicians when the slightest thing goes their way, and the fiduciary duty to stockholders.

    There have been study after study attempting to frame fracking as a villain and they have all failed to prove that the surface gas in the wells was caused by drilling. The EPA’s attempts to take over regulation from the state were thrown out of court because their demands were unsubstantiated. Surface gas and deep gas are easily distinguishable chemically (they are as different as llamas and alpacas, similar, but with clear distinguishing features). In response to such a simplistic analysis, which as has been mentioned, is functionally identical to several others that have been tried and failed to provide any such evidence, and from the press release, fails to understand the difference between the types of natural gas. THE PROPER RESPONSE IS SCORN AND RIDICULE. Just as we would deride any further study trying to prove criminal psychics, the 9-11 conspiracy, or the moon-hoaxers.

  13. Here’s one book that I would suggest. Little House on the Prairie. Specifically, the chapter titled “Digging a Well”. More specifically when Pa hits a gas pocket while digging a well in the same general region as the Marcellus shale development. Now, please tell me that Mrs. Wilder was a puppet of the non-existent oil industry.
    The area is saturated with natural gas. You have surface gas, which is generally too diffuse to harvest, and deep gas, which can be recovered with fracking. The difference between the two is quite objective as the shallow gas is biogenic (bacteria gas) and the deep gas is thermogenic (lava gas). Simple analysis can determine what sort of gas this is and whether it matches shallow gas deposits or deep gas deposits. Every analysis that I have seen has shown water in wells to be shallow gas deposits. In that case, it’s their own dang fault. You should know the geology and history before drilling a well. The distance to a well could be coincidence, or it could be due to water table depletion (which increases draw from surface deposits due to pressure drop) or it could be due to some unrelated factor. As has been mentioned, you drill where there is gas, so finding gas where you drill is tautological.
    At the very least, I’m waiting for the paper, but from the abstract, I’m not impressed. Finally, please note that this is being published in the PNAS, not a drilling or oil development journal. The PNAS is known for waving through politically approved papers past peer review without regard for scientific rigor.

  14. Groundwater is specified to distinguish it from surface water (rivers and lakes). The term refers strictly to water accessible by well.

  15. Boy, you folks get wound up. I am having a very hard time with some of your arguments: money comes from governments, not big industry, millions will die from trying to make sure industry does not poison the environment. All I know is our fossil fuel friends spend a large sum of money investing in politicians as they want to perpepetuate their profit margin. I am all for the pursuit of profit, but we need to be mindful of what we are doing to people and our environment. Note, we did not even have the EPA until Nixon made it effective in 1971. And, that was after our friend Rachel Carson raised issues that were unknown or hidden in “Silent Spring” and after the river in Cleveland caught fire. I am an independent, former Republican voter, who is fiscally conservative, yet socially progressive. You will appreciate that one of the reasons I left the GOP (actually it left me) was its stance on global warming. That was in 2006 about the same time Newt did his commercial with Nancy saying he was wrong about global warming. Then, of course, when he was running for Prez, he said he was wrong to say he was wrong. Fracking is going to continue to fall apart with better data. Yet, my major concern with fracking is the amount of water it takes, which we can ill-afford. The farmes and frackers are already fighting over water in KS, OK and now CA. This and the other issues give me pause. Sorry to wax on from dissenting opinion position. All the best, BTG

  16. Didn’t fracking begin in the 50’s and in the early days explosives were used. Only when technology advanced to it’s present state and it was apparent that cheap and plentiful energy would be a reality did they start opposition. Remember Holdren and Erhlich both have said that cheap, plentiful and reliable sources of energy were dangerous and economic growth is a disease. It’s difficult to understand the mindsets of people who want to “de-develop the U.S. and put more people into poverty with high energy costs.

  17. I tend not to trust much of what everybody says. But let’s say, somebody really trustworthy says there is methane and other volatile alkanes in my drinking water. So what? Scare me properly. Find aldehydes or thiols in that water. Even if you told me there was H2S (which I would be ready to believe because it is so common in well water), I’d only be displeased but not scared. Your friends didn’t even bother picking credible scares. I can’t imagine anything methane can do to my bladder (assuming for a moment it ever gets there).

    Besides, if you don’t like the idea of drinking methane, just let the water stand for an hour or boil it.

    I myself never drink groundwater, but not because of any trace organics that may be found in it. I don’t like the effects of calcium and silicon turning my tea into a disgusting muck, so I buy distilled water where I can find it. You’re lucky you have WalMart and other cheap sources of well-purified water. Groundwater sucks everywhere, and in many places it is naturally not drinkable.

  18. Here is an interesting note. This PNAS “embargo” released this now, yet a quick search turns up an identical article over two years ago:
    http://today.duke.edu/2011/05/hydrofracking

    Did not the DoI, USGS and EPA come up goose eggs on a way to regulate Shale gas out of existance? Jackson et al. would have been hoisted as a petard.

    PNAS as well? There should have been a number of “journals” that would love this. Something about this is beyond “fishy”.

  19. The big money comes from the governments and not from industry, in spite of what environmentalists would have you believe. One only has to look at the subsidies and tax rebates given to the plethora of nonprofits, renewable energy companies and government funded research.The burden of proof should not be on the defense but rather on the prosecution. Environmentalists are fully aware that it is difficult to prove a negative and so this halts progress, which of course is the usual hypocrisy of those who label themselves Progressives. One should rely on science and not the shoulds and maybes of feel good politics. Also, the usual canard of balancing actual economic benefits with not provable future longitudinal health benefit models must be discontinued.

  20. You might want to read Steingraber before you throw under the bus. She must have something to say as she has testified in front of the UN, European Parliament and Congress. And, her cancer was bladder cancer, which is usually environmentally caused. Her relatives who lived close by also had various cancers including bladder cancer. Key fact, she was adopted. So, if she is biased, she is biased against industry masking what is really happening. Again, I go back to an industry that keeps telling us how safe everything is, when that is not true. I am a business person who is all about ROI. We have to factor in what happens to the environment in this calculus and I do not think that has been effectively done. I would love to see the US do what the European Union does and that is adopt the Precautionary Principle and place the burden of proof of safety on the developer to show that it is not harming people or the environment. I have known many developers in my day and, for the most part, their modus operandi is to get in, make your money, get out and leave the problems for someone else. Fracking is a process that deserves heightened scrutiny, in my humble opinion. I know it does not count for much, but that is what I believe. Thanks for letting me share my thoughts. BTG

  21. Maybe the frackers in Pennsylvania should study the Arkansas drillers to see how it’s done. Or maybe the Duke guys should go to Arkansas to show the USGS how to sample wells and get the results you want. If, as Gene says, methane saturates water at 25 ppm, but the duke study found levels 6 times higher at wells close to frackers than those 1.1 km away, my arithmetic says only 4 ppm in “good” water. All the press release says is that propane was detected in 10 wells, not the actual concentration. So is that 1 ppb, 25 ppm, or what? Whatever answer you get, I’m sure to be scared.

  22. I didn’t get past the first sentence in wikipedia:

    “Sandra Steingraber (born 1959) is an American biologist, author, and cancer survivor in the tradition of Rachel Carson.”

    Unbiased, you say.

  23. Gene, I would tend to be scared when we are dealing with the fracking industry. After trying to read unbiased data and books by people much smarter than me such as Dr. Sandra Steingraber – “Living Downstream” and “Raising Elijah” and Steven Solomon – “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization” both of whom say fracking is very bad news, I tend not to trust much of what the fossil fuel industry says. Their data at best is subjective as they have a vested interest in the outcome. When politcians who have been funded by this industry tell you that everything is safe and secure, I don’t tend to believe them. The fracking story is still being written and the more it is, the worse it is going to get. That and $2.25 will get you a cup of Joe at Starbucks, but don’t buy it in mid-PA. All the best, BTG

  24. Assuming what they claim were true, what exactly do they mean by water “contaminated” with methane? Methane’s solubility in water at room temperature is 25 ppm. What happens if I drink water saturated with methane? I already have at least 100,000 ppm of methane in my intestinal gas. How scared should I be?

  25. Thanks for sharing this. I am not surprised by this result. Water finds a way, it always has. So, no assurances from frackers can prevent the toxic water from leaking into the aquifers or the methane, arsenic and mercury gases from escaping into the air. Fracking engineers are on record as saying from 5% to 17% of the gases escape. Yet, if we set this and the earthquakes from deep underground water disposal that have been proven as causal in AK, OH, OK and the UK (the UK actually placed a moratorium for this reason) and the environmental degradation, the thing that should also give us great pause is the huge amount of water it takes to frack. Farmers and frackers are fighting over water in KS, OK and now CA. And, water is an increasingly dear resource. Best regards, BTG

  26. Or the reason they are drilling close to you is that you have high levels of hydrocarbons in your ground. This seems like a chicken and egg scenario

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