Bombshell study says fracking is worse than you think


I’m looking forward to watching Josh Fox’s new movie, “Gasland Part II,” which is in a limited number of theaters and will be broadcast on HBO next month. You’ll remember that it was Fox’s original “Gasland” documentary that put the whole fracking debate on the map about three years ago. Indeed, Fox himself knew little about the then-newish technique of natural gas drilling, but he owned a property in rural Pennsylvania that was overrun by landmen. The movie documents the environmental spoilage of this “gold rush,” including a neighbor who lights his tap water on fire. (A preview of “Gasland Part II” shows a Pennsylvanian whose garden hose shoots fire!)

Of course, the industry and its PR flacks worked overtime to discredit Fox and his original movie — claiming that it was one-sided, that his portrayals of environmental abuses were overblown and that some of the pollution problems, including methane contamination of wells — which is a primary cause of someone’s tap water smelling foul and possibly catching fire — were present long before fracking. But now scientists are developing proof that it will be difficult for the Big Gas companies to refute, that there’s a powerful correlation between fracking and pollution:

Wells used for drinking water near the Marcellus Shale in northeast Pennsylvania have methane concentrations six times higher than wells farther away. That is the finding of a Duke University study published on June 24th in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers analyzed 141 drinking water wells (combining data from a previous study of 60 sampled wells in 2011) from the Alluvium, Catskill, and Lock Haven aquifers and a few drinking water wells from the Genesee Formation in Otsego County of New York. Methane was detected in 82 percent of drinking water samples for homes within a kilometer (0.62 miles or 1,093 yards) of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, wells.

Robert Jackson from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment wrote the report and confirmed that, “the methane, ethane and propane data, and new evidence from hydrocarbon and helium isotopes, all suggest that drilling has affected some homeowners’ water.”

Here’s a good analysis from Scientific American on why this may be occurring:

But if the wells aren’t properly sealed, then gas can leak into the groundwater. The wells are lined with metal casings that prevent extracted gas and contaminated water from leaching into the surrounding rock. To block gas from flowing up the outside of the well shaft, engineers pour cement around the outer casing to plug any gaps. If the cement or casing isn’t properly set, then gas from deep shale deposits can find its way in to shallow groundwater. If the casing ruptures, fracking chemicals can also enter the water supply.

This really drives home what we’ve been saying about the fracking controversy for the last couple of years. In theory, natural gas is indeed an improvement over dirtier fuels such as coal. But we don’t produce energy in theory; we produce it in a place called reality, and the reality is that the big energy companies have failed to prove so far that fracking can be done safety. The evidence of failure is accumulating, just like the methane that is accumulating in faucets and garden hoses. There needs to be a moratorium on fracking until they can get it right.

To learn more about the Duke study on fracking and well contamination, please read:

For the Scientific American analysis of the study, check out:

For a preview of “Gasland Part II” from the Los Angeles Times, please read:,0,694272.story

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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