New Study Links Drinking Water Contamination to Fracking: Can Proponents Still Keep a Straight Face?


It just got much more difficult for frackers and their supporters to keep a straight face in the sizzling national debate over whether the benefits of hydraulic fracturing outweigh the dangers. The pro-fracking folk have argued – with increased hot air of late – that the swelling ranks of concerned citizens, enviros and wary public officials are making much ado about nothing when it comes to the controversial natural gas extraction process.

Fracking proponents have tended to use arguments that center on jobs and economic revitalization, staying out of the weeds on matters of science. And with good reason, since one of the industry’s most powerful claims – that natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels – was recently debunked by a Cornell University study (see link below to my previous post “Global Warming Threat: New Studies Suggest Natural Gas Is Dirtier than Coal”). We’ve also heard a lot of blustering about fracking as the silver bullet to free us from our dependence on foreign oil. Hitting the right nationalistic tones, we hear industry boosters saying nonsensical things like: “If you are opposed to natural gas drilling, you’re in favor of foreign oil.” How’s that for a non-sequitur?

Fracking has been the elephant in the room during recent energy policy debates, but opponents, up to this point, haven’t had the scientific research to back their allegations of water contamination and associated risks. Both sides of the debate have been anxiously awaiting a federal study on fracking from the EPA that is slated to be released in 2012 or there about (depending on who you ask).

Proponents and critics alike have been on the record for some time saying their interests would be supported by science.

Well, a freshly released Duke University study (see document below) has sucked all the air out of those hopes for pro-fracking interests. Apparently, those who have downplayed or dismissed accounts of contaminated aquifers and flammable tap water are missing something – including a leg to stand on.

The study’s co-authors, recognizing the exclusive nature of their research, addressed the scientific vacuum in the fracking debate:

Accompanying the benefits of such extraction are public concerns about drinking-water contamination from drilling and hydraulic fracturing that are ubiquitous but lack a strong scientific foundation.

The five-page, relatively accessible study shows that contamination of drinking water with dangerous levels of flammable methane gas can be tied directly to nearby natural gas wells – and that the phenomenon is widespread. The study, a collaborative effort on the part of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and the university’s Biology Department, essentially provides a fingerprint from the natural gas being extracted in the fracking process to the methane gas in nearby drinking water wells. In other words, when fracking breaks up shale deep underground, the methane gas that accompanies natural gas is seeping through man-made faults and fractures and finding its way into nearby drinking water supplies, like wells.

From the Duke study, entitled “Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing”:

Methane concentrations were detected generally in 51 of 60 drinking-water wells (85%) across the region, regardless of gas industry operations, but concentrations were substantially higher closer to natural-gas wells. Methane concentrations were 17-times higher on average in shallow wells from active drilling and extraction areas than in wells from nonactive areas.

Even the researchers were surprised by the direct correlation. According to one of the study’s authors, biology professor Robert Jackson: “We certainly didn’t expect to see such a strong relationship between the concentration of methane in water and the nearest gas wells. That was a real surprise.”

Although methane is not toxic – and therefore not dangerous to drink – the risk is that the gas can collect in homes and asphyxiate residents or lead to catastrophic explosions. There are reports of people dying in such methane-fueled blowups. According to a 2009 investigation by ProPublica, methane contamination from fracking is commonplace in shale-rich states like Pennsylvania and Colorado. In a handful of incidents, houses exploded after methane gas seeped into residents’ basements or wells. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the Duke researchers gathered data, some residents’ drinking water wells blew up or their water could, literally, be lit on fire.

Disturbed yet?

Even in the face of the Duke study, fracking proponents continue to try to spin their way out of an increasingly tight spot. According to a May 9 ProPublica report, John Conrad, president of Conrad Geosciences in Poughkeepsie, New York, said this of the researchers findings: “They are implying that where you see hydraulic fracturing you should expect to see elevated methane…we don’t believe that it is common and we certainly don’t believe that it is universal.”

Is the Duke study a death-blow to the fracking industry? Unlikely. Keeping with Capitol Hill tradition, the oil and gas industry has lined the pockets of members of the Congressional Natural Gas Caucus. The industry has made it comfortable (at least from a contribution standpoint) for legislators to come down against tougher regulation, including requiring drillers to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process. From a Jan. 14, 2011 ProPublica report entitled, “Opponents to Fracking Disclosure Take Big Money From Industry”:

[I]f money is an indicator, the anti-regulatory group has the upper hand. A back-of-the-envelope analysis of campaign finance dollars contributed to the members of Congress who are speaking out on the issue shows that the Natural Gas Caucus received 19 times more money from the oil and gas industry between 2009 and 2010 than the group who signed Rep. Hinchey’s letter (in support of tougher regulation).

Thus, taking a stand against fracking becomes a major financial decision, as well as a political one, for many lawmakers. We’ll see just how many choose to do what’s right rather than fattening their campaign war chests. One thing is certain, this study makes the price of support much more costly – both for the fracking industry and our elected officials.

Read the full Duke study here: methane-contamination-of-drinking-water

Here’s the May 9 ProPublica report on the groundbreaking (so to speak) Duke study:

Here’s the link to my post that debunks the claim that natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels:

Read more about how the oil and gas industry rewards members of Congress for voting against tougher fracking regulation:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

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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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