Debunking the Myth that Fracking Causes Water Contamination

bricksIn the ongoing heated debate over hydraulic fracturing, can we all at least agree that chemical contamination does not come from the mostly water and sand (with a little bit of chemical additive) that is pumped a mile or more below the earth’s surface? The general public hears from the media echo chamber that “fracking threatens water supplies” and assumes that somehow, in some way, chemicals will rise up from a mile below the ground and contaminate water wells and aquifers near the surface. It just doesn’t happen—it’s a physical impossibility. Here’s an excellent analogy recently printed in Popular Mechanics to put it in perspective:

The idea stressed by fracking critics that deep-injected fluids will migrate into groundwater is mostly false. Basic geology prevents such contamination from starting below ground. A fracture caused by the drilling process would have to extend through the several thousand feet of rock that separate deep shale gas deposits from freshwater aquifers.

According to geologist Gary Lash of the State University of New York at Fredonia, the intervening layers of rock have distinct mechanical properties that would prevent the fissures from expanding a mile or more toward the surface. It would be like stacking a dozen bricks on top of each other, he says, and expecting a crack in the bottom brick to extend all the way to the top one. What’s more, the fracking fluid itself, thickened with additives, is too dense to ascend upward through such a channel.*

So if contamination of water supplies does not happen from below the ground, from the fracking process itself, how might it happen? Spills on top of the ground. Truck accidents. Railroad accidents. The things that can and do happen every day across America in non-gas industries. Trains have accidents and carloads of chemicals get spilled. Trucks have accidents along the highway and chemicals get spilled. Gas drilling is no different. From time to time (and very infrequently) something will spill on top of the ground. There is no industrial business on earth that is 100 percent accident-free. It’s just not reasonable to force gas drilling to be accident-free when no other business is held to the same standard.

The fracking process itself is not the problem and is not the reason a water supplies would ever become contaminated with chemicals.

*Ocean Resources/Popular Mechanics (Sep 12, 2011) – Is Fracking Safe? The Top 10 Myths About Natural Gas Drilling: Myth #4

  • Anonymous

    This article needs to be read by everyone involved in the oil patch, as well as those who are misinformed about the fracking process and it’s supposed risk that is poses to ground water.  Truth is a difficult commodity to come by at times…  Thank you for making the truth known, Mr. Willis. 

  • Thanks! And, you’re welcome. Let’s continue to push the truth in hopes that more will understand and embrace it.

  • Water contamination results from spills, leaks, and illegal disposal of highly contaminated flowback water. Water contamination results from the industry behaving badly and deliberately cutting corners to maximize profit. No one is disputing the science. We are disputing the practical application and abuse of the science by unscrupulous people. Dunkard Creek, after all, is still dead. The residents of dimock did, in fac,t lose their water wells, and the offending company was, in fact, fined for cutting corners and ordered to make restitution. Pam Judy and her family, in Carmichaels, Greene County, are being sickened by the compressor facility built upwind of her now worthless home and spewing a panoply of toxic hydrocarbons, when it would be comparatively cheap to install pollution control equipment on this equipment. Oh, and I can trump your friendly geologist with a WVU hydrogeologist who literally wrote the book (a series of them, in fact) on acid mine drainage. Our corner of the Commonwealth has never recovered from a century of damage left behind by un- and poorly regulated coal mining, and were simply not prepared to trust our health and safety to a new extractive industry and its media flacks. I will never sign a lease, and I’ll fight any attempt to force me to do so.

  • BinFranklin

    The question is whether the entire gas extraction process, from start to finish including decades after the wells are plugged and abandoned, can pollute an underground aquifer.  Should that happen, it would be extremely difficult to clean up and possibly prohibitively expensive.  Thereby making land above worthless for home or farm. 

    Thousands of feet of solid rock would be an impermiable barrier to pollution.  Unfortunately that is hard to find.  In the real world, rock is riven with bedding planes, fractures, joints, and faults.  It is flow through these, not the pore spaces, that controls ground water.  (Underground is more like a dry-laid stone wall than a mortared brick wall.)  While it unlikely that shale gas or frac fluid could directly rise that distance along these pathways, it is not impossible.  (How many times has the industry assured us that something is impossible and then when it happens say that no one could have forseen it?)  More likely the fluids would escape through defective casing either directly into the aquifer or from not far below the aquifer along these pathways.

    Despite all the claims that this process it perfectly safe, I know of no studies to back them up.  In the decade since horizontal drilling was combined with slick-water fracing, neither industry or govenment has made the effort.  Aquifers would be tested before and periodically after drilling.  And the testing would be for the chemicals commonly used in drilling and fracing — not the industry’s usual of Na and TDS.  Given that the O&G industry has both the opportunity and resources for such studies, you have to wonder why they don’t prove their claims.  What other reason but that they know that they would in fact find some cases of polluiton.

  • Feel free to never sign a lease Julieann–no one supports that more than I do. However, you still (after what, dozens of comments?) still do not acknowledge that Dunkard Creek had nothing to do with the gas industry. And my larger point with this article is, the average person that only listens to the media thinks chemical contamination from gas drilling comes up from the ground–that is somehow leaches upward. My point is that it does not. Yes, if companies cut corners, they need to be held to account and made to pay–big time. Thankfully, not that many of them do.

  • I would heartily support such a study and think that the O&G industry should undertake it–we agree. Is it possible that someday, somewhere fracking fluid will or maybe has already migrated to the surface? Perhaps. But of the tens of thousands of wells horizontally fracked in the past 7-8 years, there are no documented cases. Not saying that it’s a metaphysical certitude there are none–I’m just saying even if one or two, or five or ten exist, it’s statistically 0%. We can’t hold the drilling industry to a zero incident standard when we don’t do it for any other industry in existence.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Anonymous

    Exactly my point. Your statement that “But of the tens of thousands of wells horizontally fracked in the past 7-8 years that there is no documented cases.”  is industry propaganda.  It is more correct to say that  ” … there is no documented of gas wells not having polluted aquifers.”  (Nationally there are hundreds of cases of home owners reporting aquifer pollution and there are a few cases where the data is very strong that the extraction process polluted the aquifer, although some how that data is never good enough for the industry.)  The industry is deceiving the public by claiming the lack of data is proof that there is no problem.  This is a tried and true tactic used by industries as diverse as asbestos, tobacco, DDT, and lead. Each of these industries milked this line of argument to avoid regulation for decades, to the detriment of thousands of poor souls.  The O&G industry has had 7-8 years and has not even begun such a study.  If history serves, the industry will act to prevent any such study –  see its actions with respect to the ongoing EPA fracing study — until its back is against the wall and, with regulation imminent, then propose a lengthy study to further delay such regulation.  There is no question that fracking results in some pollution, and an intelligent discussion of the regulation of the extraction process depends on knowing what are the probablities.  That the industry avoids gathering such data suggests that the data would not support the industry’s positions.  As a start, in PA the industry is required to sample aquifers before and after drilling — although not for chemicals actually used in drilling and fracking.  Last time I checked, the industry was still refusing to release that data set.

  • Anonymous

    I have been doing research for some public officials in Ohio.  I have been promoting the Marcellus movement.  But safety issues have raised an awareness about the stance of the industry.  The industry is so paranoid about bad press that they are appearing to take a propaganda stance against legitimate concerns about public safety and health.  I am all for econmic growth and energy independence but it is important to acknowledge possible negative impacts and take a proactive position toward public safety.  Hinting that gas explorations have to be more responsible than other industries is just the opposite. Hydrolic fracking is exempt from clean water and safe water legislation (the halliburton loophole). This allows for the industry to keep fracking fluids a secret which in many cases makes it impossible to present a smoking gun and skews the data on contamination responsibility.  I think a better approach would be to acknowledge the risks and vow to work along with the community to identify and quickly respond to contamination problems that occassionally accompany the fracking process. Then the opportunities can be measured against the consequences.  We may find out that the quarter is not shiney but is still worth twenty-five cents.

  •  At least the topic is NOT earthquakes.