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That Methane Probably Isn’t Marcellus Shale Gas

Marcellus Shale - Jim Willis reportsJim Willis
Editor & Publisher, Marcellus Drilling News (MDN)


A peer reviewed study offers new research that comes close to, if not fully, exonerating Cabot Oil & Gas over the now infamous case of methane migration into water wells in a small area of Dimock, PA.

A new study, published in the February Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), which has no connection to Cabot, says most methane migration in Dimock probably wasn’t caused by gas drilling. It is written by three experts and uses (gasp) actual science–you know, in the field data? The data comes from “more than 2,300 gas and water samples collected from 234 gas wells and 67 private groundwater-supply wells” in northeastern PA and is the largest such data set ever analyzed.

What did the authors find? Shallow (near the surface) methane with the same identical chemical “fingerprint” as deeper Marcellus Shale gas is naturally occurring in large quantities in northeastern PA. That is, the shallow methane under the microscope looks exactly like the methane found more than a mile below the ground, but it isn’t gas from the Marcellus because the methane near the surface that looks just like Marcellus gas, with the same chemical “fingerprint,” was lurking in water wells long before there was any shale drilling in the area.

Marcellus Shale Gas Issue Not as Simple as Duke Suggested

This is truly huge news, but don’t expect mainstream media outlets to cover the story because a) they like Josh Fox and prefer to prop up his fictional movie called Gasland, b) the issue requires readers to actually think and use the left brain to grapple with issues of science, Marcellus Shale - Dukec) this new, real research utterly refutes the pathetic “research” published by Duke University in two different papers that took the lazy way out and tried to hang Dimock’s stray gas methane on Cabot, and d) it doesn’t fit the “drilling is evil” narrative the mainstream media prefers to push…

Unfortunately we don’t have a copy of the study to share with you, although if you’re a member of the AAPG you can read it online as part of your membership. What we do have (below) is a synopsis and analysis of what’s in the new study from a reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

First, the abstract of the article, which is a bit technical, but points out that shallow natural gas “fingerprints” the same way as Marcellus Shale gas–natural gas found near the surface long before shale drilling was ever done in the area:

As the pace of drilling activity in the Marcellus Formation in the northern Appalachian Basin has increased, so has the number of alleged incidents of stray natural gas migration to shallow aquifer systems. For this study, more than 2300 gas and water samples were analyzed for molecular composition and stable isotope compositions of methane and ethane. The samples are from Neogene- to Middle Devonian-age strata in a five-county study area in northeastern Pennsylvania. Samples were collected from the vertical and lateral sections of 234 gas wells during mud gas logging (MGL) programs and 67 private groundwater-supply wells during baseline groundwater-quality testing programs.

Evaluation of this geochemical database reveals that microbial, mixed microbial and thermogenic, and thermogenic gases of different thermal maturities occur in some shallow aquifer systems and throughout the stratigraphy above the Marcellus Formation. The gas occurrences predate Marcellus Formation drilling activity. Isotope data reveal that thermogenic gases are predominant in the regional Neogene and Upper Devonian rocks that comprise the potable aquifer system in the upper 305 m (1000 ft) (average 13C1 = 43.53; average 13C2 = 40.95; average DC1 = 232.50) and typically are distinct from gases in the Middle Devonian Marcellus Formation (average 13C1 = 32.37; average 13C2 = 38.48; average DC1 = 162.34 ). Additionally, isotope geochemistry at the site-specific level reveals a complex thermal and migration history with gas mixtures and partial isotope reversals (13C1  13C2) in the units overlying the Marcellus Formation.

Identifying a source for stray natural gas requires the synthesis of multiple data types at the site-specific level. Molecular and isotope geochemistry provide evidence of gas origin and secondary processes that may have affected the gases during migration. Such data provide focus for investigations where the potential sources for stray gas include multiple, naturally occurring, and anthropogenic gases.

Marcellus Shale - Devonian Map

Things Aren’t Always What They Seem 

And, here’s more on that Marcellus Shale gas in lay terms from the article published in the Patriot-News:

Much of the debate over fracking for natural gas has centered around the potential to pollute drinking water. What’s not explicit in much of the discussion is that – in Pennsylvania – the only thing that has polluted people’s well water as a result of drilling is natural gas itself.

Known as “methane migration” or “stray gas,” the appearance of natural gas in people’s well water is behind the image of the flaming tap made famous in the film “Gasland.”

The residents of Dimock, in Susquehanna County, featured in that film received settlements from Cabot Oil & Gas, which the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection determined improperly cemented the casings to its wells, thus allowing gas to migrate into the local aquifer and people’s wells.

A new peer-reviewed study demonstrates the appearance of gas in a water well – especially in the northeastern part of Pennsylvania around Dimock – is not necessarily the result of drilling.

Natural gas, the study shows, is often already in the water before any drilling begins.

The study, published in the February Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, is based on more than 2,300 gas and water samples collected from 234 gas wells and 67 private groundwater-supply wells, the largest data set of any such study thus far.

It looked specifically at what kind of gas was present and where.

There are two distinct types of gas determined by the processes that form it: “biogenic” or “microbial” gas, which is “produced at shallow depths and low temperatures by anaerobic bacterial decomposition” of organic matter; and “thermogenic” gas, which is formed deep in the earth under great pressure and heat “cracking” organic matter into oil and gas. There’s also a subset of thermogenic gas produced by further “cracking” of the oil into gas and coal.

Each has a different isotopic signature, or “fingerprint,” allowing scientists to determine the relative age of the gas and thus where it originated.

The study found that many of the shallow aquifer systems in the northeast contain microbial gas, a mix of microbial and thermogenic gasses and thermogenic gasses of different ages – and all of it predating drilling in the Marcellus.

The study found that 88 percent of the 67 water supply wells evaluated had some presence of thermogenic gas present before any Marcellus drilling occurred.

The study then tested the gas produced in the well bore of 234 wells during drilling as the drill bit sank deeper and deeper – to get a vertical stratigraphy of what types of gas are found where.

The study found that Marcellus type gas – older thermogenic gas associated with deeper geologic formations – was actually present above the Marcellus.

“The real revelation,” said Fed Baldassare, one of the study’s authors, “is that gases that look just like the Marcellus also occur in formations above the Marcellus – in the Hamilton group, Tully limestone and the Geneseo shale.”

None of that Marcellus type gas was found in any of the water wells sampled, Baldassare said: the thermogenic gas in the well water was all younger gas from shallower formations.

However, the testing at the drilling sites indicated that a component of that older Marcellus type gas – “a little bit of that gas mixed with early thermogenic gas” – is present in the stratigraphy associated with the aquifer system.

“In some areas,” the study says, “deeper thermogenic gases have migrated over geologic time and mixed with shallower thermogenic gases in the shallower strata.”

Baldassare said, “We were surprised by seeing post-mature gas up in the shallow system – I was almost in disbelief, thought we were getting noise when the first results came in – but we kept seeing it over and over again.”

That’s a key detail according to former Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer, who has written an analysis of the study in his role as a legal specialist in energy issues at the Philadelphia law firm Blank Rome.

Krancer said, “Many have hastily concluded that the presence of thermogenic methane in shallow groundwater in the vicinity of drilling activities means that the methane contamination is caused by the drilling operations. This study shows that this is not necessarily so.”

The study does not dispute that drilling has the potential to cause methane migration.

“There have been real stray gas migration problems,” said Baldassare, a geoscientist who formerly worked for DEP and has been studying isotopic analysis of stray gas for more than 20 years.

Baldassare worked on the Cabot case in Dimock. “That’s a real stray gas incident,” he said, “with multiple data types and multiple lines of evidence.”

But there has been an assumption – implicitly supported by two studies out of Duke University – that the appearance of thermogenic gas in the aquifer meant hydraulic fracturing activities had connected with the aquifer system, he said.

“That’s the big bogeyman,” said Baldassare, “and our data shows that’s not the case at all.”

Baldassare said, “It’s really irresponsible for those researchers to make those gross generalizations about Marcellus gas migrating up into the aquifer system. Hopefully this paper will make people understand that a little bit better.”

The study says: “When future isotope data show a stray gas in this area to be thermogenic, that finding cannot be the sole basis for alleging that the stray gas was caused by oil or gas-well drilling.”

The study concludes: “Alleged incidents of stray gas migration require investigations at the site-specific level and evaluation and synthesis of multiple data types to determine the source of the stray gas.”

It also bolsters the argument for people in areas about to be drilled to have their well water analyzed before drilling begins.

The study – entitled “A geochemical context for stray gas investigations in the northern Appalachian Basin: Implications of analyses of natural gases from Neogene-through-Devonian-age strata” – was written by Baldassare, Mark McCaffrey, a petroleum geochemist at Weatherford Laboratories in Texas, and John Harper, recently retired from the Pennsylvania Geologic Survey.

So, there you have it. Josh Fox didn’t come close to getting it right and Duke University was pandering to its fractivist funders at the Park Foundation and elsewhere. Science speaks last and loudest, particularly when it comes to the Marcellus Shale.

Note: For more on this subject, also check out this great video from the Marcellus Shale Coalition:

For more great articles on the subject of natural gas development every single day (and an extended version of this one), subscribe to Marcellus Drilling News using this convenient link.

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12 thoughts on “That Methane Probably Isn’t Marcellus Shale Gas

  1. “Baldassare worked on the Cabot case in Dimock. “That’s a real stray gas incident,” he said, “with multiple data types and multiple lines of evidence.””

    Do you concur?

    • Baldassare is a real professional and, therefore, I defer to his judgment, yes. I have said numerous times that methane migration can happen from gas well drilling, water water well drilling or geothermal well drilling. The point is that it has zero to do with hydraulic fracturing and the mere existence of thermogenic methane doesn’t prove it.

      • Please clarify if I phrase this poorly – your position is gas drilling caused the initial contamination in Dimock?

        Do you find evidence the high pressures used in fracking do not cause poorly constructed wells to then leak?


        • I didn’t say that at all. It’s possible and people I respect say it did happen initially from the drilling in a few cases but it had nothing to do with fracking whatsoever. That point has been made numerous times and you refuse to accept it. Methane migration does not result from high pressure from fracking. It occurs when avenues outside the well are created by the drilling, when it happens at all.

          • Please, Tom, I said: “your position is gas drilling caused the initial contamination in Dimock?”

            No mention of fracking there.

            I did accurately describe your position:
            ‘it did happen initially from the drilling in a few cases ”

            As I work toward clarity, I hope you will be patient.

            Unrelated, I asked a question:

            “Do you find evidence the high pressures used in fracking do not cause poorly constructed wells to then leak?”

            Thanks for allowing me to clarify.

  2. doesn’t matter if it is either Biogenic (shallow) or Theromgenic (shale gas ) it was disturbed by the drilling .Biogenic gas has been in the ground forever ,but few (if any ) every had issues with it .If they did it was at very low levels .When drilling occurs it spikes the biogenic gas (disturbs it ) and it causes the migration .The initial bore hole drilling is the problem .No casing is in place when drilling initial bore holes …..SO ,NO drilling no gas !!! Drilling and you have Spikes !!!

    • This is a good point. The victims in Dimock have pre-drill tests that show no methane or other contamination. I have just found that information.

      If there was no contamination pre-drill, does it matter what kind of methane has contaminated the wells there

      .. or does it matter more that we get aide to families who have no water? I know locals are paying for and trucking in H20 now themselves.

      Do you think that is just, Tom?

      • Most Dimock and Susquehanna County wells in that area had methane migration issues pre-gas drilling, probably caused by the drilling of the water wells themselves. That is extraordinarily well-documented in this study and numerous others. It’s documented in reports going back to the 1930’s and earlier. What in the world do you think the story of Salt Springs is about if not naturally occurring methane? You are willfully blind to the history of this area. If you want the truth from a “victim” read this:


        • “You are willfully blind to the history of this area.”


          I asked clearly:

          ” victims in Dimock have pre-drill tests that show no methane or other contamination.”

          “wells in that area had methane migration issues pre-gas drilling,”

          is not an answer to that question.

          Can you see why?

          They have tests showing their water was NOT contaminated pre-drill.

          My very valid question is – why then are their neighbors hauling them water.

          Simple stuff.

    • At Bill, could you please explain to me in layman’s terms what would be the difference from drilling a natural gas well compared to doing a conventional water well? Maybe I’m looking at things wrong but a drillbit is a drillbit. ? Is the act of boring a hole in the ground considered drilling? You just admitted above that the initial borehole is the problem . This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I cannot for the life of me figure out the point that you’re trying to get across? I am guessing that you are also telling us it’s very unsafe to drill conventional water or geothermal wells? I’m thinking the point that you’re trying to get across is to basically stop all drilling—-

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