Wednesday, September 19, 2012

USGS Finds 2% of NY Water Wells Have Explosive Levels Of Methane & 53% Have Detectable Levels

A benefit of the incredible focus on gas drilling and fracking is greater and long overdue attention to the quality of water in private water wells. And as the facts are gathered about what has been and is in water wells before any drilling is done, the compelling need to clean up private water wells is documented.

In this vein, USGS did a major study of methane levels in New York water wells.  The results are striking, including the literally explosive finding that 2% of the wells tested (200) had ignitable levels of methane in them. 

Also 9% of the wells had methane readings above the Office of Surface Minining's action  level of 10 mg/L.  A full 53% of the water wells had detectable levels of methane, and 47% did not. The report's links are:
http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=3391#.UFIa5FHGx8F; and http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2012/1162/pdf/ofr2012-1162_508_09072012.pdf.

To be clear, the USGS findings of methane in New York water wells are pre-gas drilling and have nothing to do with gas drilling.  The conclusion that 2% of NY water wells have combustible levels of methane and that 9% have levels above the federal action level is serious and should trigger a major effort to clean up private water wells, whether or not drilling takes place.

14 comments:

  1. Great post and very important information from the USGS. Again, whenever we see a flaming faucet, the first question needs to be whether it might have had high levels of methane prior to drilling that are naturally occurring.

    Drilling and cement problems can cause methane migration, but naturally occurring methane is far more common. 2% of all wells in this study have ignitable levels of naturally occurring methane which implies that perhaps thousands of wells statewide have this problem. The geology is similar in PA so I imagine the numbers are similar there. There have been <100 cases of methane migration related to drilling and cement that I am aware of in PA.

    In the end, Marcellus drilling will heighten awareness of pre-existing problems such as these and will almost certainly lead to cleaner water overall in the areas where drilling will occur. Pre-drill testing will enlighten homeowners to these problems and royalty checks will enable them to fix the problems leading to cleaner water overall.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed!

      Delete
    2. Yoko,

      I seem to remember a little place called Dimock, where isotopic testing was done and the company was held responsible, legally. And it was addressed quickly and decisively.

      Perhaps you've heard of it?

      Delete
    3. I believe you need to read a consent order...in all cases of methane migration that I have read about, gas companies deny responsibility..they dispute the findings of the investigation. Until there is that admittance and apology, folks will remain unconvinced. How do you improve a process or correct it if you remain adamant that you did not do it?

      Delete
    4. Both Shell and Chesapeake have admitted to causing methane migration in the Northern Tier.

      Both are working to fix it. As you have experienced personally, it IS a fixable condition.

      I don't think there is ANYONE in the industry that would say that gas drilling hasn't caused methane migration. I certainly wouldn't.

      So here you go Victoria: I admit that gas drilling has caused methane migration. And I am very sorry for it. I know that it has torn apart your community and inconvenienced you and your family for a long time. Please accept my apology on behalf of the industry.

      Mike

      Delete
  3. This is a misleading summary of the USGS Open-File Report 2012-1162.

    Of the 5 samples (2%) with >28 mg/L methane and 16 (7%)with 10 to 28 mg/L (out of 239), all but one sample fall in either one of two settings:

    * In the southwestern half-dozen counties where tens of thousands of oil and gas wells have been drilled over the last 180 years. Certainly this area of NYS can not be characterized as "pre-gas drilling"

    * "[water] wells drilled in black shale or in unconsolidated deposits overlying shale bedrock" pg 5.

    The take away from this report is that 98% wells sampled were at concentrations of methane below which outgassing occurs, and 91% were not even close. Even the 2%/7% that were are in areas where this would be expected from drilling history or geology. The sudden outgassing of methane from water wells is a clear sign that drilling has disturbed the natural flow of shale gas, although pre-drilling base line measurements are necessary to prove in court.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It does not seem misleading to me and in fact makes an essential point.

      Have another look - only one of the wells with >28 mg/l is in the area of high historic gas drilling (the one that is farthest to the west). The others are not. The area of most intense gas drilling is in the area along Lake Erie where >10,000 wells have been drilled and hydraulically fractured. That area looks no different in terms of the distribution of low medium and high methane concentrations than any other part of the state.

      Of course you are correct that gas may come from organic-rich strata which occurs at or near the surface in many different parts of the state, but it can also occur in porous formations that overlie these organic-rich shales. That is the case in NE PA and is also likely to be the case in the Southern Tier of NY. I would say that no area where the Marcellus is likely to be drilled in NY or PA would be immune from having naturally occurring methane and all water wells should be tested before and after drilling.




      Delete
  4. "The take away from this report is that 98% wells sampled were at concentrations of methane below which outgassing occurs, and 91% were not even close."

    Approximately 1.9 million people in NY get their water from private water wells. If we take a very conservative 10 people per well (it is probably less than that) that would mean that there are 190,000 private water wells. If 2% of those have very high methane levels that is 3800 wells. That number dwarfs the number of wells that have been impacted by gas drilling. If another 7% have 10-28 mg/L that is another 13,300 wells. I think you get the point. The number of wells with methane problems that are naturally occurring is far greater than the number that have been or will ever be affected by gas drilling. Those people are all dealing with it in one way or another. It's not to say that all precautions should not be taken to prevent these problems. Absolutely it is a problem that needs to be taken seriously. But let's keep it in perspective.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Have another look. The intense and widespread drilling is much more extensive than that. The belt of gas drilling extends northeastward across most of counties of Chautauqua, Eire and Genesee and the belt of oil drilling extends eastward across southern Cattaraugus and Allegany. (Oil wells typically produce some gas.) There is also a concentration in the Finger Lakes region of northern Seneca and Cayuga, but strangely USGS did not sample in that region.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What is your point pCBB? Do you disagree that high methane levels can be naturally occurring? The point of the post is that it can be either naturally occurring or occur as a result of drilling and this is why before and after testing needs to be done. When you see a flaming faucet it is not necessarily a result of drilling. And it definitely has nothing to do with fracking itself.

      Delete
    2. My point is the same as I first expressed it, is misleading to take from this study that "To be clear, the USGS findings of methane in New York water wells are pre-gas drilling and have nothing to do with gas drilling." That is not supported by the data in the report, and it is not a conclusion of the authors. If you want to measure that, then exclude samples from water wells in or immediately above the black shales and from ater wells near existing oil, gas, and brine wells. If you look at the results from Delaware County where the Marcellus is buried at least 3,000 feet and over the last 80 years there have been only 13 wells drilled in the 1,486 sq miles, then you might consider that pre-drilling". There all the samples have methane levels below detection.

      While a flaming faucet is not proof that drilling or fracing has polluted an aquifer, that much gas is rare in pre-drilling areas. A flaming faucet combined with testimony that their water was fine before drilling began is a good reason to suspect that gas extraction was the cause and that the problem should be investigated. Certainly someone claiming that their well has just started spewing gas should not be dismisssed because water throughout the region naturally has methane.

      Delete
    3. No Marcellus wells and no fracked horizontal wells have been drilled in NY. So the methane there is definitely not related to horizontal drilling or fracking of horizontal wells. I think this is what John was talking about. there are a lot of samples with methane in that sample set that are taken from areas with no gas drilling and those areas don't look appreciably different than areas where drilling has occurred.

      If a faucet can be lit on fire and drilling has occurred nearby, there is a chance that the drilling and especially a poor cement job has led to the methane in the water. It is also possible that the well had methane in it prior to drilling. Would you agree with that?

      This is why pre-drill testing needs to be done. If pre-drill testing was not done it does not mean that methane migration can't occur due to drilling (as you said). But the presence of methane doesn't mean that the drilling caused it. And that is the only point that matters. Do the pre-drill testing.

      Delete
  6. Yes, there needs to be a distinction between drilling a well and fracking the well...hard to get by the concern that if the well is "drilled" incorrectly that maybe just maybe we will see more than methane in the water....time will tell....I suspect it is more of the experiment because you must all agree these are not our grandfathers gas wells and that as a few scientists will explain- some things take longer to move in the ground/water than others. Hey, I am hoping for a happy ending..just having a little trouble with the prologue and chapter one is a mess..Thanks Mike for the apology, it just is not from the right guy but your comments, if sincere really helped my seriously depressed state.

    ReplyDelete