Notoriously, activists like Josh Fox, producer of the disinformation docudrama Gasland, claim that the process of blasting open cracks in deep shale deposits to release trapped natural gas, a.k.a. fracking, has contaminated water wells. Not so, concluded a report released last month at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. Now it seems that at least one environmental group now recognizes that these claims are false. In an article headlined, Faulty Wells, Not Fracking, Blamed for Water Pollution, the Wall Street Journal today reports:
The energy industry has been struggling to convince critics that fracking is safe. If the industry can persuade them that the chief pollution risk is poorly constructed wells—and that risk can be minimized—it might encounter less resistance from the public to expanding oil-and-gas production.
Mark Boling, executive vice president and general counsel of Southwestern Energy Co., a major natural-gas producer, said he has examined several incidents in Colorado and Pennsylvania where gas drilling appears to have caused gas to get into drinking water. "Every one we identified was caused by a failure of the integrity of the well, and almost always it was the cement job," he said.
A. Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser with the Environmental Defense Fund who is working with Mr. Boling, agreed. "The groundwater pollution incidents that have come to light to date have all been caused by well construction problems," he said.
See my September column, Natural Gas Flip Flop, where I reported:
The shale that contains natural gas lies below thousands of feet of impermeable rock, so the fracking process itself will not contaminate drinking water aquifers, which generally are only a few hundred feet below the surface at most. A 2010 Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection report noted that, according to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Watershed Management, "no groundwater pollution or disruption of underground sources of drinking water have been attributed to hydraulic fracturing of deep gas formations."
As with conventional wells, it is possible that natural gas can escape into aquifers if the wells are not properly sealed using steel and cement casings. An April study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found elevated levels of natural gas in groundwater wells within 3,000 feet of active gas well sites. The researchers concluded that the source is likely leaky casings. More reassuringly, the study "found no evidence for contamination of the shallow [water] wells near active drilling sites from deep brines and/or fracturing fluids." In any case, should their findings stand up to subsequent research, the problem is not fracking but improperly sealed well casings.
In other news, scientists at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources believe that a series of small earthquakes (magnitude 4.0) near Youngstown are related to injection wells in which excess fracking water is disposed.
In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rushed a preliminary report which claimed that the agency had detected chemicals associated with fracking in groundwater wells near Pavillion, Wyoming. Gas industry officials objected that the EPA's own monitoring wells could be responsible for for the chemicals. Last week, the agency agreed to further testing.
It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway—if gas production harms someone else's property, then the owners must be compensated in full for the harms.