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Study Raises New Concerns About Fracking

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Posted on May 3, 2012
eggrole (CC BY 2.0)

Because of fracking, the sight of oily water bubbling to the surface is likely to become more common near the Marcellus Shale.

By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

This piece originally appeared at ProPublica.

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.” 

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“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.

“One would have to say that the possible travel times for a similar thing in Arkansas or Northeast Texas is probably faster than what I’ve come up with,” Myers said.

Ground Water is the journal of the National Ground Water Association, a non-profit group that represents scientists, engineers and businesses in the groundwater industry.

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.” 

Myers likened the shale to a cracked window, saying that samples showing it didn’t contain fractures were small in size and were akin to only examining an intact section of glass, while a broader, scaled out view would capture the faults and fractures that could leak. 

Both scientists agreed that direct evidence of fluid migration is needed, but little sampling has been done to analyze where fracking fluids go after being injected underground. 

Myers says monitoring systems could be installed around gas well sites to measure for changes in water quality, a measure required for some gold mines, for example. Until that happens, Myers said, theoretical modeling has to substitute for hard data.

“We were trying to use the basic concepts of groundwater and hydrology and geology and say can this happen?” he said. “And that had basically never been done.” 

 


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By prosefights, May 4, 2012 at 7:28 pm Link to this comment

Pickens stated he lost #150 million in wind power investments.

http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/breakout/boone-pickens-don-t-expect-natural-gas-prices-192714732.html

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By prosefights, May 4, 2012 at 7:14 pm Link to this comment

Google ‘t boone pickens wind fracking’

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By JoeTWallace, May 4, 2012 at 5:23 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Shouldn’t we test the possibility that fracking fluids can migrate to aquifers before we go all-out on this technology? What if we contaminate our water and end up with all the natural gas we can drink? What if, as a result of fracking, potable water is reduced from abundance to scarcity and can be decontaminated only at great expense? Is an abundance of natural gas worth more than an abundance of fresh water?

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By Marian Griffith, May 4, 2012 at 3:04 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I guess the logical next step is doing an experiment.

Put a ten year moratorium on fracking and have a test run done without the dangerous chemicals. Then see how close to the surface the injected fluids have come after ten years.

Or if the process has been going on in some other place stop that operation and see how far the contamination has spread since it started.

But ... I guess it is easier to cast doubts on science and dismiss it as irrelevant (unless it tells us what we want to hear).

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By Maani, May 3, 2012 at 7:04 pm Link to this comment

drjny:

True, there was not a mass exodus.  But what there HAS been is not simply an increase in complaints and problems, but also a huge number of lawsuits against fracking companies for everything from fraudulent leases to willful negligence.  And in EVERY state in which fracking is occurring, the overwhelming majority of landowners RUE that they ever agreed to lease any of their land to fracking companies.

And the attempt to compare fracking to traffic accidents is about as intellecutally dishonest as anything I have ever seen on these boards: there is not even an iota of connection or comparison between them.

Nice try.

Peace.

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By drjny, May 3, 2012 at 5:44 pm Link to this comment

The truth is….no one is moving in mass exodus out of Pennsylvania, Ohio nor did they move out of Texas where the barnett Shale was hydrofracked.  The more recent posts speak of FEAR NOT FACT.  People in the Northeast readily accept millions of tons of salt on their highways each winter for their personal convenience, yet this salt gets into the river basins that drain into our major river tributaries.  People die each year on major Intersatates, yet no one complains about deaths on our highways and proposes that we shut down these routes.  It’s all about “not in my back yard” and “keep me out of this”.  Shut off the natural gas to schools and hospitals and see where the cries come from.

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By SoTexGuy, May 3, 2012 at 1:49 pm Link to this comment

Awful! But I hear a big yawn from (an industry friendly) Congress over this.

Until there’s cold-fusion (even if?) the only answer to the problem is producing and using much less energy per capita. Very few people are ready for that… and neither is big business.

That’s what I think, anyway.

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By RHONDA, May 3, 2012 at 1:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why not just try it and see, after all these “problems”
are “externalites” to our business model.  How many of
you have ever lived in a place where you turned on the
faucet and got nothing but air?  Well I have, and it is
alarming.  Wake up people!

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