Las Vegas Sun

July 28, 2014

Currently: 93° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

AP: Study finds fracking chemicals didn’t spread

A landmark federal study on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, shows no evidence that chemicals from the natural gas drilling process moved up to contaminate drinking water aquifers at a western Pennsylvania drilling site, the Department of Energy told The Associated Press.

After a year of monitoring, the researchers found that the chemical-laced fluids used to free gas trapped deep below the surface stayed thousands of feet below the shallower areas that supply drinking water, geologist Richard Hammack said.

Although the results are preliminary — the study is still ongoing — they are a boost to a natural gas industry that has fought complaints from environmental groups and property owners who call fracking dangerous.

Drilling fluids tagged with unique markers were injected more than 8,000 feet below the surface, but were not detected in a monitoring zone 3,000 feet higher. That means the potentially dangerous substances stayed about a mile away from drinking water supplies.

"This is good news," said Duke University scientist Rob Jackson, who was not involved with the study. He called it a "useful and important approach" to monitoring fracking, but cautioned that the single study doesn't prove that fracking can't pollute, since geology and industry practices vary widely in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

The boom in gas drilling has led to tens of thousands of new wells being drilled in recent years, many in the Marcellus Shale formation that lies under parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia. That's led to major economic benefits but also fears that the chemicals used in the drilling process could spread to water supplies.

The mix of chemicals varies by company and region, and while some are openly listed the industry has complained that disclosing special formulas could violate trade secrets. Some of the chemicals are toxic and could cause health problems in significant doses, so the lack of full transparency has worried landowners and public health experts.

The study done by the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh marked the first time that a drilling company let government scientists inject special tracers into the fracking fluid and then continue regular monitoring to see whether it spread toward drinking water sources. The research is being done at a drilling site in Greene County, which is southwest of Pittsburgh and adjacent to West Virginia.

Eight new Marcellus Shale horizontal wells were monitored seismically and one was injected with four different man-made tracers at different stages of the fracking process, which involves setting off small explosions to break the rock apart. The scientists also monitored a separate series of older gas wells that are about 3,000 feet above the Marcellus to see if the fracking fluid reached up to them.

The industry and many state and federal regulators have long contended that fracking itself won't contaminate surface drinking water because of the extreme depth of the gas wells. Most are more than a mile underground, while drinking water aquifers are usually within 500 to 1000 feet of the surface.

Kathryn Klaber, the CEO of the industry-led Marcellus Shale Coalition, called the study "great news."

"It's important that we continue to seek partnerships that can study these issues, and inform the public of the findings," Klaber said.

While the lack of contamination is encouraging, Jackson said he wondered whether the unidentified drilling company might have consciously or unconsciously taken extra care with the research site, since it was being watched. He also noted that other aspects of the drilling process can cause pollution, such as poor well construction, surface spills of chemicals, and wastewater.

Jackson and his colleagues at Duke have done numerous studies over the last few years that looked at whether gas drilling is contaminating nearby drinking water, with mixed results. None of them have found chemical contamination but they did find evidence that natural gas escaped from some wells near the surface and polluted drinking water in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Scott Anderson, a drilling expert with the Environment Defense Fund, said the results sound very interesting.

"Very few people think that fracking at significant depths routinely leads to water contamination. But the jury is still out on what the odds are that this might happen in special situations," Anderson said.

One finding surprised the researchers: Seismic monitoring determined one hydraulic fracture traveled 1,800 feet out from the well bore; most traveled just a few hundred feet. That's significant because some environmental groups have questioned whether the fractures could go all the way to the surface.

The researchers believe that fracture may have hit naturally occurring faults, and that's something both industry and regulators don't want.

"We would like to be able to predict those areas" with natural faults and avoid them, Hammack said.

Jackson said the 1,800-foot fracture was very interesting, but also noted it is still a mile from the surface.

The DOE team will start to publish full results of the tests over the next few months, said Hammack, who called the large amount of field data from the study "the real deal."

"People probably will be looking at the data for years to come," he said.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: 6 comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

  1. So a tightly regulated and monitored experiment went well. Isn't that a surprise. The issue is not that this type of natural gas recovery can't be done correctly, it is that it is often not. Casings crack, they are subject to poor welds, wells blow out, chemicals, rilling fluids and lubricants are spilled, they are stored in leaking pits, employees are encouraged to save time and money by cutting corners, by fudging the rules. If the energy recovery and production companies encouraged compliance with rules for safe and clean operations then we would have a measure of confidence. Unfortunately they do not, and while Anadarko or Chevron or Exxon might have rules in place, the subcontractor of the subcontractor of the subcontractor cares only for his/her very slim profit margin. Spills are frequent and pervasive. Once that water is contaminated it is useless essentially forever.

  2. @wharfrat (pat hayes)

    About 89 or so people die on the roads each day in the US. Does that mean we should also ban automotive travel?

    Believe me, I'm all about saving the earth. I'm big on recycling everything from glass bottles to old technology to keep my electronics and automobiles and everything else in between out of landfills. I'm all for emissions controls, against pollution, and encourage responsible conservation in all forms however possible. However, I'm also a realist. We need oil. We'll work on alternative technologies as a whole, and as they become more profitable they'll be more widespread. But in the meantime, I'm not living like I'm Amish simply so I can have some misguided sense of smugness that I'm "helping" the planet.

    Fun fact that most people overlook: Most petroleum and mining pollution are not modern problems. They will usually come with the properties/companies that corporations buy as the caveat: Clean up the mess so you can extract what is left. And if you check the dates on existing groundwater pollution, you'll see that it goes way back even further than just a couple of decades. Even then, the water isn't always "useless forever", either essentially or literally. As scientists have already found out with the Anaconda mine, feces from Canadian Geese contains some sort of bacteria that is spreading and breaking down the toxins in the water. It may take decades or even a hundred years at the current pace, but it's happening. The earth is amazing in that way. No matter what we do, earth will survive. WE might not, but the planet will simply go on without us. But we can study and recreate those ways it repairs itself on a greater level for a faster achievement of those tasks.

    Bottom line: Accidents are going to happen, sure. But they are worth the risk. What do you EVER do in life that doesn't come with a risk of failure or danger. What kind of life do you get to live if it's one of constant fear? We need petroleum for many, many uses, and we've got to get it. Perhaps if instead of pursuing useless liberal arts degrees, people who really wanted to change the world went into more engineering, chemical, energy, and venture capitalism fields, we could reduce our dependance upon fossil fuels quicker than just simply protesting and avoiding hygiene.

    Also, being an environmentalist doesn't mean being some radical, tree-hugging, militant-vegan. You can respect and even improve the environment without moving into a commune.

  3. Well, this 'enviro-wacko' is not exactly ready to say Frack away, baby...

    There are MANY issues pertaining to the dangers of this fricking fracking business...and I wouldn't bet the farm on this particular study giving us the 'green light' to go ahead and drill another ten thousand holes in the ground today and jam millions of gallons of that nasty chemical cocktail down in there to free that wondrous, cheap gas...

    These are just a few of THOUSANDS of sites containing info on the concerns some of us 'enviro-wacko's' have with the practice of FRACKING & it goes beyond the issue of drinking water...not that I am in the least bit comforted by the study noted in this article..

    http://www.earthtimes.org/energy/dangers...

    http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/marke...

    http://www.cleanwateraction.org/page/fra...

    http://wilderness.org/blog/fracking-dang...

    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/technolog...

    http://www.thefrackingtruth.org/

    http://ecowatch.com/2013/frac-sand-minin...

  4. @Robert.....I'm as or more dependent than most as I live in a very rural setting and use my F250 diesel 4X4 for work around the place and to get in/out in the winter. I spray my meadow with Transline to control weeds and I use lots of propane to keep me and the critters happy through the winter. However, I am very careful to keep my water clean and useable....for me, the critters and the alfalfa meadow. Given time, water will filter through sand and gravel, bacteria and microbes will break down toxics, etc., but with the drought covering a third of the US, aquifer levels dropping and saline seep in productive farm areas why would you have any leeway on making sure that drilling for gas/oil, mining for anything, logging steep hillsides has minimal impact on water for living and agriculture. I will admit to being spoiled. I live in the Columbia Basin in the mountains above Lake Roosevelt. I'm the first homestead in my water basin, upstream from everyone and beyond my place is wilderness forever off-limits. We need the energy at the current time although I believe that we need to transition to a hydrogen base and away from carbon sources. The Colorado Plateau and environs have lots of shale and uranium. If profitable, should mining and drilling be allowed around Lake Mead? How close or far away? Not to worry, a little goose crap can clean it up just fine.....in a couple of hundred years. You live in a city or burb, you turn on the tap and you expect to have decent water come out. You take it for granted. For us out here it's a different story. A contaminated well or water source destroys our ability to live.

  5. The experiment was done "at a western Pennsylvania drilling site..".

    "a" means ONE. The site was chosen with the high probability of rendering the desired results. In this case, the fracking chemicals were thousands of feet below the water table and probably separated by shale or layers of rock that were never broken.

    This experiment is contradictory to the 100s of observations an measurements that prove the opposite.

  6. @ SunJon (Jon Becker)
    "In this case, the fracking chemicals were thousands of feet below the water table and probably separated by shale or layers of rock that were never broken."

    That's because that is EXACTLY how Fracking works! You drill down about 6,000 to 10,000 feet below the surface, because that is where the gas and oil is! Water lingers around 500 feet or so, and is completely sealed off. The well when it is drilled down is also sealed and lined, because of course no one wants to have to separate ground water from petroleum or natural gas. Likewise, no one likes to spend lots of money when they don't have to. So you know what the biggest way oil companies cut corners in Hydraulic Fracturing? The reuse the fracturing fluid by extracting it all from the ground. It's actually cheaper to recover and reuse the fluids used in the extraction than it is to simply abandon them. So environmental aspects aside, there are still other monetary concerns at play to ensure proper safe, and efficient operations.

    Show me one documented case of a polluted aquifer as a direct result of Hydraulic Fracturing. Because aside from the numerous liners, there are also numerous plugs that are inserted along the well itself, and not just at the wellhead. They don't seal these things up like corked bottles.