Andreas Späth

Does fracking pollute water or not?

2013-07-15 12:49

Andreas Späth

In the ongoing debate about fracking, some people find it difficult to choose sides because they're unable to decide whether the benefits of the controversial shale gas extraction technique outweigh the hazards or not.

Part of the reason for this is that answers to seemingly straightforward questions can be hard to come by. For instance: does fracking cause contamination of underground drinking water sources or not?

In a severely water-stressed country like South Africa, this is clearly a crucial question and although the responses to it from various quarters may be somewhat confusing at first, there are answers out there if you're willing to dig a little.

The oil and gas industry and its pundits (I'll simply call them "the industry" from here on) will dismiss the question by telling you that fracking has been carried out without contaminating groundwater for decades. You can stop your search for answers right there and take their word for it.

It's very important to keep in mind, however, that even in places where fracking has been used extensively - for example in the USA - very little independent monitoring of the impacts has been conducted. With thousands of wells in the ground, the industry is tacitly expected to be "self-regulating".

Scientific studies

What about proper scientific studies? Have there been any which suggest that fracking might foul drinking water?

Considering the scale of the industry and the nature of the environmental concerns raised by critics, there has been surprisingly little research done in this area. But there has been some.

In December 2011, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft report that found evidence that drinking water wells in Wyoming were contaminated by natural gas from nearby wells. The idea is that gas released by the fracking process somehow found its way into aquifers tapped by domestic boreholes.

A report from the US Geological Survey subsequently supported the EPA’s findings, as did a technical memorandum from a consulting hydrologist.

You'd think that would be enough evidence to warrant a comprehensive follow-up investigation. So did the EPA, but last month that study was mysteriously abandoned (or perhaps not so mysteriously – pressure from the industry has been mentioned). At around the same time, the EPA announced that another investigation, this one commissioned by Congress in 2010 to determine the threat fracking poses to drinking water sources which was expected to be released next year, would be delayed until 2016.

In 2011, a peer-reviewed scientific study found that average and maximum methane gas concentrations in drinking water wells in active shale gas production areas of north-eastern Pennsylvania increased with proximity to gas wells. While the industry will tell you that background quantities of gas may be naturally present in groundwater, the authors of the study found that the chemical signature of the gas in the drinking water wells they investigated matched that of the shale gas and was significantly different from that associated with gas naturally found in shallow groundwater.

You decide

In a new paper, the researchers have confirmed and expanded their previous results. They found:

- methane in 115 of the 141 shallow drinking water wells they tested;

- a highly significant statistical correlation between the distance of drinking water wells from gas wells and the level of gas contamination;

- 6-times higher methane concentrations in homes less than a kilometre from gas wells; and

- 23-times higher ethane concentrations in homes less than a kilometre from gas wells.

So does fracking for shale gas cause groundwater pollution or doesn't it? You decide.

Either you take the word of an industry whose environmental safety record includes some of the worst ecological disasters in human history (the Exxon Valdes, Deepwater Horizon and the Niger Delta just to mention some high-profile examples).

Or you believe the authors of the studies above, who simply conclude "that some homeowners living <1 km from gas wells have drinking water contaminated with stray gases".

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
Send your comments to Andreas

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