Let’s be controversial…

This is what happens when non-scientifically inclined people try to raise awareness about something.

Here is what happens when non-scientifically inclined people get a hold of and promote the hell out of something like this.

I’ve watched ‘Gasland‘ as part of a Water Resource and Management class. I quite liked it. I am an environmentalist hippy at heart, and anything that challenges oil and energy companies, I love. Fortunately for me, however, I came armed with a whole lot of skepticism. As much as I love to stick it to the oil industry, nothing bothers me more than people who talk about things they don’t understand. This film deals with things I have some inklings of understanding about, namely geology and a wee bit of chemistry.

For those who don’t know what Gasland is about, it’s a documentary investigating the use of the process of hydraulic fracturing to mine natural gas, more commonly known as “fracking”. Simply, energy companies pump water at extremely high pressures into layers of impermeable rock in order to free their natural gas. The impermeable nature of those rocks doesn’t allow the natural gas to move within them (and therefore be extracted), so the high pressure water creates fractures in the rock that lets the gas move through the rock and be retrieved.

The documentary tackles the issue by looking at real concerns. Is the process of fracking causing the contamination of water supplies with hydrocarbons and “chemicals”? If you watch the film, you will undoubtedly reach the conclusion that it does indeed poison ground water. Like any good documentary on a controversial subject however, it’s one-sided and misleading.

First off, if you have an argument that involves using the word “chemicals” it better be in the form of “X contains these caustic chemicals that are proven carcinogens” and not “chemicals are bad for you! Do you want chemicals in YOUR water?” If you cannot display an understanding of what a chemical is (EVERYTHING IS A CHEMICAL) then your argument is flawed and until you refine it, it’s not worth listening to. Furthermore, I think most of our fears of “chemicals” is due to things like this. So if you cannot talk about chemicals in an intelligent manner, you have no business trying to argue about how bad they are for you. (If you’re not drinking distilled water, the water you’re drinking right now is LOADED with chemicals.)

In my structure class we’ve discussed using fracking as a method to measure stresses within the Earth, and inevitably the question was posed to my professor on what he thought about the environmental risks of fracking. So instead of me saying as much, I’ll let you hear his words on the subject (transcribed by yours truly from lecture recording).

“It depends on who you ask. I have a disclaimer: My advisor at Penn State is one of the two guys who started the whole gas rush in the Eastern US. He’s done a ton of research in this area and it suffices to say that wells have not been adequately tested prior to this stuff going on. Certainly there are chemicals in wells now, right? But, for example have you seen the movie ‘Gaslands’ where the guy lights his faucet on fire? Well, that well–that’s in Colorado– there’s no hydraulic fracturing within a few miles of that guys well. It was drilled through a coal bed, and so Colorado (whatever their environmental body is) determined that his well is not contaminated by anything due to hydraulic fracturing, because there is coal bed methane seeping into his well. So yeah, there’s methane in his well, but it has nothing to do with fracking.”

This is echo’d elsewhere by other professional geologists.

Another concern with groundwater contamination isn’t due to the fracking fluids, but the release of naturally occurring methane gas. This is thought to happen when induced fractures create pathways for the gas to “leak” out of a fracked geologic unit, and make their way into overlying aquifers and into our drinking water. There was a famous case, demonstrated in the documentary “GasLand“, where a homeowner turned on a faucet in their home and was able to light it on fire due to the amount of methane gas present. A number of homeowners have reported this problem following the commencement of nearby hydraulic-fracturing operations.

Two things to note. One: these are all properties where the residents have private water wells supplying their home, usually in deeper aquifers. So if you receive municipal water, you shouldn’t worry. Two: geology, geology, geology. Methane, as I mentioned, is naturally occurring (it is natural gas). In fact, it occurs all throughout the stratigraphic column in the areas of Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia where these claims are common. A study by Penn State explains that sources of methane in water wells can range from gas wells, coal mines, landfills, and simply natural deposits.

Does this mean that hydro-fracking was not the cause of methane in drinking water supplies? No. But it also means it’s not definitely the source, either. In Pennsylvania, where the “fire faucet” was documented in “GasLand”, a number of the residents jumped on the bandwagon of blaming hydro-fracking for methane in their wells. However, in the same area, multiple residents reported that they’ve always had methane in their water, as long as they’ve lived there and well before hydro-fracking began. In the same area, methane deposits are naturally occurring in geologic units where it can easily be recovered by water wells.

Now back to my professor…

“In my opinion, the jury is still out on this stuff, but what needs to happen, or what should have happened a long time ago– There aren’t any baseline measurements for contamination in these wells for hundreds of years. Now people are going in and finding stuff– that there’s chemicals– but a lot of these chemicals are organics that are related to hydrocarbons, but those hydrocarbons have been there for millions of years. So, they didn’t ever do any baseline testing. So now just because you have a well that has contamination, to say that it’s from fracking is not entirely clear. Most of this fracking that happened is way below the water table and way below from where people are extracting water from. “

Neither of these accounts completely dismisses the possibility that fracking can cause contamination of ground water. Both of these people believe it’s certainly a possibility, but neither believe the evidence is sufficient.

Some evidence has come forth linking the two however.

The study in question has key bits of information that I think a lot of people who aren’t geologically inclined would ignore however.

There is little lateral and vertical continuity to hydraulically fractured tight sandstones and no lithologic barrier (laterally continuous shale units) to stop upward vertical migration of aqueous constituents of hydraulic fracturing in the event of excursion from fractures. Sandstone units are of variable grain size and permeability indicating a potentially tortuous path for upward migration.

This also means that their is very likely natural seeps of hydrocarbons into whatever aquifer is being dealt with.

The main issue to me, is that the wells drilled for fracking don’t have casing that go down far enough. This shallow casing probably is a point source for this pollution.

With the exception of two production wells, surface casing of gas production wells do not extend below the maximum depth of domestic wells in the area of investigation. Shallow surface casing combined with lack of cement or sporadic bonding of cement outside production casing would facilitate migration of gas toward domestic wells.

This study is also very specific to one region’s geology. Not all regions are created equally and should be evaluated on a case by case basis.

Also, to go back to a link from up above…

Another study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, Jackson School of Geoscience (JSG) has already yielded preliminary results, which shows no direct link between hydro-fracking and groundwater contamination at any of the sites they studied. I believe the EPA study will show the same. Why is this? Most drinking water aquifers (porous, permeable geologic units which act as reservoirs for groundwater) are within several hundred feet of the surface while most hydro-fracking operations take place many thousands of feet lower. The chances that existing or induced fractures create hydraulically conductive pathways vertically between thousands of feet of rock is very slim, even with the induced pressures caused by hydro-fracking.

The JSG study did identify more likely sources of contamination. The first is surface spills of waste water associated with hydro-fracking operations. Any fluid used to “frack” the shale is recovered and either recycled for use in the next well, or disposed of. If this fluid is spilled on the ground, the same chemicals may seep down through the surface sediments and rock, eventually making its way into an unconfined aquifer.

However, if you’re going to look at surface spills for a reason to shut down hydro-fracking, you should also shut down sources of surface spills which can exceed those done by fracking operations. Dry cleaning facilities (perchloroethylene) and at least 80% of gas stations (BTEX compounds, methyl tertiary butyl ether, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, and a host of other chemicals) have leaks all the time.

Right now, where hydraulic fracking can be linked to water contamination, it’s a result of sloppy work, not the actual process itself. Like I stated above, I hate the gas industry. Slap regulations on them, fine them, force them do their job as safely and efficiently as possible… Just don’t stretch the truth and mislead everyone to do it.

This got way too long, and I imagine it is poorly composed. Sorry. Don’t use this to defend fracking, go to the link I posted above. It has tons of great information.

The bottom line is that the jury IS still out on this, but the current lines of evidence we have DO NOT support the idea that fracking causes contamination of ground water. It certainly could be shown to be the case in the future, but the evidence being put forth by non-scientists currently does not hold up.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi Tyler,

    Thanks for linking to my post! I’m glad you found it useful and worthy of quoting. I enjoyed your post and am looking forward to reading more!

    -Nate

    Reply
    • Thanks! I hope I didn’t misrepresent anything you wrote! This is just an exercise in writing something every day for me, but sometimes someone links or reposts something I write and I get worried about if all my information is straight, haha! I don’t remember how I happened across your blog, but this isn’t the first time I’ve linked to it while arguing on the internet, so thanks for writing it.

      -Tyler

      Reply

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