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.