Even as the U.S. oil industry flaunts a new report, a leading U.K. utility is warning that fracking poses a threat to the nation’s water purity.
At the same time the U.S. oil industry is flaunting a preliminary report declaring groundwater was not contaminated near an oil well in Pennsylvania, a leading U.K. water utility is warning that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, poses a threat to the nation’s water purity.
Water U.K., an organization that represents U.K. water suppliers, released a statement July 17 indicating it was warning the emerging shale gas industry that the quality of drinking water “must be protected at all costs and fracking must not harm public health,” according to a press release.
The U.K. has yet to begin fracking operations, although reserves of shale oil have been eyed in parts of the the country, sparking protests among environmentalists concerned about drinking water contamination and pollution.
Dr. Jim Marshall, policy and business adviser for Water U.K., said in a public address at a conference in London that there was concern over the potential contamination of groundwater supplies.
“Provision of drinking water is a cornerstone of our public health and as such a service that cannot be compromised,” he said in his speech. “There are arguments for and against fracking and the water industry is not taking sides. If it goes ahead, we want to ensure corners are not cut and standards compromised, leaving us all counting the cost for years to come.”
His speech came just two days before the U.S. government released a preliminary study indicating no link between fracking and drinking water supply contamination at one site in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale.
While the final study is not expected until the end of the year, fracking proponents ran with it, presenting it as proof that fracking does not contaminate groundwater — anywhere, ever.
The Associated Press broke the story Friday with the headline, “1st federal study finds natural gas fracking, chemicals didn’t spread.” While the story noted the limited scope of the study, it was picked up by industry leaders as proof that they’d been right all along.
It was touted as the study that debunked the concerns of those living near fracking sites, who worry that fracking fluid — a combination of water, silica sand and chemicals, some unknown, that is injected into the ground to break up formations where oil is hidden — could seep into groundwater supplies.
Kathryn Klaber, the CEO of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an organization run by the oil industry, told the Pittsburgh Business Times the study’s preliminary findings were great news.
“The first of its kind research further confirms hydraulic fracturing’s long and clear record of safety,” Klaber told the publication. “It’s also a reflection of the strong, common sense, modernized state regulations in place that ensure environmental protection.”
Yet not everyone is taking the preliminary study as gold, highlighting that it monitored only one fracking site among thousands after an unnamed oil company agreed to allow government scientists to closely monitor the well.
A look at the preliminary study
The study was conducted by the National Energy Technology Laboratory.
Following the release of the Associated Press story Friday morning, NETL issued a statement clarifying that the study was not yet complete and highlighting the fact that because only one site was monitored, conclusions have not yet been reached.
“NETL has been conducting a study to monitor for any signs of groundwater contamination as a result of hydraulic fracturing operations at a site on the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania,” the NETL statement said. “We are still in the early stages of collecting, analyzing, and validating data from this site. While nothing of concern has been found thus far, the results are far too preliminary to make any firm claims. We expect a final report on the results by the end of the calendar year.”
The ongoing study represented the first time a petroleum company had complied with the federal government’s request to monitor the impact fracking wells have on groundwater supplies.
In the study, a drilling company that remains unnamed allowed what the Associated Press refers to as “man-made tracers” that allowed scientists to monitor the spread of fracking water.
The monitored site was located in Pennsylvania’s Greene County, near the West Virginia border. Within the county, there are 650 active wells, according to State Impact.
The NETL study focused on eight wells, but only used the tracer monitoring method with one fracking well. The tracers were injected into the drilling fluid, allowing researchers to track where it traveled throughout the fracking process.
According to the Associated Press, the tracer allowed researchers to observe that the dangerous chemical cocktail of concern stayed at least 1 mile away from drinking supplies. Fracking water remained 6,000 feet below the surface, while groundwater drinking supplies are typically found at 500 feet below the surface.
Based on that one well, NETL had determined that it had not yet seen reason to believe water was seeping from the well and contaminating groundwater supplies.
And while it can confirm that observation at one well, critics are wondering whether that’s enough to assure residents living in frack-heavy states like Pennsylvania and Colorado that there’s nothing to worry about.
Groundwater contamination concerns
Duke University scientist Rob Jackson still has a few concerns following the preliminary release of the study.
Jackson told the Associated Press that the study was “good news,” but questioned whether the anonymous company held itself to stricter standards with the knowledge that their every move was being closely monitored.
He also indicated that concerns about the injection process weren’t the only ones held by concerned residents, as gas and wastewater spills are also capable of contaminating water supplies.
Jackson’s university released a report in June indicating homeowners living near fracking operations are at higher risk of drinking water contamination, largely due to stray gases.
“The methane, ethane and propane data, and new evidence from hydrocarbon and helium content, all suggest that drilling has affected some homeowners’ water,” he said in a press release regarding the Duke University study. “In a minority of cases the gas even looks Marcellus-like, probably caused by poor well construction.”
The study considered possible causes of contamination of drinking water and determined that distance to the nearest gas well was “the most significant factor influencing gases in the drinking water” samples, according to the press release.
Homes within 1 kilometer of drilling operations had drinking water supplies with methane concentrations 6 times higher than the average, as well as ethane concentrations 23 times higher. The study analyzed 141 drinking water samples from private water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania — the same area targeted by the most recent NETL report.
The Duke University report also found propane in 10 samples tested. All positive propane water measurements came from homes located within 1 kilometer of oil drilling.
At issue now is not whether one well can be operated in a way that protects groundwater, but whether there’s reason to believe the growing fracking industry, at some level, poses a threat to drinking water supplies.
“Very few people think that fracking at significant depths routinely leads to water contamination,” Scott Anderson, senior policy adviser with the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Associated Press. “But the jury is still out on what the odds are that this might happen in special situations.”