NETL Study of Faults & Fracking, Are We Being Set Up?

The Set UpUsing Greene County, Pennsylvania as a living laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) is testing whether or not faults, or large cracks that sometimes exist through multiple rock layers, can create a pathway for hydraulic fracturing fluids to migrate to aquifers.

That is, they’re testing whether or not fracking can pollute groundwater supplies under certain conditions.

Federal researchers are testing whether hydraulic fracturing fluids can travel thousands of feet via geologic faults into drinking water aquifers close to the surface, a US Department of Energy official said Friday.

A fault from the Marcellus Shale formation, which is thousands of feet below the surface, could provide "a quick pathway for fracking fluids to migrate upwards," said Richard Hammack, a spokesman for the US Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.

The experiment is being carried out at a site in Greene County in southwestern Pennsylvania where conventional shallow wells were drilled and long since capped, NETL said on its website. Drillers are now actively drilling in the county in the Marcellus Shale formation.

The study will provide regulators, landowners and the general public "an unbiased, science-based source of information which can guide decisions about shale gas development," NETL said.

The study also will help the industry "develop better methods to monitor for undesired environmental changes" and develop technology or management practices to address the changes, NETL said.

Speaking at a congressional briefing in Washington, Hammack said faults "form a plane that allows fluids to move up through the frack." Some faults can be easily seen and avoided, but Hammack said some faults are not easily detected and could extend from the Marcellus Shale formation into other formations close to the surface.

The testing "is taking place right now," Hammack said. "It should be completed next week. Within a month, we will have the micro-seismic data that will show how high [how far] fracture fluids have migrated upwards" toward the surface.*

MDN notices a couple of interesting things about this study by the NETL. First, this is the first time MDN has heard of this study being conducted. For such an important study, you would think it would be well-publicized. Coming “out of nowhere” raises a red flag. Why did NETL hide the fact they were conducting this study? Second, proclaiming Greene County, PA the perfect spot to conduct these tests, and that it can serve as a proxy, as an example for all geographies, strikes MDN as stretching the facts the fit the science. Not all geographies are the same. The results of the NETL study in Greene County can conceivably be relevant for that part of PA—but not even for all of PA, nor for NY, nor for OH or WV either. How prevalent are these faults? Are they more numerous in some geographies and not others? Because this study concentrates on one area, how will we know the results of the study can and do apply to other areas?

The announcement that the results from this study will be ready within a month and “then we’ll know, we’ll have unbiased science” sure feels like a set up. It feels like the researchers have already jiggered the results the way they want them to go and they know what those results will be, and it won’t be favorable to the drilling industry.

As with all good, and frankly “real” science, the proof will be when they open up their results so we all can evaluate what processes they used. What data went into the experiment. And what the raw results were.

Good science, real science (and not junk science) is repeatable, measurable, and testable. So before we simply accept the results of the NETL study as the authoritative, last word on whether or not fracking fluids can migrate, other scientists will need time to test and verify those results.

*Platts News (Jun 8, 2012) – US DOE testing for links between faults, groundwater pollution