UT Study: No Link Between Fracking & Groundwater Contamination

broken chainIn November of last year, the Energy Institute at the University of Texas (UT) announced preliminary findings that hydraulic fracturing does not contaminate groundwater (see this MDN story). The final version of the study has now been released (see a full copy of the report embedded below).

The study is titled “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development” and focuses on reports of groundwater contamination and other environmental impacts of shale gas exploration and production in states covering the Barnett, Marcellus and Haynesville Shales. It is a detailed and thorough research study, and does not gloss over potential problems with drilling, pointing out that many of the negative issues in shale gas drilling are from oil and gas drilling in general, not specific to horizontal hydraulic fracturing.

Here are some of the key findings in the report:

  • Researchers found no evidence of aquifer contamination from hydraulic fracturing chemicals in the subsurface by fracturing operations, and observed no leakage from hydraulic fracturing at depth.
  • Many reports of groundwater contamination occur in conventional oil and gas operations (e.g., failure of well-bore casing and cementing) and are not unique to hydraulic fracturing.
  • Methane found in water wells within some shale gas areas (e.g., Marcellus) can most likely be traced to natural sources, and likely was present before the onset of shale gas operations.
  • Surface spills of fracturing fluids appear to pose greater risks to groundwater sources than from hydraulic fracturing itself.
  • Blowouts — uncontrolled fluid releases during construction or operation — are a rare occurrence, but subsurface blowouts appear to be under-reported.

A fascinating section of the report takes a close look at how the media is covering shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Both national and local media are uniformly about two-thirds negative and only 10-15 percent positive in their coverage. That simple fact has a profound effect on the public’s attitudes toward shale gas drilling.

Take time to read through this important new study.

  • I read it, all 414 pages.  It comprises a summary (44 pages), four white papers (WPs), and two appendixes (about the authors and their institute).   The first WP presents original research by the author on the topical content of media coverage and public opinion about shale gas extraction. The second WP is a long review article that focuses on a set of environmental questions. It’s obviously in draft form given the appearance of “REFERENCE” in red font in various places to remind the author to insert a reference.  It’s strong point is using the chronology of the process to organize the discussion. The third and fourth WPs pull together data from several states about regulations and violations (with a focus on what can be learned about contaminations from the violations), respectively. Both of these WPs are labelled “Rough draft: do not cite without permission.”People should read it, not the summary bullet points taken out of context.  The MarcellusDrilling title is misleading, at best.Here’s a more balanced analysis:1. It’s premature of U Texas to release this report. Two of the papers on which the summary section is based are labelled “rough draft,” one is obviously still in draft form, and none of the four have been published in a peer-reviewed journal, let alone subject to external review. My guess is that there is some big grant money or earmark coming to fund Centers in this area and U Texas is positioning itself to compete with Cornell.2. This group would benefit from adding an epidemiologist and an economist/policy expert.  Policy should be framed in cost/benefit terms and a geologist isn’t qualified to write a review/opinion on health impacts.3. The analytic frameworks set up in WPs 2-4 are valuable. The main message is that those frameworks are sparsely populated with data and that more work needs to be done. The tables in WPs 3 and 4 have more empty cells than filled ones and one can’t even make out what the empty cells means–do they mean there is no data available?  If so, what does the notation ‘NA’ mean in other cells.  The point that the research should be prioritized based on risk is correct.Happy reading.

  • Pingback: Soros-backed PAI Makes University of Texas Look Foolish | Marcellus Drilling News()