Study finds no groundwater issues from gas well fracking

Michael Giberson

The study referred to in the above headline, “Study finds no groundwater issues from gas well fracking,” is the same PNAS study I mentioned last week under the headline, “Study finds methane in Pennsylvania, NY groundwater associated with gas well fracking.” I’m not now suggesting that methane in groundwater isn’t a problem, rather I’m saying it all depends upon what the meaning of the word “fracking” is.

The issue was raised by a Greenwire article on this point appearing on the New York Times website.

In most public discussion of gas well fracking, the word “fracking” refers to the entire shale gas well development and production process. In the industry usage is more precise: “Fracking” refers specifically to the hydraulic fracturing process. As in, first you drill the well, then you frack the well, then you produce the gas.

So if we are using the term fracking more carefully, what we would want to say about the study is that it found no evidence of groundwater contamination from the fracking process. The study did find elevated levels of methane in well water samples near active gas wells that was traceable to the fracked shale, but no fracking fluids were found. The likely candidate source of methane contamination is the drilling process, or more specifically the well completion process, and not the fracking process. (However, one possibility is that the high-pressured fracking process damages the well casing installed during well completion, allowing leaks.)

Shale gas development companies obviously face incentives to sort out these issues – methane that leaks into the adjacent soil and groundwater is methane released by the costly fracking process but not producing revenue  – though it isn’t clear from this study how much gas is being lost to leakage.

Property owners with claims to groundwater also have incentives to protect their claims. Property rights to water, and especially rights to a specific quality and quantity of groundwater, are typically quite murky, possibly making it hard to use liability claims as a mechanism to further incent gas developers to mitigate harms. However, to the extent the owner of the minerals also owns surface rights and groundwater rights, then the lease agreement with the gas development company may be the best place to “regulate” at least some of the environmental harms potentially arising with shale gas development.


5 thoughts on “Study finds no groundwater issues from gas well fracking

  1. Agreed. If there’s causation in the PROCESS, then there’s a claim to make wrt to damage to water quality. Oil guys need to get ahead of this curve, b/c regulators apparently are not. (I’ve got an op/ed on this soon…)

  2. I think we need to look beyond these sources of energy. For example, there is a new technology you may or may not have heard of which has come to light recently.

    The Rossi “Energy Catalyzer” is many times cheaper than ANY fossil fuel and is a completely green technology.

  3. No? The data in drilling, fracking and production operations is subsumed by Federal mining oversight, releasing to local regs loops either the week well pressure drops unaccountably (hold your breath for the after-8 unaccountants!), in volunteered unactionable data, or around the time the capped well grows prize petunias and the lease wraps up appreciation (likely) bonuses. A nice error stream on what stuff is down there (you can pipe LNG but at some point refining from crown-30 is profitable,) how much was supposed to come up and how much came might be attainable at the right leasing risk classification…you can’t steam it out of the engineers even using a good french roast, there’s a rule; mitigation has been FYEO federal secret; also rules against Joint Venture! Data webs are getting cheaper though; maybe 7 802.11n, instrumented test wells in the water table aren’t US$6K?

    Italian Nuclear Power Forever…no wait, I mean Return Lawful Good Palestine! [Ducks 8 cream pies.] Did you say the Greeks are charging less than fuel coke price minus the iron:copper weight prices to license their power technologies? How about to print negative drachma in polyethylene?

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