Former PA DEP Officials, Industry Group Point Out Problems with Duke University Study Linking Methane in Water with Fracking

More questions cast doubt on the Duke study which claims to prove there is a link between gas drilling and high concentrations of methane in nearby well water, including from someone quoted in the Duke study itself:

The [Pennsylvania] commonwealth’s longtime stray gas inspector said he is "a little bit disappointed" with the study. Fred Baldassare, who now owns Echelon Applied Geoscience Consulting, said the authors fail to address the prevalence of naturally occurring thermogenic methane – gas that comes from deep underground, not from the breakdown of biological matter near the surface – in shallower geological layers between the surface and the Marcellus Shale.

"I’m not saying that gas well activity doesn’t cause gas migration, because of course it has," said Baldassare, whose research is cited three times in the Duke paper. "We have documented cases of gas migration to private water supplies as a result of drilling activity." But he added, "I think we have to take great care in trying to define what’s there naturally before we make judgments and conclusions about the origin of the gasses."

In documented cases of stray gas caused by drilling in Susquehanna and Bradford counties, state regulators have found the gas migrating not from the Marcellus Shale but from shallower gas-bearing formations.

Baldassare said he is concerned the study might imply a migration straight from the Marcellus to aquifers, which he said he would "absolutely dispute."(1)

Former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) John Hanger had this to say on his blog:

DEP furthermore found that the gas that was migrating in the Dimock area was Devonian gas located at about 1,000 to 3,000 feet.  Devonian gas is above Marcellus gas.  DEP concluded that the Devonian gas had not been isolated as a result of poor drilling practices.

Bradford and Susquehanna counties have had many more gas migration problems than counties in Southwest Pennsylvania.  Had Duke University done this study in Washington, Greene, and counties in the Southwest it would have reached different conclusions.  The reasons for the geographic difference in the incidence or rate of gas migration include geological differences in the counties, quality of gas drilling in the respective areas, or some of both.

Gas migration has been a problem in Pennsylvania for decades, well before the first Marcellus well was drilled in 2005.(2)

And this from industry group Energy in Depth (EID):

Problem #1: The data itself: Small data set, no random sampling, and no baseline information whatsoever.

Problem #2: Authors intentionally down-play the fact that thermogenic methane was found in nearly every well they sampled – even in wells in areas with no natural gas development to be found.

Problem #3: Authors concede that hydraulic fracturing likely had zero impact on water wells – but you’d never know by the paper’s title, or by the op-ed they ran in Tuesday’s Philadelphia Inquirer.

Problem #4: Authors blame methane migration on failures in well-casing (without any supporting evidence) – but don’t include anything about well-casing in their recommendations section.

Problem #5: Once again, politics plays a central role in guiding the direction and recommendations of the paper.(3)

See full explanations for each of EID’s “problems” by clicking the “Durham Bull” link below.

(1) The Daily Review (May 11, 2011) – DEP to review study linking shale drilling to methane contamination

(2) Facts of the Day (May 9, 2011) – Comments on Duke University Study Regarding Methane Contamination of Water Wells

(3) Energy in Depth (May 10, 2011) – Durham Bull

  • Stan Scobie

    I have read the original “Duke” study and also former DEP Secretary Hanger’s curious statement:

    “Had Duke University done this study in Washington, Greene, and counties
    in the Southwest it would have reached different conclusions.”

    Obviously Hanger is not a scientist or able here to take a scientific approach. That is, since there is no scientific data from SW PA, how could we possibly know how such a study would turn out?

    Second, in reading the study closely I find two curious anomalies that have to be attributed to careless editing but are also a cause for confusion:

    In Table 2 the total number of wells is stated as 34. Yet the study was of a total of 68 wells. What happened, regarding the information in Table 2, to the other 34 wells?

    Also, in the very last paragraph, entitled Methods, there are only 67 wells accounted for, not the 68 reported as the full study set. Where is the other one?

    I’ll be sending the authors an email asking about these apparently lost data. As far as Hanger goes, I would like to ask him to just calm down a little on this obviously very emotional and touchy subject.

    Stanley R Scobie, Ph.D. Binghamton, NY

  • Otegogas

    “Scientific American” has provided a good summary of the recent Duke study that found elevated levels of methane in well water near Marcellus gas wells.

    1. The methane was from the formation – thermogenic, not from organic sources (cows)

    2. Methane was in 85% of the water wells tested within a kilometer of a gas wells.

    3. The methane averaged double the safe level recommended by the Dept of the Interior. One water well was 6 x

    4. Since methane is a gas, it would be the first component to rise and appear in ground water.

    -The absence of fracking chemicals in the water tested is not a surprise; as liquids, they are less likely to rise into the groundwater.

    5. There are several mechanism that can introduce methane into groundwater, starting with the drilling of the well itself.

    – Prior to casing the well, the uncased well bore can release methane which may rise into the groundwater.


  • Bob Rosen

    The Duke study may very well turn out to be the nail in the
    coffin of hydrofracking. If followup studies provide addtional confirmation from
    baseline data, then it’s DEAD, and nothing the O&G industry says or does
    will ever resurrect the corpse.
    What the study is saying is that
    hydrofracking significantly increases the risk of methane contamination of
    drinking water. The further away you are from an active drilling site, the less
    likely you will have a problem.It matters not in the least where the
    methane is coming from (above or below the Marcellus, the Utica, etc.) or
    whether some of it is “naturally occurring” or not. If proximity to a
    fracked gas well is shown to increase the chances of you being able to light
    your faucet, thus rendering your drinking water non-potable and the value of
    your property zilch, then that’s the end. Period. Who will be fool enough to
    play Russian roulette with their water, just for a royalty check?Of
    course, if the income means that much to them, some people would do it anyway.
    But not nearly enough to make it worth it to a gas company to make the enormous
    investment.So the only question is: will the study hold up? Anyone who
    bets it won’t is an even bigger fool. Rob Jackson has put his name on
    it. That’s THE Rob Jackson. Nicholas Chair of Global Environmental Change at
    Duke, and currently Director of Duke’s Center on Global Change and Duke’s Stable
    Isotope Mass Spectrometry Laboratory. And the Director of the Department of
    Energy-funded National Institute for Climate Change Research for the
    southeastern U.S. and Co-Director of the Climate Change Policy
    Partnership.The Prof. Jackson who appears regularly on NPR and is
    officially cited in “the top 0.5% of most cited scientific researchers,” with
    more than 150 peer-reviewed publications to his name. And that’s not
    some marginal science journal that has vetted his study and put its stamp of
    approval on his team’s methodology and conclusions. That’s The Proceedings Of
    The National Academy Of Sciences. It doesn’t get any higher than that. In
    prestige, way way higher than the EPA.

    Lots of Luck. “Former PA DEP officials” and the O&G lobbying front group Energy in Depth have raised questions?? LOL.

  • AreaMan

    Good synopsis.

    The point I would emphasize is that little of this has to do with hydraulic fracturing – only that the well exists in the first place. Perhaps I missed it, but the authors didn’t distinguish between vertical and horizontal wells so we are left with the assumption that all gas wells alluded to are horizontal and have been fractured.

    The paper is good and illustrates a significant problem. However, my biggest complaint is the authors use the platform in the last few paragraphs to go on the offensive about hydraulic fracturing when the data doesn’t support it. There is a fundamental and vital difference between stray gas contamination and contamination from the fracturing process. This point is being lost as the discussion of gas drilling freely interchanges contaminants. I commented on another thread, but dealing with methane in a water well is significantly different then having an aquifer contaminated with heavy metals, radioactive materials, etc.
    The paper mentions the need for more study – it would be nice to see the follow-up on casing and cement designs/success on the nearby gas wells. If they can point to improperly cased wells as the culprit, industry best practice may be the only needed solution moving forward.

  • Excellent points all, thanks for making them. More study? You bet. Let’s have it. And this time include southwest PA, the panhandle of WV, and eastern OH.

    Your initial point was the one I was trying to make in some of my comments on the original article…and apparently keeps getting lost. You state it better than I have. My point: the study’s premise is that horizontal gas drilling (not vertical drilling) is supposedly the culprit when it’s combined with fracking. The fact they used wells in Otsego County, NY, where no horizontal drilling happens, confuses the results because wells in that area are only vertically drilled. It’s an apples and oranges comparison.

    As you say, they make unwarranted recommendations at the end that are not in line with the premise of the research.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  • Bob Rosen

    dealing with methane in a water well is significantly different then having an aquifer contaminated with heavy metals, radioactive materials, etc.”

    Oh yeah? If your drinking water is contaminated by methane, your water supply is kaput, and so is the value of your home. You’re screwed.

  • AreaMan

    I don’t think this is the case.
    I’ll mention that I do not have a well nearby nor significant methane contamination in my water so perhaps my take on property value isn’t correct, but methane in a water well is very treatable. Depending on the specifics, the head space of the well can be vented, a methane treatment system can be installed to strip it out, etc. These sorts of systems are very prevalent and common throughout Pennsylvania and have been for the last 30 years. As has been stated before, methane in water is NOT poisonous but it is an issue when it accumulates and can have explosive potential.

    A major concern about methane in the water is when you DON’T know it’s there, that’s when it is potentially hazardous. Once it is identified, steps can be taken to mitigate.

    Perhaps I don’t know or understand some of the cases – I would like to learn if there’s any info I could be pointed to.

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