Scholarly Research and the Dangers of Fracking

Finally, two scholarly studies address some of the issues associated with fracking, a process for extracting natural gas from shale that lies 1 -2 kilometers below the depth of most drinking water wells that are typically 60 – 90 meters deep. Neither study, despite the merits of each, is convincing, due either to methodology or inconsistent findings.  Moreover, both studies make clear the need for additional research that is more systematic, that depends upon scientific sampling methods or actual measurement rather than estimation, and that examines other representative, geographic regions with varying geological characteristics.

Fracking is a process used to release natural gas from the microscopic fissures in the shale beds that lie well below ground.  The process is relatively new, and it involves injecting water and chemicals at very high pressure into shale beds in order to release the trapped natural gas.  Previously in my blog, Larry Penley’s Access With Success, I have described the abundance of natural gas in the United States, its potential for substantially increasing our national energy independence, and its relatively clean quality as a transition energy source to a more sustainable and lower carbon energy environment.

As interesting as the two new studies are, the non-scientific media events associated with the studies are likely to overshadow the critical evaluation of the studies, themselves.  The two media events included the publication by Duke Magazine of an interview with Mr. Avner Vengosh, Duke Professor of geochemistry and water quality and the fracking summit he participated in last Saturday in North Carolina.  The summit was sponsored by a group called Clean Water for North Carolina whose mission is to assure water quality, but its efforts appear to be substantially directed toward promoting a ban on fracking in the State.

Back of these two media events are two of the first scholarly articles associated with fracking, and they deserve the critical attention of industry representatives, policy makers and the public.  The first is an article published in Climatic Change, an online journal, by Howarth, Santoro and Ingraffea, three Cornell faculty members.  The article, hereafter referred to as the Cornell Study, is entitled, “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations.”  Its focus is on fugitive emissions of methane (unintentional loss of methane gas into the atmosphere) from drilling operations associated with the extraction of natural gas via fracking.  Its results imply that natural gas may be more damaging than other, more carbon-intensive fuels to the environment, as a result of the release of unintended methane gas.  Of course, it may well be possible to engineer production methods that substantially limit the loss of fugitive methane.  Moreover, a major issue in the Cornell Study is that it uses estimates rather than actual measurement of the unintended loss of natural gas in a random sample of wells.  Thus its results leave questions about the extent to which a study based on actual measurement of methane loss would replicate the Cornell study’s results from estimation.

The second study is by Osborn, Vengosh, Warner and Jackson, and it is entitled, “Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing,” and it was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in May.  Its authors are associated with Duke University, and the study is referred to here as the Duke Study.

The Duke Study examined methane concentrations in drinking water in northeast Pennsylvania and upstate New York.  It found methane concentrations in 51 of the 60 drinking water wells under examination.  The Duke Study makes the case that methane concentrations were higher near natural gas wells and it explains that the characteristics of the methane were associated with gas derived from depths below a drinking well.  The study deserves critical examination, as three of the drinking water wells not near natural gas extraction also evidenced the presence of methane gas.  Moreover, the region under study was an area of mapped faults and active earthquakes, leaving open the possibility that the methane was naturally occurring from shale beds.  The authors posit three possible ways for the migration of methane into drinking water – via movement from below ground to near the surface, via enlarged fractures created by the fracking process but necessitating the same movement upward, and via leaky gas well casings.  The authors of the study dismiss all but the last way as unlikely.  This dismissal of movement upward leaves open the question of how 3 wells unassociated with fracking evidenced the presence of methane.  The article was also not intended to address the issues associated with the quality and use of casings in the production process, but, while complex, casings can be engineered and installed correctly, and we do not have information from the study about the quality of the installation process.

While both studies contribute to our understanding of the environmental impact of fracking, they offer insufficient, verifiable and replicable findings upon which to base sound policy. Moreover, the questions that arise in association with them leaves us still wondering how it is possible for a fracking process that is up to 2 kilometers below a drinking well can impact the quality of the drinking well’s water.

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