There is a movement afoot to delegitimize and regulate one of the proven techniques for extraction of natural gas and oil from tight formations. Hydraulic Fracturing is the technique currently attracting attention among the more radical Greens. The environmentalists claim that Fracturing contaminates underground drinking water reservoirs. Current opinion among environmentalists is being driven by a recent Duke University study that concludes that dangerous levels of methane are present in water wells in NE Pennsylvania and adjacent counties in New York as a possible result of hydraulic fracturing.
This article "Shale Fracturing - Water,Nitroglycerin or a Nuclear Bomb" by Gene Powell, Publisher of the Powell Shale Digest, describes various attempts throughout the history of the oil industry to improve flow rates in tight strata by fracturing the producing rock formation. The methods varied from the mundane to the extreme and the clear winner was the most mundane, hydraulic fracturing using sand and water.
Nitroglycerin was successful but there was a nasty tendency to incinerate personnel while transporting the explosives to the well site. The nuclear method was tried outside Farmington, New Mexico in 1967. The blast improved the flow of gas and created a glass lined, football stadium size, cavern and improved gas flow enormously, but there was a small problem with gas radioactivity.
Mr. Powell's conclusion regarding the safety of HF, that it is a proven technology with a long track record, is contained in this statement.
"Hydraulic Fracturing has long since replaced explosive stimulation of natural gas wells and has been used on an estimated 1,000,000 wells without a single case of drinking water contamination ever being substantiated in the U.S.."
Elizabeth Ames Jones, Chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission and candidate for the United States Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2012 said it more directly in her May 11, 2011 testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology when she said:
“You have a better chance of hitting the moon with a roman candle than fracturing into fresh water formations by hydraulic fracturing a shale.”
Given the recent lawsuit in New York State, it would seem that this information from the Powell Shale Digest would at least be interesting to any lawyer pursuing a claim, a ban, or new regulations on hydraulic shale fracturing.
Mr. Powell also addresses the Duke study “Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing” in his article. Mr. Powell's review of the report faults it for “looking at a very small sampling in a small area” (only 68 sites out of thousands of water wells) and failing to establish a baseline "before fracturing" measurement so there is no before and after comparison. He also faults the report for its failure to use currently available methods to identify and imprint the methane type as “thermogenic or biogenic origin” methane and its failure to use available “Nitrogen and Oxygen fingerprinting”, a method accepted by the Texas Railroad Commission, that would conclusively identify the methane and allow it to be traced to its source. With no baseline and no attempt to use available methods to conclusively identify the type and source of the methane the “study” is worthless.
The study itself notes in its "Results and Discussion" section that
"..the water we measured in the shallow wells from both active and inactive areas are...inconsistent with contamination from mixing Marcellus Shale formation water or saline fracturing fluids."
"Methane migration through the 1-2km thick geological formations that overly the Marcellus and Utica shales is less likely as a mechanism for methane contamination than leaky well casings, but might be possible due to both the extensive fracture systems reported for these formations and the many older, uncased wells drilled and abandoned over the last century and a half in Pennsylvania and New York."
“More research is also needed on … establishment of baseline methane data...”
But the giveaway is this statement:
“Compared to other forms of fossil-fuel extraction, hydraulic fracturing is relatively poorly regulated at the federal level. Fracturing wastes are not regulated as a hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, fracturing wells are not covered under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and only recently has the Environmental Protection Agency asked fracturing firms to voluntarily report a list of the constituents in the fracturing fluids based on the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.”
and the final line in the report is:
“Greater stewardship, knowledge, and – possibly – regulation are needed to ensure the sustainable future of shale-gas extraction.
So let's rename the study. I think we should call it:
Methane contamination of drinking water in a few water wells, in a heavily mined coal and oil producing region with historically high levels of methane in shallow, existing, uncased wells drilled many years ago, in close proximity to the water wells we tested:
A Study Performed to Create an Opportunity for Litigation and Regulation of Hydraulic Fracturing even though we didn't find anything!
It would be a more accurate title.