Duke research: fracking not to blame for groundwater contamination

A favorite gimmick of the anti-fracking movement is to post a video of someone setting fire to the water coming out of a faucet. The sweeping conclusion is that hydraulic fracturing releases natural gas and/or methane into water aquifers, which ends up in water wells.

But new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences debunks the thesis of that claim.  Researchers at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment found that the process of forcing water and chemicals into gas-laden shale deposits thousands of feet below the surface does not cause groundwater contamination.

“(The) gas data appear to rule out gas contamination by upward migration from depth through overlying geological strata triggered by horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing,” the researchers conclude in their abstract.

This finding should help mitigate the worst fears of environmentalists, citizens groups, and landowners concerned about their property: Groundwater is not being contaminated by gas, brine water or chemicals escaping from deep below the surface where the fracking is taking place.

“The worst-case environmental scenario appears to be off the table, based on these studies,” said researcher Thomas Darrah.

That’s not to say drillers are off the hook.  The research still turned up issues associated with gas well construction and maintenance.

The study looked at samples from 133 drinking water wells in heavily fracked regions of northeastern Pennsylvania and Texas and found eight examples of increased gas contamination.  The researchers concluded, however, that the gas was a result of leakage through failures of the drill hole casings or, in one instance, an underground well failure.

Another one of the study’s authors, Prof. Avner Vengosh, says these issues can be resolved through regulations requiring a higher degree of drill casing integrity.  Or, the professor says, gas well drill holes can be kept at least one-half mile from water wells.

The still relatively new process of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in Marcellus and Barnett shales has been a boon for the energy industry. Thousands of new wells are releasing millions of cubic feet of natural gas.  The abundant supply is keeping prices low and generating a financial windfall for property owners and regions where the drilling is occurring.

Of course there are concerns, just as there are with any industrial process. Drillers and regulators must ensure the environment is protected.   The drillers know that a serious mistake will trigger a public relations nightmare and bring down the regulatory hammer.

Fracking opponents should be held accountable as well, and this new research illustrates some of their alarmist proclamations are just wrong.

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