New “Research” Says Fracking will Contaminate Aquifers

A new research paper titled “Potential Contaminant Pathways from Hydraulically Fractured Shale to Aquifers,” bought and paid for by anti-drilling organizations Catskill Mountainkeeper and the Park Foundation, christened “peer-reviewed” and published in an obscure journal called Ground Water, concludes that fracking fluids won’t stay put a mile below solid rock and will instead travel uphill, through that mile of solid rock, and contaminate water aquifers—within a few years.

What scientific method was used to conduct this all-important research that foretells the end of safe drinking water as we know it? Computer models. Yeah, the author of this “important new study” sat and played with computer models, got a few of his buddies to sign off on his “research,” got paid a boatload of money from anti-drilling organizations and published it. And now, shazam, everyone is supposed to run for the hills and end all fracking everywhere. Nice try.

The “father of the Marcellus Shale,” Penn State professor Dr. Terry Engelder, said the study’s author doesn’t understand shale geology and questioned using computer models instead of empirical research—i.e., going into the field and observing and testing. But then, that would take like, work!

Here’s how ProPublica covers the new study:

A new study has raised fresh concerns about the safety of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, concluding that fracking chemicals injected into the ground could migrate toward drinking water supplies far more quickly than experts have previously predicted.

More than 5,000 wells were drilled in the Marcellus between mid-2009 and mid-2010, according to the study, which was published in the journal Ground Water two weeks ago. Operators inject up to 4 million gallons of fluid, under more than 10,000 pounds of pressure, to drill and frack each well.

Scientists have theorized that impermeable layers of rock would keep the fluid, which contains benzene and other dangerous chemicals, safely locked nearly a mile below water supplies. This view of the earth’s underground geology is a cornerstone of the industry’s argument that fracking poses minimal threats to the environment.

But the study, using computer modeling, concluded that natural faults and fractures in the Marcellus, exacerbated by the effects of fracking itself, could allow chemicals to reach the surface in as little as "just a few years."

"Simply put, [the rock layers] are not impermeable," said the study’s author, Tom Myers, an independent hydrogeologist whose clients include the federal government and environmental groups.

"The Marcellus shale is being fracked into a very high permeability," he said. "Fluids could move from most any injection process."

The research for the study was paid for by Catskill Mountainkeeper and the Park Foundation, two upstate New York organizations that have opposed gas drilling and fracking in the Marcellus.

Much of the debate about the environmental risks of gas drilling has centered on the risk that spills could pollute surface water or that structural failures would cause wells to leak.

Though some scientists believed it was possible for fracking to contaminate underground water supplies, those risks have been considered secondary. The study in Ground Water is the first peer-reviewed research evaluating this possibility.

The study did not use sampling or case histories to assess contamination risks. Rather, it used software and computer modeling to predict how fracking fluids would move over time. The simulations sought to account for the natural fractures and faults in the underground rock formations and the effects of fracking.

The models predict that fracking will dramatically speed up the movement of chemicals injected into the ground. Fluids traveled distances within 100 years that would take tens of thousands of years under natural conditions. And when the models factored in the Marcellus’ natural faults and fractures, fluids could move 10 times as fast as that.

Where man-made fractures intersect with natural faults, or break out of the Marcellus layer into the stone layer above it, the study found, "contaminants could reach the surface areas in tens of years, or less."

The study also concluded that the force that fracking exerts does not immediately let up when the process ends. It can take nearly a year to ease.

As a result, chemicals left underground are still being pushed away from the drill site long after drilling is finished. It can take five or six years before the natural balance of pressure in the underground system is fully restored, the study found.

Myers’ research focused exclusively on the Marcellus, but he said his findings may have broader relevance. Many regions where oil and gas is being drilled have more permeable underground environments than the one he analyzed, he said.

Several scientists called Myers’ approach unsophisticated and said that the assumptions he used for his models didn’t reflect what they knew about the geology of the Marcellus Shale. If fluids could flow as quickly as Myers asserts, said Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University who has been a proponent of shale development, fracking wouldn’t be necessary to open up the gas deposits.

"This would be a huge fracture porosity," Engelder said. "So I read this and I say, ‘Golly, does this guy really understand anything about what these shales look like?’ The concern then arises from using a model rather than observations."*

MDN wonders if perhaps Mr. Myers used the same computer models that scientists have been using for the past 30 years telling us that Mother Earth was warming up and we would all bake—within the next 10 years. Yeah, gotta love those trusty computer models.

*ProPublica (May 1, 2012) – New Study Predicts Frack Fluids Can Migrate to Aquifers Within Years

  • Anonymous

    Also, isn’t the purpose of the fracking to get the gas. This means that the frack water has to move”against” the pressure of the gas that it just released. It is amazing to me the lengths that these people go to to try to defend their arguments.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Carol-Roberts/100001624531700 Brian-Carol Roberts

    Re: Computer modeling – GIGO
     

  • Anonymous

    Jim,
    Do you realize that you are doing the same thing that this poorly designed study  is doing when you dismiss climate change in the face of overwhelming research to the contrary just as this study ignores overwhelming evidence that fracking is safe?
      Climate change isn’t about hotter temperatures baking the earth; it is about more energy in the atmosphere disrupting food production [ more droughts and floods ], more violent weather events [ note the record number of tornadoes in the first three months of this year ] , rising ocean levels, and acidification of the oceans leading to damage to the ocean’s food chain.
      A famous philosopher , Schopenhauer said that all truths go through three stages…
          1.First it is ridiculed .
          2. Then it is violently opposed.
          3.Finally it is accepted as self-evident…..

  • Anonymous

    Computer models are only as good as they simulate real conditions and processes.  However this study is vastly more sophisticated than the pathetic mathematical study that is included in Appendix 11 of the SGEIS “Analysis of Subsurface Mability of Fracturing Fluids” by ICF International consultants.  That said, judging these simulations often depends on the reputation of the researcher because it is usually impossible for outsiders to understand the modelling involved.

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