Editor & Publisher, Marcellus Drilling News (MDN)
The EPA fracking study is even better than reported if one looks into the details for Northeast and Southwest Pennsylvania – two prime shale regions.
Last Friday Marcellus Drilling News reported the good news that the EPA is finally winding down a years-long study of the potential impacts of fracking on groundwater supplies. The upshot? Fracking doesn’t pollute water supplies .
This is the result of a process that began in 2009 when Congress asked the EPA to study fracking and water, with an eye toward regulating fracking using the federal Clean Water Act. The EPA eventually designed a study and began their research in 2011. The final report was due in 2014 but was later moved to 2016. This draft report is the prelude to the final report. Weighing in at 998 pages long, the report says there’s lots you can be scared about–but in fact none of the nightmare scenarios about fracking and water have come true. This was a hard report to file for the Obama EPA–we’re sure of that.
Tucked in the bowels of the report are details that the EPA themselves conducted 17 research projects and published 20 scientific papers as a result. Two of those projects looked at shale drilling in the Pennsylvania Marcellus region–one study in the northeast (full study embedded below), and one in the southwest (full study embedded below). What did they find?
The study for the northeast, largely conducted in Bradford County, PA (with a few locations in Susquehanna County), tested and sampled water from 36 private wells, 2 springs used as a source of drinking water, and 2 surface water sources (or ponds). The EPA tested these 40 water sources because their owners had complained that nearby fracking had somehow contaminated or negatively affected their water. So the EPA went right to the problem spots. Collectively the 40 wells/sources were located within one mile of 100 fracked shale wells.
- No evidence of impacts on homeowner wells and springs from flowback water, produced water or injected hydraulic fracturing fluids was found in the study.
- Background data showed that methane is naturally occurring in the study area; however, using multiple lines of evidence EPA concluded that up to nine of the 36 drinking water wells are impacted by stray gas (methane and ethane) associated with nearby hydraulic fracturing activities.
- EPA detected elevated levels of chloride and total dissolved solids in a pond in the study area. This pond is adjacent to a well pad that had reported releases of fluids and solids in 2009. This pond is not used as drinking water source.
Some of the wells had high levels of methane in them, but the EPA couldn’t or wouldn’t say the methane had migrated from fracked wells. There is, according to EPA scientists, no evidence to support it. There was precisely one well where the methane isotope can “likely” be traced to a nearby shale well–out of the 40 wells/sources tested. One. And that was methane (i.e. natural gas), an eminently fixable problem.
What about in the southwest part of the state? For the SWPA study (fact sheet here), the EPA tested and measured 16 water wells, 3 springs, and 3 surface water locations (ponds, including wastewater impoundments). They included tests for radioactivity.
Once again, the locations were selected because of complaints about water quality. The EPA zeroed right in on the complainers and didn’t bother with a wider sampling of non-complainers. What did they find?
- EPA found increased levels of chloride in ground water at locations near an impoundment site which contained hydraulic fracturing wastewaters and drilling waste. The chloride contamination likely originates from the impoundment site based on multiple lines of evidence.
- Background data showed that methane is naturally occurring in this area and was detected in 24% of the samples collected from domestic wells. The isotopic signature of the methane present in domestic wells was not similar to that of gas produced from the shale being hydraulically fractured.
The EPA found an increase in some nasty chemicals near a leaky wastewater impoundment. We already knew about that and in fact such impoundments will likely be phased out in PA soon.
Also, in some cases, water turbidity may be affected by drilling activity. Particles like manganese and iron are naturally occurring in the area–in large amounts. When the ground gets vibrated, the EPA theorizes it shakes loose the manganese and iron and it enters the water. While it may not look all that great, it’s not a big deal and certainly won’t kill you to drink “hard water.” (No, we’re not trying to minimize that some landowners may be affected for a period of time–we’re pointing out lack of case that “fracking pollutes water” when it does not.)
There was plenty of dissolved methane in the water (24% of the samples collected had it)–none of it due to Marcellus drilling. It’s naturally occurring.
In other words – no smoking gun in SWPA, just like NEPA. Fracking is safe, when done right. When things aren’t done right (like the leaky wastewater impoundment), there’s problems. This is as it is with any industrial process.