Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Gas Migration, Not Frack fluids, Is The Real Issue For Water Wells

The Duke study could help Pennsylvania to focus on a real problem--gas migration--and to have further reassurance that frack fluids are not coming back from depth and polluting water wells and ground water.

Frack fluids have not returned from depth anywhere in Pennsylvania and polluted one, single water well.  That is a fact. 

Frack fluids have been spilled at the surface and have caused minor impacts that have been cleaned up and paid for by the companies responsible.

But gas migrating from poorly designed or constructed gas wells is a real problem.  It is a problem that existed prior to the first Marcellus well.  And it is a problem with some Marcellus wells.

The problem is concentrated in Bradford, Tioga, and Susquehanna counties where the geology is challenging.  The new gas drilling rules that were proposed in 2009 and became effective on February 5th, 2011 enable DEP to move forward with additional measures to prevent gas migration in "areas of concern."  DEP began doing so in September 2010, even before the regulations became final and should keep doing so.

Hopefully the partisans who insist that gas drilling is polluting all water sources or who insist it is causing no problems could look at the Duke study again or other data that confirm we don't have a problem with frack fluids returning from depth to pollute water but do have a problem with gas migrating and contaminating water wells.

We must pay attention to the real problems and issues.


  1. This is right on. So refreshing to hear someone who gets it right.

    The Duke paper highlights a problem, but gets the emphasis all wrong. The gas migration has nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing. The gas comes from shallow horizons above the Marcellus and has been a problem with any kind of well - vertical or horizontal, fracked or not fracked. Most wells don't have a problem so suggesting that water wells within a km of an active well are going to have 17 times more methane is not correct. Most water wells probably won't have any more methane than they did prior to drilling. My understanding is that industry has made a lot of progress with new types of cement and casing programs that should significantly reduce the problem.

    Plus the way they came up with the 17 times more methane was through a statistical trick - most of their "nonactive" wells were from New York where there was very little gas in either water wells near the gas well or those far from the gas well. Most of their "active" wells were from Dimock or from other areas where there were known problems. They cherry picked the data to get the most alarming result so they could then proceed to scare people about being asphyxiated or blown up.

  2. The Duke study is good, and there are precious few peer-reviewed studies out there to rely on. However, this idea that we don't have a frack water problem is preposterous. The state of Maryland thinks that the "isolated case" in Bradford County that polluted the Susquehanna and consequently the Chesapeake bay is a problem, so they're suing the company. The state of New York thinks it's a problem, which is why they've taken such time to work out their state's regulations. Even the PA DEP thinks we have a frack water problem, that's why they've asked treatment plants to stop trying to treat the frack fluid. And Pennsylvanians think we have a frack water problem, that's why there's such public outrage over elevated levels of bromides in our waterways that are directly linked to frack fluids. Just last night, yet another municipalitiy is directly challenging the Oil and Gas Act by passing a ban on fracking - obviously those leaders think it's a problem. And here in my county,(Indiana County) our zoning board thinks there's a frack fluid problem, which is one of the reasons why they've denied a permit from a local company to drill inside of a Conservation zone.

    Every hydro-geologist I've talked to has said that it's problem to inject all this toxic waste fluid into the earth, and expect that it's never going to go anywhere.

    The that there is no current evidence that the toxic waste fluid hasn't seeped into aquifers is very comforting. But anyone who thinks that dumping all this fluid into the earth, and expects it to stay put indefinitely is unrealistically optimistic. Even given the unrealistic expectation that every one of these well casings will be constructed perfectly, there are studies showing that over time, those casings will leak.

    Mr. Hangar, your assertion that we have no frack fluid problem at the current time is another example of how our state leaders are content with Pennsylvania being a zone of sacrifice. We ignore any basic science that predicts danger, rely only on what has happened already, rather than being proactive, and then congratulate ourselves when we are slow to react. Your successor, Mr. Krancer is a great example of this when he called elevated levels of bromides in PA waterways a "success story."

    It's an embarrassment to Pennsylvanians.

  3. Mr. Smith:

    I agree that frackfluids must be managed appropriately because they can pose problems for our streams and rivers. But you have misread the original post. That post was simply saying that gas migrating has contaminated WATER WELLS and not frack fluids. Those are the findings of the Duke study and were the DEP findings more than a year before the Duke study.

    Because frack fluids not managed correctly can damage rivers and streams is why I ended Pennsylvania's decade long practice of allowing unlimited discharges of drilling fluids without requiring treatment for TDS. The new rule went into effect in August 2010 and was opposed by the coal association, the drilling industry, the Pa Chamber of Commerce and others, while the drinking water companies and every environmental group supported it. The fact that improperly managed drilling water can impact streams is why I ordered 7 treatment systems discharging to the mon river in 2008 drilling wastewater to cut their discharges by 95% and that order remained in effect until at least january 2011. It is also the case that if the the remaining plants discharging untreated for TDS drilling wastewater stop doing so on May 19th that there will be less drilling wastewater going into our streams than before the first marcellus well was drilled. Secretary Krancer has requested they stop in light of the Carnegie Mellon University Bromide study that is an excellent piece of work. I have urged Secretary Krancer to order them to stop if they do not. And at that point the problems on the mon River or Allegheny river will not be a result of gas drilling. There are many other non-drilling discharges on the Mon that are stressing that river for TDS and that have impaired it for sulfates. The August 2010 rule is a cumulative watershed rule and requires levels of TDS be kept below the Safe Drinking Water Act, no matter where the pollution is coming from.

  4. I appreciate that in your tenure at the DEP progress was made to regulate the industry. I also appreciate that you likely did so under enormous pressure from extremely wealthy and powerful interests. I'm sure that our waterways would be worse off had someone else been at the helm. I appreciate that one of your purposes on this blog are to educate folks on exactly what you were able to accomplish.

    But you must also appreciate that the events that have unfolded in the last year showing pollution of the waterways from toxic frack fluid shows that your efforts were not enough.

    I don't think I misread your post - you're asserting that frack fluids are not a problem. And they clearly are. Of course people should appreciate good science, and it is indeed comforting that frack fluids have yet to bubble up from depth and enter waterways. But there is plenty of evidence and good scientific conjecture that they will, and that expecting anything other than that is foolish. And there are folks across the state taking proactive steps to avoid those inevitable disasters.

    A lot of people read your blog, and quote your words to me in defense of the industry, as evidence that there really is no problem with fracking, that it's properly regulated, and that we should all just settle down. They say, "look! John Hangar used to head up PennFuture, and the DEP, and he says there's really no problem!" Frankly, given the evidence of polluted waterways and the scientific likelihood of that increasing it's patronizing.

    I appreciate that you want to get the record straight on the regulations that are there, but, it's frustrating that you often seem to be suggesting that because of those regulations, Pennsylvanians shouldn't worry. We are worried, and we'd hope that leaders like yourselves are worried too.

  5. I want us to worry about the things that are real problems and not worry about things that are not.

    Gas migrating is a real problem. Frack fluids coming from depth to contaminate water wells is not. Not one case.

    Frack fluids discharging to streams is a real problem that is being addressed by a changed rule and new technology. If it were not addressed properly, frack fluid discharges to streams would cause substantial harm to drinking water. It must and is being addressed. We are close to having less drilling wastewater going into streams than prior to first Marcellus well. We also now have a watershed rule to protect water from discharges loaded with TDS from other, non-drilling sources.

    Other things that I worry about are the bonding amounts for a well when it needs to be plugged and air emissions from gas production. The emissions must be controlled by using clean fuel and clean engines. Technology is available to control the emissions. It must be used.

    I also worry about all the air pollution from old coal fired power plants that is killing 36,000 Americans each year.

    I worry about all the oil spills.

    I can go on.

  6. Concerned ScientistMay 12, 2011 at 6:27 AM

    I would like Mr Smith to substantiate these comments:

    "the events that have unfolded in the last year showing pollution of the waterways from toxic frack fluid shows that your efforts were not enough."

    Which events are those? The Chesapeake problem does not appear to have caused any serious damage. The NY Times articles showed very little actual pollution although many came away from reading them thinking that there was an enormous problem. Lots of smoke and no fire. The only actual problem cited in the NYT was back in 2008 when there was an overload of TDS in the Monongahela - something that was quickly taken care of by the DEP and new regulations.

    Here is another one:

    "Of course people should appreciate good science, and it is indeed comforting that frack fluids have yet to bubble up from depth and enter waterways. But there is plenty of evidence and good scientific conjecture that they will, and that expecting anything other than that is foolish."

    I would agree that there is plenty of conjecture, but it isn't based on science. What evidence is Mr. Smith speaking of here? I am not aware of any and I study this issue closely.

    As has so rightly been pointed out on this blog, you can't talk about whether or not to develop shale gas through horizontal wells and hydraulic fracturing without talking about the likely alternative - more coal burning. Some opponents appear to believe that the only benefit to be gained from shale gas is big profits for greedy corporations. The main benefit to shale gas is that it is far, far better than coal from an environmental perspective. If we as a nation don't develop shale gas through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, we are going to burn a lot more coal and create a lot more pollution. It is simple math. If one is both a realist and truly for the environment then one should be strongly FOR well regulated shale gas development.

  7. Concerned ScientistMay 12, 2011 at 7:49 AM

    Hate to pick on Mr. Smith as I am sure his heart is in the right place, but I'd really like to know more about the events discussed in this sentence:

    "the events that have unfolded in the last year showing pollution of the waterways from toxic frack fluid shows that your efforts were not enough"

    Which events are those? Some may think that the accident at the Chesapeake rig was some sort of environmental disaster, but I have seen nothing to suggest any significant environmental damage from that. It was a problem for sure but according to DEP officials, 8 of whom were on the scene within hours, no fish were killed in the creek. The fluids were apparently diluted to the point that they were pretty much harmless a short distance from the well. Of course it was reported by some as "BP Horizon 2" but note the dearth of follow up stories. There just isn't that much to report.

    Also I thought this was interesting:

    "Of course people should appreciate good science, and it is indeed comforting that frack fluids have yet to bubble up from depth and enter waterways. But there is plenty of evidence and good scientific conjecture that they will, and that expecting anything other than that is foolish."

    I am sure Mr. Smith believes this is true - but there just isn't any scientific evidence to back this up. Lot's of conjecture from people who don't know what they are talking about (or worse people trying to make a buck by scaring the daylights out of the credulous) but no good science. In fact the science points the other way.

    There are a lot of people who have no idea what they are talking about making all sorts of bold assertions on the dangers of fracking. If their statements align with a certain worldview like "oil and gas companies are evil" then their words are taken as "scientific" truth by some regardless of whether they have any actual scientific merit or not.

  8. My statement is that frack fluids are not returning from depth to contaminate WATER WELLS. The Duke study confirms that...again.

    I agree that frac fluids could damage streams and that is why I fought to change the rules in Pennsylvania on discharging frack fluids and other sources of Total Dissolved Solids pollution. The new rule went into effect in August 2010 and has an end of pipe requirement for gas drillers (a much higher standard for gas drillers). It also has a cumulative TDS standard from all sources of discharge for the entire watershed. And that standard is vital to insure drilling or no other pollution source compromises drinking water.

  9. G smith your level of knowledge and that of your supposed hydrogeologists is less than ignorant. Have you considered the chemistry of Marcellus gas and oil? Fracking injects very dilute chemicals into zone that contain pure hydrocarbons (essentially raw gasoline). So you and your genius friends who need to change their careers should worry about the actual pure oil/gasoline and not the diluted chemicals in frac water. If this does not make sense let me know and we can debate it. Oil is a zillion times more toxic than the frac fluid that is being injected into it. SO WHO CARES ABOUT THE FRAC FLUID!

  10. OK, so I've tried to post this before, but somehow it didn't make it into the discussion.

    Frac fluids aside, casing and cementing has been a real issue for years; well integrity is the number one issue with gas migration, in my opinion.

    My question:
    Is it unreasonable to think that the pressures a well experiences during fracing could exacerbate a well integrity problem? If you are creating enough pressure to fracture rock 1000s of feet below the surface, then why wouldn't that pressure be great enough to make poor cement/casing jobs fail?

    As an engineer and geologist, this seems like a reasonable possibility. A system is only as strong as its weakest link. So in a way, fracing would be to blame for failed well integrity if the well was not constructed in a way that would withstand these pressures.

    Any thoughts? Would love some feedback.