Now researchers have found that drinking water near natural gas wells that have been fracked has the potential to become contaminated.
According to new research, increased amounts of methane and other stray gases have been found in drinking water near natural gas wells in Pennsylvania’s gas-rich Marcellus shale region. Concentrations of methane, for example, were sometimes found to be six times higher in drinking water located within one kilometer of drilling operations.
“The bottom line is strong evidence for gas leaking into drinking water in some cases,” Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C., told NBC News. “We think the likeliest explanation is leaky wells,” he added.
The process of fracking to produce natural gas from shale rock formations involves shooting several million gallons of water laced with chemicals and sand deep underground to break apart chunks of shale, in order to unlock natural gas, which then escapes through cracks and fissures into wells.
It is this water that has been linked to earthquakes, since each drill site, whether oil or gas, requires between three and five million gallons of water per frack, much of which is disposed of underground, causing enormous pressure.
And now this new threat: contaminated drinking water.
Pennsylvania is currently in the midst of a huge transformation, thanks to the Marcellus Shale, a 600-mile underground formation brimming with natural gas. It has even caused the state to be dubbed the “Saudi Arabia” of natural gas.
The Marcellus cuts across six adjacent states including Ohio, Virginia and New York, but it is the Keystone State that is throwing itself into harnessing the formation to reap a natural gas fortune.
But what is the cost of this boom to the health of people living there?
Jackson and his colleagues already found high concentrations of methane near natural gas wells in earlier studies, and this new report, in which they analyzed 141 drinking water samples from private wells across northeastern Pennsylvania, builds on that.
Specifically, they found higher ethane and propane concentrations, in addition to the higher amounts of methane.
From NBC news:
The researchers also conducted chemical analyses of hydrocarbon and helium that suggest the gas found in some instances comes not just from the ground, but from leaky steel pipes used in the extraction system, Jackson added.
“If you have a casing leak (in the tubing), you might expect to see other things through time,” he noted, “not just the gases, but whatever is coming up out of the well.”
The methane contamination may be a result of cracks in the cement that surrounds the outside of the steel tubing and serves as a barrier between the rock that is drilled through and the well. An improper cement job, Jackson explained, could permit gas from a pocket at mid-depth to move into the space outside the well, and move up to the drinking water.
Those opposed to this conclusion say that no research was done on these drinking water wells before the onset of drilling, so it’s impossible to know for sure that fracking is the direct cause of the higher methane contamination near natural gas drilling.
Recognizing this, Jackson and his team are working to build their baseline data, but in order to do so, they need greater disclosure from the natural gas industry through the release of well records. This has not been forthcoming.
Their goal is not to stop the practice of fracking, but to understand why problems occur, in order to prevent them and make things work better.
The reality is that fracking exists now and in Pennsylvania, at least, trying to stop it would be unproductive. But it is important to ensure that all safety issues are taken extremely seriously.
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