Monday, June 24, 2013

New Duke University Study Finds Evidence That Gas Drilling In PA Has Caused Methane Pollution Of Water Wells

Professor Rob Jackson and his colleague have published a new study looking carefully at methane levels and characteristics in 141 water wells in 6 counties in Northeast Pennsylvania.  The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Importantly, the study was funded by Duke University and two donors to Duke University, but neither by industry nor foundations funding its opponents.  Since Duke University has funded this research done by its professors, its appropriate to say this is a "Duke" study.
http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/06/19/1221635110.full.pdf+html

The study finds significant evidence that mistakes in gas drilling--either in casing or cementing--have caused stray thermogenic methane gas to contaminate some water wells.  In this respect, this study's results are consistent with the findings in 2010 of the Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection that gas drilling mistakes had caused methane to contaminate 18 water wells in Dimock, Pennsylvania.

Much of the evidence for Jackson's conclusion that stray gas from mistakes in gas drilling have caused pollution of water wells stems from analysis of the methane found in water wells and high concentrations of ethane and propane, both of which are not associated with microbes or biogenic natural gas.  Jackson also finds a statistically significant correlation between the distance of a water well from gas drilling and concentrations of methane in the 141 water wells.

Here is the Associated Press report on the Duke University study that also mentions a USGS study that found many water wells in areas where no gas drilling takes place have methane of various levels in them.
http://www.ohio.com/news/break-news/natural-gas-drilling-studies-find-methane-in-pennsylvania-drinking-water-1.408356.

Professor Jackson also states in the AP story that Duke University continues to find no evidence of fracking fluids in water wells.  That too has been the finding of testing done by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in 2010 and the Environmental Protection Agency in 2012.

So what to make of the Duke University and USGS studies?

First, gas drilling mistakes in cementing or casing can and have caused stray methane to migrate and contaminate some water wells. I have been saying that now repeatedly for four years! Denying this problem attacks the truth and is a disservice especially to those whose water has indeed been contaminated with methane.

Second, many water wells do have methane in them as a result of its natural presence in varying levels in some waters.  In fact, naturally occurring methane in water is relatively common in some areas, but that does not mean that mistakes in gas drilling cannot cause methane to pollute water wells. Such drilling mistakes can and do.

Third, fracking fluids are not returning from depth and contaminating water wells.

Finally, I am pleased that Duke University (I graduated from it in 1979) used its own resources to fund this study.  This is an example that other wealthy universities should follow!


22 comments:

  1. Good post, overall. However, I'm not sure that I agree with your last paragraph. Why should universities fund research to determine whether industrial activities are harming the environment? That responsibility should fall to a combination of industry, their customers (who benefit from the product), and government. As it stands, there is embarrassingly little government funding to support research on potential shale gas impacts. So researchers not at the "wealthy universities" are unable to participate as much as would be otherwise possible.

    Also, don't we want Pennsylvania students enrolled in Pennsylvania schools to be involved in this research?

    Please be a force to increase state funding for research.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not all universities are wealthy for sure. Indeed, in Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett has cut higher education funding for public universities by $240 million below 2010-2011. Those are disastrous cuts that can and must be reversed for the sake of education and jobs. And I agree that federal support for research and development is among the most important functions of the federal government. Such R&D support has been a key to innovation and productivity leaps. Having said that, some universities are very wealthy, with enormous endowments. Duke is one such place. These institutions can well afford to make sure studies like this one are not funded by industry or foundations with dogs in the fight. When issues are controversial, as shale gas is, it becomes more important that the research be funded by those who are not involved directly in the controversy.

      Delete
  2. How can you say this, with so few wells tested in this particular study?

    Third, fracking fluids are not returning from depth and contaminating water wells.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There have been tens of thousands of wells tested all around the country by homeowners over decades and by many others. There so far has not been one confirmed case of frack fluids returning from depth. Methane migration, however, has also been confirmed for decades. It is the real groundwater problem. Spills at the surface are another real pollution source.

      Delete
  3. I differ with that statement. The problem is not that they have not been found. The problem is that the industry is massively funded and can fight the findings better than the average homeowner and pay experts to blame the contamination on other things.

    However, would you be so kind as to point me to the part of the study that claimed they tested for contaminants from frac fluids? I looked and cannot find it. Maybe I'm missing it, but it seemed to me this study was merely about gases in water wells.

    ReplyDelete
  4. technically they were only testing for natural gas and not other chemicals, if you don't look for it, you aren't going to find it

    "In such a scenario, the geochemical and isotopic compositions of stray gas contamination would not necessarily match the target shale gas, and no fracturing chemicals or deep formation waters would be expected, because a direct connection to the deepest layers does not exist; also, such waters are unlikely to migrate upward.

    however they did find elevated levels of propane and ethane which are components of natural gas

    "Similar to the results for methane, concentrations of ethane(C2H6) and propane (C3H8) were also higher in drinking water of homes near natural gas wells

    Propane was detected in water wells in 10 of 133 homes, all approximately <1 km from a shalegas well ( P =0.01)

    Ethane concentrations were 23 times higher on average for homes <1 km from a gas well"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Precisely! This was a study about gases in water wells. Not chemicals. I have results from some of the Dimock wells and one from the EPA shows Chromium, but they couldn't tell whether it was Trivalent or the more deadly, Hexavalent Chromium. With the barriers of non-disclosure of the "proprietary" chemicals and the extreme financial barriers of testing placed solely on the citizens, not to mention the Suite ode 942 debacle, no one can say with any degree of certainty that these chemicals are not present.

      Delete
    2. Concerned ScientistJune 25, 2013 at 11:56 AM

      That's not true. They were looking for other chemicals and did not find them. That was the purpose of the first paper.

      Delete
    3. Where in the paper does it say they were looking for other chemicals? I read the paper and did not see it. Please show me where it says that.

      Delete
    4. Concerned ScientistJune 25, 2013 at 12:50 PM

      You're right it does not mention it in this paper. It was mentioned in the first Duke paper (osborn et al) that this one uses the data from.

      Delete
  5. Concerned ScientistJune 25, 2013 at 11:10 AM

    More of the same nonsense that was in the last paper. It's a dishonest approach. Hiding beneath all the fancy statistical terms and isotope chemistry is a deeply flawed study designed to get an answer that makes shale gas development look bad or at least to get the author on NPR and get more funding.

    They have had funding in the past from the Park Foundation which funds all things anti-shale gas including Gasland.

    First of all there is no map to show where the samples were taken.

    The fact that part of their data set was the same wells used in the last paper tells much of the story. If you remember, that paper came up with there being 17-times more methane in wells within a km of a gas well. Now they are down to 6 times. You coudl add a bunch of wells where the values for >1km and <1km were the same to a data set where one was 17 times greater than the other and come up with 6 times greater. I'd guess this is still largely driven by the non-random dataset they used in the last paper. The next paper will probably be 2 times greater and the one after that will show no correlation.

    The data set from the first included wells <1km away from gas wells from Dimock which had a known problem of methane migration. These wells were selected non randomly. You can't do that! It woudl be like doing a study of how many airplanes crash and then insisting that half of the flights you include in your data set be known crashes. It also included a bunch of wells that were more than 1km away from a gas well from New York in an area where there was little or no methane either near well or more than a km from the well. In fact 62% of of the wells used for the >1km data set in the first paper were near the new york well. You can't do that either! That skews the whole data set! This would be like doing a study of airplane crashes between Delta and American but only using crashes for Delta and only using successful flights for American. Its non-random! You must do a random study to have it have any value statistically. Plus they still have no baseline data! You can't do this without before and after testing!

    Its less than worthless because it is giving a false result. Shame on Jackson for not listening to any of the criticism of the last paper. He makes your Alma Mater look bad in my book.


    ReplyDelete
  6. Concerned ScientistJune 25, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    Just for everyone's edification: It's public knowledge that Rob Jackson was funded by the Park Foundation for this work:

    "Duke University professor Rob Jackson got $50,000 to continue his work on methane in drinking water."

    http://www.eenews.net/stories/1059961204


    ReplyDelete
  7. There are no methane migration issues in the Western part of Pennsylvania, and in most other places in the country. The geology of the area being tested is unique, and is basically the "perfect storm" for methane migration, especially when coupled with the fact that PA has no private water well construction standards. There are large gas bearing formations right next to aquifers.

    The study may well point this out, but obviously not so much that it made it into any of the news reports I've seen.

    So, the study does show that in certain places, under certain conditions, if gas companies do not employ the proper precautions then gas migration can occasionally occur. We all already knew that.

    But without the proper context, people are undoubtedly going to falsely presume that this is indicative of all drilling in all areas.

    ReplyDelete
  8. WOW! No methane migration issues in Western PA? Really? Are you aware there are hundreds of people in Western PA that now have water buffaloes since drilling began in Western PA?

    ReplyDelete
  9. I realize this study doesn’t address the issue of frack fluids returning from depth, but does it help establish some sort of a baseline? I keep wondering, what’s going to happen when all those wellbore seals start to deteriorate by the tens of thousands in a scant few decades? This is not the legacy Pennsylvania should leave for future generations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Concerned ScientistJune 27, 2013 at 4:32 PM

      Nothing will happen. There are hundreds of thousands of wells that are >50 years old in PA, NY and the rest of the USA. They are not causing any significant groundwater contamination - certainly not the sort of problems that you seem to be afraid of. It's a matter of physics. Denser things sink and less dense things stay on the top. Once the gas is depleted all that is left is salty water that is denser than fresh water. So it stays down and the fresh water stays on top. And it will keep doing that until the laws of physics change. you could leave a well open for a million years and the fresh water would be on the top and the salty water (and any other additives) would still be on the bottom.

      And the Duke study is less than worthless. Ignore it. If everywhere a well was fracked methane levels increased 6-fold then a huge number of people would be able to light their faucets on fire who could not before drilling. Even the most ardent foe of fracking would have to admit that this is not what is happening. Maybe without even realizing it they have cherry picked their data and come up with an incorrect and misleading result.

      Naturally occurring methane in groundwater is very very common in northeast PA and southern NY. In a small percentage of wells, shallow methane in or just below the aquifer gets disturbed during drilling (not fracking) and there is an increase in methane in nearby water wells. Usually this goes away on its own in a few weeks. In a few cases, there has been methane migration behind pipe and longer term problems have arisen such as what has happened at Dimock. Its not the end of the world. Tens of thousands of people have naturally-occurring methane in their water and don't even know it. You just put a vent on your well and then the methane won't enter the house. Lots of people in areas where drilling has never occurred have these vents on their wells.

      Delete
    2. Your continued use of gas industry talking points indicate that you work for the industry and not just a “concerned scientist”. If you really were, you’d probably use your real name, as to have real credibility here.

      There have been many problems with the “60 years of wells” here in Pennsylvania.

      This is from the PA DEPs Plan for Addressing Problem Abandoned Wells and Orphaned Wells from 2000.

      “A. Focus expenditures for plugging problem abandoned wells on those which
      threaten the health and safety of persons or property or pollution of the
      waters of the Commonwealth.

      Of the approximately 8,000 unplugged orphaned wells, 550 are considered problem
      wells. Of the 550 problem wells, approximately 129 are prioritized at 30 points or
      more. Our goal is to give these 129 wells high priority for plugging.”
      http://www.elibrary.dep.state.pa.us/dsweb/Get/Version-48262/

      Delete
  10. Orphaned, conventional gas wells are a problem, and there are over 100,000 in Pennsylvania. Also, while I'm not a physicist, or even a scientist, i do know that liquids and gases move from high pressure to low pressure, Fracking opens new pathways, yes? I'm with the 100,000 Pennsylvanians who believe the process should be studied much more thoroughly and openly before we continue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Concerned ScientistJune 28, 2013 at 3:10 PM

      You're absolutely right. Fluids and gas move from higher pressure to lower pressure. When a well is drilled, fracked and perforated and starts flowing, the lowest pressure by far is INSIDE the well bore. That is why wells flow! Once wells are flowing everything wants to flow out of the ground and into the pipe and then up. These wells are designed to last for a long time. Once they are depleted, the pressure at the Marcellus will actually be lower than the pressure above the Marcellus. Nothing is going to flow out of the MArcellus at that point. If anything, fluids will flow into the Marcellus (but at very very slow rates.

      The assumption made by you and others is that this has never been studied. This is a false assumption. It has been studied for decades by experts in geology and engineering. Companies have a financial incentive to have everything flow inside the pipe. The bedrock in northeast PA has issues with being very gassy just below the aquifer. This was never going to be learned if there was a moratorium. The only way to find out what was going on was to drill wells and figure out the problem and then come up with better ways to drill, case and cement the wells. That is exactly what they have done.

      There is a good deal of hubris amongst those fighting shale gas. Many people like Josh Fox, Abrahm Lustgarten, many of the activists, a few misguided biology professors and others assumed that after studying it for a few days they were smarter and understood the problems better than regulators and oil and gas company experts. They don't. They have people worried about things that will never happen or that are minor issues. They also have lost sight of the bigger picture which is that shale gas has been a huge net positive for the environment because it displaces coal which is far worse in every way.

      Delete
    2. Just to be clear, since you are misrepresenting the views of hundreds of thousands of people, serious concerns include 1. health impacts, from every phase of shale gas development, which should be studied FIRST. When a four year old child has severe intestinal pain for over a year, as happened to Stacey Haney's son for example, it shouldn't take doctors OVER A YEAR to figure out, duh, it's because of an insanely polluting fracking waste pit nearby which contaminated the Haney and Voyles families' water and air and killed many animals (just to take one example. if we STUDIED FIRST as New York is doing, these deaths and illnesses, displacement and disasters, would not be happening in PA. 2. fracking impacts on climate: methane is CO2 on steroids, and in the field methane is leaking at 7 - 17%, not the 1% which would have given it an advantage over coal 3. intense air pollution from drilling, fracking, trucks, flaring, compressor stations, and more 4. stupendous amounts of drilling fluids, toxic flowback, and other industrial chemicals spilling onto land and water at the surface and entering groundwater through a dozen migratory pathways. 5. radioactive drill cuttings and the radium 226, uranium, etc. in fracking flowback 6. earthquakes caused by re-injection wells 7. widespread methane migration 8. chemicals associated with fracking showing up in people's drinking water, such as the BENZENE at 50 times the safe limit for drinking water, in water wells in Wyoming 9. speaking of Wyoming: smog, caused by the VOCs from shale gas development interacting with sunlight -- 10. corruption on a massive scale, as the industry spews money into politicians' pockets and uses their access to write the laws, from the Halliburton Loophole to Act 13 and more.

      Delete
    3. Just to be clear, since you are misrepresenting the views of hundreds of thousands of people, serious concerns include 1. Health impacts, from every phase of shale gas development, which should be studied FIRST. When a four year old child has severe intestinal pain for over a year, as happened to Stacy Haney's son, it shouldn't take doctors OVER A YEAR to figure out, duh, it's because of an insanely polluting fracking waste pit nearby which contaminated the Haney and Voyles families' water and air and killed many animals (just to take one example). if we STUDIED HEALTH IMPACTS while maintaining a moratorium, as New York is doing, these deaths and illnesses, displacements and disasters, would not be happening in PA. 2. Shale gas development impacts on climate: methane is CO2 on steroids, and in the field methane is leaking at 3.9% to 17%, not the 1% or even 2% which would have given it an advantage over coal 3. Intense air pollution from drilling, fracking, trucks, flaring, compressor stations, and more 4. Stupendous amounts of drilling fluids, toxic flowback, and other industrial chemicals spilling onto land and water at the surface and entering groundwater through a dozen migratory pathways. 5. Radioactive drill cuttings and the radium 226, uranium, etc. in fracking flowback 6. Earthquakes caused by re-injection wells 7. Widespread methane migration 8. Chemicals associated with fracking showing up in people's drinking water, such as the benzene at 50 times the safe limit for drinking water, in water wells in Wyoming 9. Speaking of Wyoming: smog, caused by the VOCs from shale gas development interacting with sunlight -- 10. Corruption on a massive scale, as the industry spews money into politicians' pockets and uses their access to write the laws, from the Halliburton Loophole to Act 13 and more.

      Delete
  11. If it IS so safe...why are they not covered under the CLEAN WATER ACT?? WHY?? Why does PA not have a gas tax on drilling, as other states do?? With all the increased drilling, cut the DEP by half, and put a gas industry puppet in charge of the DEP. Great idea...if'n you is an idiot.

    ReplyDelete