Duke study finds “systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale gas extraction”

By Tom Kenworthy

As shale gas has emerged as potentially significant source of fuel for this country, it has come under increased scrutiny.  A NY Times series raised concerns about pollution of surface waters by the wastewater produced during drilling of natural gas wells using hydraulic fracturing.  A recent study by Cornell University researchers called into question the conventional wisdom that gas is far better than coal in terms of its carbon pollution, in part because of concerns of methane leakage during and after fracking.

Now comes a new paper by Duke University researchers that documents “systematic evidence for methane contamination” of household drinking water wells by shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania and New York.

The study, which the authors said was the first scientific examination of water contamination near shale gas drilling operations, found that water supplies within one kilometer of drilling sites were contaminated by methane at 17 times the rate of those water wells farther from gas developments. Though the study did not include baseline data from before gas drilling began, the authors said the methane found in water wells was chemically similar to that found in deep shale gas formations. The study also made no link between the methane contamination and hydraulic fracturing, a widely used drilling technique that pumps large quanities of water mixed with sand and chemicals at high pressures to fracture gas-bearing rock formations deep underground. The contamination was more likely coming through well bores because of leaky casings, the authors wrote.

Industry groups were quick to denounce the study as based on limited data and no baseline comparisons.

As gas drilling has increased substantially in shale gas formations stretching from Texas to New York State, there have been numerous reports of methane intrusion into homes and household water supplies. Those have included widely distributed videos of homeowners lighting on fire water pouring from kitchen faucets.

Methane is the primary ingredient in natural gas, and is not regulated as a contaminant because, the authors report in an accompanying paper of research and policy recommendations, it is “not typically viewed as a health hazard.”

The Duke researchers called for a medical study of the health effects of methane in household drinking supplies, a federal research program to test industry’s claim that hydraulic fracturing deep underground can’t lead to methane contamination of shallow water wells, and baseline studies of water quality prior to natural gas drilling. They also endorsed the regulation of hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which was barred by a 2005 energy law passed by Congress, and full public disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

—  Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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13 Responses to Duke study finds “systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale gas extraction”

  1. Leland Palmer says:

    Thanks for the information.

    If this methane was being released into the ocean, methanotroph bacteria could help to remediate it, and oxidize it into CO2. It would be interesting to find out if these methanotrophs exist in fresh water, and if so if they are desirable in drinking water. Since fracking is a new process, likely natural systems are not evolved to accommodate it.

    The more methane we handle and use, the more that can potentially escape.

    Getting more fossil fuels out of the earth, these days, seems counterproductive. We need to keep all of the carbon now underground where it is, and in fact use BECCS or biochar to put more carbon back underground.

    Methane is bad news, it seems. The infrared absorption bands of CO2 are becoming saturated, although not to the extent that the deniers claim. The infrared absorption bands of methane are much less saturated, one reason why methane is so much more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 is.

  2. JayZ says:

    I cant put a great deal of weight on the report because it doesn’t explain its selection criteria for testing. Were the wells chose at random or were the wells they tested suspected of being faulty before sampling was taken? If the later is true, then the study tells us nothing we didn’t already know before.

    Of interest in the study was the conclusion that there were no detectable levels of fracturing fluid in the samples.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    Fracking is the new ethanol, being touted as good for the atmosphere when it is actually worse. Now we know it’s dangerous, too.

    Let’s look at what happened with ethanol, though: still here. We need to look at that result and see that this important fracking study avoids that outcome.

  4. Econdemocracy says:

    I suspect CP covered this elsewhere, but it’s worth noting side by side the above news, why NG is not the “answer” and why all fossil fuel use must be phased out quickly, not just coal and oil:

    “Study: Some Natural Gas Threatens Climate More Than Coal

    “The study, conducted by professors at Cornell University, found that
    natural gas obtained from shale formations using a process known as
    [fracking]releases large amounts of methane. When methane emissions
    are taken into account, natural gas from these shale formations
    produces more greenhouse gases than coal and coal-fired electricity
    generation over a 20-year time horizon, the study said.”

  5. Leland Palmer says:

    It’s absolutely essential that hydroxyl radical concentrations in the atmosphere remain high, to oxidize methane into CO2 on schedule. This means, among other things, that the ozone layer must remain intact, since ozone is one of the precursor steps in generating the hydroxyl radical.

    Various real climate modelers including some from MIT project a drop in hydroxyl radical concentrations, leading to longer residence time and so a greater greenhouse effect for methane. We can’t allow this to happen, because increasing amounts of methane are going to start reaching the atmosphere from methane hydrates.

    In fact, we should look at geoengineering to increase ozone in the stratosphere, I think.

    Sulfate aerosol geoengineering apparently damages the ozone layer, the opposite of what we need.

    We can’t further strain the atmosphere with human caused methane emissions, in addition to various CFCs and other stuff the atmosphere has never seen before. We need all of our ozone, and all of the hydroxyl radical we can generate, to oxidize methane emissions from the methane hydrates.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    “The contamination was more likely coming through well bores because of leaky casings, the authors wrote.”

    From a methane regulation perspective, it is interesting that Osborn et al. found thermogenic methane (deep formation methane) in water wells near either conventional or hydro-fractured active gas operations. This finding suggests a need to investigate the frequency of leaky well casings.

    Methane discharge to groundwater from conventional gas wells hadn’t had much research attention. In contrast, the high pressure used in hydrofracking make it a likely suspect in the fracturing well casings. Public attention had not been drawn to failures in conventional well casings.

    I’d put fugitive methane release from conventional wells back on the table for quantification, as well as fugitive methane release from hydrofracking operations.

  7. Econdemocracy says:

    This is also being reported (e.g. mid-day earlier today on NPR) as “we’re only concerned about it being flammable, not about ingesting low levels” but that’s not quite true either.

    As BBC reports,

    “He agreed that the main concern at present was not from drinking the water, but from the risk of an explosion. However, he added that the team were calling for a medical review of chronic, low-level exposure to methane. ‘I could not find any peer reviewed literature on the health effects of low level methane on people,’ He observed.”

    So more accurately, somewhere between “none” and “very little” research has been done…that’s a FAR cry from “it’s safe folks, tell your kiddies to drink it up!”

  8. Econdemocracy says:

    To their shame that BBC url also includes a video on how to extract gas from hard rock, or similar title, and it’s all industry P.R. with and ending line by the ‘reporter’ (really, transcriber of P.R.) that “and when the drill rigs are gone, THIS is all that’s left [gestures at a small above ground structure] just a few bits of equipment sitting int eh middle of a LA forest” [forgetting to add the contamination also “left” behind, and adding the P.R. line, about how it’s “producing gas for peole’s homes, for decades to come”

    Shame on BBC. But at least in this mixed bag they included some important info about “drinking it might not be safe at all” as noted in previous post.

  9. John McCormick says:

    RE # 5

    Leland, keep repeating this:

    “It’s absolutely essential that hydroxyl radical concentrations in the atmosphere remain high, to oxidize methane into CO2 on schedule.”

    This is a very important point you keep making and it deserves far more attention.

    John McCormick

  10. Lisa Boucher says:

    Re: #5

    Wow … I had no idea about decreasing hydroxyl radical concentrations and the implications for methane residency in the atmosphere.  Could you point us to some research about this topic?  Many thanks.

  11. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Lisa-

    I need to read up on this myself, it’s a very complicated subject.

    Joe has run articles in the past mentioning that MIT had revised their CO2 projections upwards. I remember going to the source of that article, looking at their modeling and projections for the hydroxyl radical, and noting that these modelers were projecting something like a 20 percent decline in OH over the next few decades. I looked briefly for this on my lunch hour, but could not find it.

    One thing that is going on is that an ozone hole appears to be forming in the arctic. It’s hard to see how this could be good news for OH radical concentrations, since ozone is a precursor of OH radical production. It is believed that this ozone hole is connected to AGW, because it has cooled the upper atmosphere, or something, and also because of the disruption in the polar vortex that has occured during the last two years.

    Some scientists apparently project increased Antarctic ozone, though.

    It’s a complicated subject, and I probably need to learn more about it before posting more about it. Nitrogen oxide pollution might actually increase ozone production, for example.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Econdemocracy #8, there’s no point saying ‘Shame on the BBC’ because that is an emotion that they are incapable of feeling. Aside from twisting the news at every opportunity to suit the propaganda purposes of the Western, particularly, English elites that they serve (and doubling the offense with constant paeans to their non-existent ‘impartiality’ and ‘service to truth’) they are becoming more and more plainly in the ecological disaster denialist camp. Big Business, ergo Big Money ergo Big Political Power ergo the apparatchiki of the BBC, like the rest of the Western MSM, see gas fracking as immensely profitable and an opportunity, given enough lying propaganda, to destroy renewables. So the BBC does its class and ideological duty-you could expect nothing other.

  13. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Lisa (post # 10)

    Here’s a couple of references:

    One really good, and unfortunately very scary resource on all things associated with a potential methane catastrophe is

    Killer in our Midst has a good summary of the situation here:

    This study by MIT projects a 20 percent or so drop in hydroxyl radical concentration by 2100, in parallel with increases in methane concentration from our present 1.7 ppm to roughly 4 ppm.

    Of course, if the methane hydrates destabilize in a major way, and if any significant fraction of that methane reaches the atmosphere, all such estimates become obsolete.

    And, the shallow hydrates of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf may already be starting to destabilize. Certainly, the methane flux from that area is calculated to be equal to that from the rest of the oceans, combined.