Monday, July 29, 2013

One Well Does Not a Study Make

according to some folks, this is A-OK water
Just ten days ago, on July 19, AP reported that fracking chemicals didn't contaminate drinking water. That article was supposedly based on a "landmark federal study on hydraulic fracturing" conducted by the Dept. of Energy at their National Energy Technology Lab (NETL).

There's only one problem a couple problems:
1. The study, which has been going on for nearly a year, is incomplete. In fact, on the same day that AP broke its story, NETL released a statement to the press  noting that they are still in the "early stages" of this ongoing study. "While nothing of concern has been found thus far, the results are far too preliminary to make any firm claims."
Which seems to be what the AP article was trying to do: make firm claims. Claims that fracking doesn't pollute groundwater would be great news for the gas industry - and hundreds of landowners who'd like to lease their land on the chance of getting rich off gas.

2. The more important problem is that the study is based on one single well. A well that the gas drillers chose, and allowed DOE researchers to use in their study. Not only is the sample size too small but, as Duke University scientist Rob Jackson pointed out, the drilling company may have consciously or unconsciously taken extra care with that particular site, since they knew it was being watched. Jackson, who was not part of that study, makes an important point: this study was neither representative nor unbiased. A true scientific study is designed to avoid sample bias (such as a drilling operator choosing one well over another because it has fewer problems). And a sample size of just one... the less said, the better.

One week to the day of the AP report, scientists at the University of Texas at Arlington released news that their peer-reviewed study of 100 private water wells in and near the Barnett Shale shows elevated levels of contaminants including arsenic, barium, selenium,  and strontium at levels exceeding  EPA's maximum contaminant limit.

One day after news of the UT study was released, the LA Times reported that EPA may have curtailed their investigations of contaminated water in Dimock, PA and Pavillion, WY prematurely due to political pressure. Seems some of the PA staffers in the agency had data showing that there were contaminants in local water wells and had lobbied their superiors to continue with the study.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Thomas Reed, from upstate NY which sits atop the thin edge of Marcellus shale, recently testified that the biggest threat to Marcellus Shale development isn't the spills, broken casings, or methane migration - it's the anti-fracking movement.

National Energy Technology Laboratory
National Energy Technology Laboratory
National Energy Technology Laboratory


  1. Thanks Sue. Begos usually cites Breakthrough Institute as a "leading environmental organization" (really? who?).

    Guess who's just come out "debunking" Ingraffea's latest Op Ed?

  2. Actually, there are three problems (that I know of)--the two noted in Sue's article above, and a third, which is described in the following short excerpt from the AP article:

    "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."

    While the rest of the study was too preliminary and too limited (being confined to one well) to allow any general conclusions, one thing that COULD be concluded is that it is possible, at least in some circumstances, for a fracture to travel a lot farther than expected.

    According to the AP article, Jackson noted that the 1,800-foot fracture was interesting but still a mile from the surface.

    But the reason the 1,800-foot fracture was still a mile from the surface in this particular case is that the well being studied is about 8,000 feet deep--that's a lot deeper than the shallowest Marcellus well that NY would have permitted under the proposed regs, which would have allowed a minimum depth of 2,000 feet below the surface and 1,000 feet below an aquifer. In a well this shallow, an 1,800-foot fracture could be a very big problem.

    Surprises like the 1,800-foot fracture observed in this study are an indication that the researchers do not fully understand the behavior of the fractures, which should be enough, all by itself, to halt fracking. We should not be finding out just how far rogue fractures might travel by fracking under aquifers--it's not okay to experiment with our water sources.

  3. yet the experiment continues and in our town, with the blessing and support of the residents. As long as some imagine they are holding the winning lottery ticket they will ignore science and reason. I am convinced there is no amount of documentation or science that will convert the disciple of gas. Long live the experiment! I do not believe that the experimented on will be so lucky.

  4. more keeps coming out which common sense tells us; that industrial activity and high pressures in the ground can move things around and actually contaminate aquifers and above ground contaminants will circulate around areas near toxic-belching compressor stations, dehydrators ! can't get away from it....