Thursday, January 24, 2013

Whither FrackNation? Denying Gas Drilling Mistakes Can Cause Methane Pollution Of Water Wells Misleads Public

I have not seen FrackNation, and so I cannot definitively comment on its accuracy.  But the promotion of the movie and its YouTube clips have me concerned about its discussion of the real problem of methane migration that can happen as a result of gas drilling mistakes.

There are two ways methane can be in water wells. First, the methane can be natural, "biogenic" or there before any drilling takes place.  It is certainly true that some people living on water wells can have high levels of methane in their water, even levels high enough to make their faucet water catch fire, because of naturally occurring methane.  Making this point clearly is important and helpful.  And Gasland certainly did not do so.

The second way methane can be in some water wells is because of mistakes in gas drilling--typically in the cementing or casing of the gas well that is a distinct, different stage from hydraulic fracturing of the gas well.  These drilling stage mistakes can cause methane to contaminate water wells that did not have high or dangerous levels of methane prior to gas drilling.  Denying this fact is false and misleads the public.

In Dimock, Pennsylvania and some other places, mistakes in gas drilling did cause methane to migrate to water wells.  Actions were taken to repair gas wells and compensate homeowners of 18 water wells, where testing confirmed gas drilling caused the methane contamination of the water wells.  Now to be clear, it was methane that contaminated water wells due to gas drilling mistakes and not fracking fluids or chemicals.  No fracking fluids or chemicals came back from depth to contaminate any water well in Dimock.

I will be eager to see how FrackNation portrays the real issue of gas migration due to gas drilling mistakes. More to come once I see the movie.


  1. Concerned ScientistJanuary 24, 2013 at 9:32 AM

    From what I understand, it may even be a bit more complicated. Both the things you say are true. But in some cases there is naturally-occurring methane "perched" in the aquifer or just below the aquifer. This naturally occurring methane can be thermogenic or biogenic and it is the same methane that could be naturally occurring in people's wells. The methane and the groundwater have reached some sort of equilibrium. This equilibrium can be upset by changes in temperature or barometric pressure. Methane levels in people's faucets fluctuate naturally. For instance, methane levels can be higher when the ground is frozen because the methane has no way to get to the surface. Methane levels also increase with time as the faucet is running. The methane level after the faucet has been running for 45 minutes will commonly be higher than right when the faucet is turned on. So natural fluctuations always need to be taken into account.

    The simple act of drilling a well (water well or gas well does not matter) can also in some cases upset this equilibrium, leading to an increase in methane in people's water wells. This increase is typically temporary and a few weeks after the well has been cased equilibrium will return and the methane levels go back to roughly what they were before. This is apparently true of wells that are drilled correctly and there is little that can be done about it.

    I am not sure if companies should be held liable for something like this. What do you think? Again this is a temporary increase in methane levels that is a result of business as usual, not negligence.

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  3. This is a clip from Fracknation. This short clip has 2 glaring roadblocks. One is that Phelim says Josh Fox had his video removed from YouTube and Vimeo because of a bogus copyright claim. When you upload a video to those sights, you agree that the material is of your own making and copyright. Phelim included clips of Gasland in his post, which is not owned by him, but HBO and Fox. It's called copyright infringement.

    2nd, McAleer fails to mention the methane migration problem that can and could account for the tap lighting scene in the film. People notice when their taps start to spit and sputter that something is different. I'm looking forward to your review John.

  4. Here's another clip from Fracknation where Phelim insistss that "fracking" didn't contaminate the water in Dimock, but doesn't say what did.