Fracking Linked to Flammable Drinking Water

New Report Confirms Environmental Fears

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted May 12, 2011

Fracking has endured a media rollercoaster ride over the past year...

It's been the cause célèbre for natural gas advocates like T. Boone Pickens and alternative energy enthusiasts like President Obama. But the process has an environmental record that has been tarnished by tales of radioactive drinking water and flammable tap water.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of blasting water, sand, and chemicals miles underground to extract natural gas from deposits deep underground.

Perhaps nothing hurt the practice's reputation more than the iconic scene in the Oscar-nominated documentary GasLand in which a man takes a lighter to his kitchen sink and the water suddenly bursts into flames:

Industry heads immediately began shouting down the film and its maker, Josh Fox, for using "anecdotal evidence" in order to give fracking a bad name.

They even sought to have his film barred from Oscar contention on the grounds that it was misrepresenting the truth.

“It’s unfortunate there isn’t an Oscar category for propaganda, [as] this nomination is fitting,” Lee Fuller, executive director of Energy In Depth, a pro-industry group told the New York Times.

Now Fuller and friends can eat their words and wash them down with a hot cup of flaming tap water...

This week, Duke University researchers presented the first peer-reviewed study that concludes fracking produces elevated levels of methane gas in the water supply — enough to render it flammable.

The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found a strong correlation between dangerous levels of methane in certain water supplies and their distance to shale gas extraction wells.

From the report:

We document systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale-gas extraction. In active gas-extraction areas (one or more gas wells within 1 km) average and maximum methane concentrations in drinking-water wells increased with proximity to the nearest gas well and... were a potential explosion hazard [emphasis editor's].

Those wells closer to natural gas wells has a substantially higher concentration of methane — an average of 17 times higher — than near inactive wells.

There is a silver lining to the results: a lack of contamination from fracking chemicals, which is a principal concern for many environmentalists.

The researchers found no evidence that the often undisclosed chemicals used in fracking had made their way into the water supply.

In Dimock, Pennsylvania — where some of the testing was done — some residents are feeling vindicated.

“We weren’t just blowing smoke. What we were talking about was the truth,” resident Ron Carter told ProPublica. “Now I’m happy that at least something helps prove out our theory.”

The researchers obtained their results by analyzing groundwater from 68 private wells in northeast Pennsylvania and Upstate New York, where fracking is most prominent. Of those, 60 were monitored for methane and higher-chain hydrocarbons.

That small sample size is one reason Energy in Depth and other pro-industry groups, perhaps unsurprisingly, are criticizing the Duke research.

"The biggest weakness is the lack of baseline data," said Energy in Depth spokesman Chris Tucker.

"Methane migrates upward from source rock over the course of geologic time — but these guys are trying to argue that it’s migrating upward almost instantaneously as a result of development. That’s just not a case you can credibly make with this sort of data set, these sort of assumptions, and this sort of methodology.”

Researchers agree that more research is needed. In fact their overall conclusion is that "greater stewardship, data, and possibly regulation are needed to ensure the sustainable future of shale-gas extraction and to improve public confidence in its use."

But each time the gas companies refuse to disclose the fracturing chemicals, neglect to properly treat fracking wastewater, or ignore local complaints outright from communities in which they operate, it fractures public confidence more and more.

There needs to be more cooperation in order to make sure the undeniably valuable natural gas is extracted in the safest manner possible.

Until then, tales of exploding sinks will continue to burn the industry's credibility.

Be Well,