A Duke University study published last week showed high levels of methane contamination in water wells in Pennsylvania, but concluded that the causes of individual contamination are not as closely linked to hydraulic fracturing as feared by residents.
The study was published online by the United States Geological Survey last week and was an update of original research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The new research involved testing the water in 141 local wells for the presence of methane and other contaminants thought to originate from nearby hydraulic fracturing.
The results showed the presence of methane in 80% of wells tested regardless of their proximity to oil and gas drilling operations, suggesting that Pennsylvania has a high incidence of water contamination across the state. 12 home wells were found to have methane levels that exceeded federally recommended levels.
High methane and radon levels were found both in proximity to drilling operations as well as in areas without any drilling activity. These results suggest that widespread naturally occurring methane contamination is occurring in Pennsylvania.
At the same time, on average, water wells near drilling sites were found to have higher concentrations of methane than those with no local drilling. However, none of the water tested showed contamination with fracking chemicals or fluid. Due to this evidence, researchers conclude that elevated methane levels near drilling sites probably have more to do with faulty well casings than with hydraulic fracturing.
Water contamination from drilling is “not an epidemic”, said co-author Rob Jackson, “it’s a minority of cases”. Most importantly, the study emphasized the need for pre-testing of local water wells before oil and gas drilling occurs. With no baseline data established, it is extremely difficult to conclusively determine the causes of water contamination.
Colorado doctors ensure disclosure of fracking chemicals
Although the recently published Duke study found no evidence of water contamination by fracking chemicals, Colorado doctors are ensuring that the medical community will have full disclosure of chemical additives.
Currently, Colorado doctors are permitted to access fracking chemical information in connection with patient treatment and specific medical cases—even when that information is protected as intellectual property. While doctors can access trade-secret information, they are required to fill out a Form 35 non-disclosure pledge in order to do so. Form 35 requires that doctors keep all trade secrets strictly confidential and that they do not use the information for anything other than medical purposes.
Following a series of negotiations between the Colorado medical community and oil and gas industry, a recent letter from Thomas Compton, chairman of the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission, outlines terms of compromise between the two parties. In order to access proprietary information, doctors must still fill out a Form 35. However, under the current proposal, they will be granted rights to share the obtained information with other doctors, the medical community, and involved patients.
Upcoming University of Tennessee fracking study
In the aftermath of the study published by Duke this week, there are reports of a University of Tennessee study in progress. The deadline for all research submissions will occur this August. The study is aimed at doing a preliminary survey of effects of fracking in the nearby Chattanooga Shale.
Unlike fracking in Pennsylvania, fracking in the Chattanooga Shale in Tennessee would not involve water. Instead, the drought conditions in Tennessee combined with the shallow nature of the Chattanooga formation demand the use of a waterless fracking technique. For prospecting companies in the Chattanooga, the technique of choice is predicted to be nitrogen gas fracking. This strategy involves pumping nitrogen gas down a well and increasing pressures in order to fracture the rock—rather than using water.
Fiber optics technology allows industry greater control of fracking effects
While environmental and academic scrutiny of fracking effects receives a lot of press, industry is also heavily involved in research to improve fracking optimization and controls. A revolutionary technology pioneered by OptaSense is recently showing huge potential for doing just that.
OptaSense is developing a series of fiber-optic glass lines that allow engineers to “hear” inside a well. The technology was originally developed by the United States as a spy technology used by military submarines to detect and record sounds from long distances. However, the technique has recently been adopted by companies like OptaSense as a way to monitor fracking operations.
According to OptaSense, a fiber-optic line can be run down the side of a wellbore, picking up all the sounds characteristic of drilling and fracking operations. Researchers at Halliburton are currently working on identifying and codifying the sounds characteristic of different fracturing stages and types. Eventually, this information can be coded into a computer program that will translate the sounds picked up by the fiber-optic wire into a graph showing the depth, location, and extent of fractures.
“Our goal is to make the earth transparent”, said Glenn McColphin of Halliburton, “Now we’ve got a window into the well to see exactly what’s happening.”
Obama identifies natural gas as key to future energy policy
As President Obama advances into his second term, control and study of the effects of fracking may become more and more relevant. In this week’s speech addressing the current state of our energy economy, Obama spotlighted the need to focus on options to reduce climate change.
Furthermore, the president highlighted natural gas as foremost among these options. Obama stressed the potential of natural gas as a transition fuel, providing us with significant advances over coal in the absence of a carbon-free energy source. Obama also pointed out the economic advantages of the shale gas boom, identifying fracking for natural gas as integral to future US energy policy to the displeasure of many environmental groups.