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Questions, it is amazing how many unanswered questions there are about unconventional gas drilling, hydraulic fracturing. Also known as fracking, this effort to extract natural gas is a process wherein enormous volumes of toxic chemical laden water and sand is forced under pressure into shale rock strata deep within the Earth to release the methane gas that is trapped in the sedimentary rock. It has, as it’s proponents like to point out, been employed for decades without any recorded incidence of contamination of the water table through which the well must first pass.

Really, no incidents, or are there simply none on record? When looking objectively at the evidence, a reasoning person would have to conclude either that there has been incidence of water contamination, or that much more investigation is needed before coming to any conclusion—because, as clearly comes out in the following “Reason TV” video, there have been recorded incident of methane contamination of drinking water associated with gas exploration and development.

Keep in mind that the video was produced to allay concerns about the effect of fracking, not conventional gas drilling. The truth that comes out of this is that the debate really just rests in the semantic difference between conventional and unconventional drilling. Aside from the injection of enormous quantities of toxic chemical laced water at high pressure, no other real difference exists.

As mentioned in the video, failure of the cement casing has been related to methane contamination due to drilling. But there are other causes, and the problem of leaking gases was even covered in a 2003 article in Oil Field Review, a publication of Schlumberger—which happens to be “the world’s leading supplier of technology, integrated project management and information solutions to customers working in the oil and gas industry,” according to their Web site.

The fact is gas wells leak, and the longer they are in operation, the more they leak:

Moreover industry studies clearly show that five to seven per cent of all new oil and gas wells leak. As wells age, the percentage of leakers can increase to a startling 30 or 50 per cent. But the worst leakers remain “deviated” or horizontal wells commonly used for hydraulic fracturing.

And the Oil Field Review article reveals that they leak for many more reasons than just the failure of the casing. As illustrated below, the casing is just a concrete barrier injected around the tubing to prevent the gas from escaping around the tubing, and venting at the well head. The fact that the casing fails not only allows the gas to contaminate the water table through which the well passes, but allows it to escape into the atmosphere, where it wrecks havoc on the ozone layer—because methane is 105 times more damaging than CO2.

Stop Fracking

So, there have been recorded incidents of water supplies being contaminated by methane gas. They have just not been verified for fracking—and for several reasons. First, and most importantly, no comprehensive investigation has been made into either the chemical contamination or radiological contamination from dissolved radium peroxide in the fracking waste water. There are also reasonable concerns that even the EPA report due out in 2014 will not go far enough to investigate the radiological contamination that has already occurred, or address the issue of potential airborne radium peroxide from fracking operations.

The anecdotal evidence, claims by people that their water has been contaminated, has either been swept under the rug by state regulators, the claimants have been compensated under the condition of signing a nondisclosure agreement, or pummeled by wealthy drilling operations in efforts to keep their dirty secrets secret.

Even very authoritative research is often brought into question in a he said – she said debate over the issue. In example, a Duke University study performed in 2011, “Methane Levels 17 Times Higher in Water Wells Near Hydrofracking Sites,” which was subsequently challenged by a University of Texas study, before being reconfirmed by a Duke researcher with evidence that is was worse than first reported.

There is no question that methane leaks from gas drilling operations, none. Evidence shows that those nearest the drilling operation are the ones most at risk that methane will create a hazardous potential for explosion. The nature of methane is however not likely to pose an aquifer-wide problem, because it very readily rises through the strata with little lateral dispersal. In the case of fracking, those who draw their water immediately above and adjacent to the lateral section of the drilling operation may also be at greater risk though.

What we do not yet know is whether the fracking operations have opened into natural fissures in the shale through which the chemical and radiological contaminants can migrate into permeable strata and underground water supplies. Nor do we know with any certainty that there are no faults already in place. We do however know it will take a long time (PDF), much longer than it takes the methane to migrate.


Wells within a 25 sq. mi.area between Dimock and Springville, Pennsylvania
Source: The Nature Conservancy, Pennsylvania Energy Impacts Assessment

It’s possible, fracking advocates argue, that the contaminants in the 10 percent of the fracking waste water that does not return to the surface may be diluted to safe levels at water wells far removed from the site of the drilling operation. The 29 wells in operation and 19 permitted wells depicted in the 5 mile section between Dimock and Springville, Pensylvania, show however that the equivalent of nearly five times the millions of gallons per well of toxic chemical and radium laden water will remain under that 25 sections of land.

In the end, there are really just two questions: “How bad is it?” and; “How much worse is it likely to get?”