by Lisa Sorg
A study released Monday by five Duke University scientists found that drinking water wells near gas extraction sites had on average, 17 times higher levels of methane gas than wells that weren’t. Some of these wells, the study concluded, had concentrations of methane far above the “immediate action” hazard level.
The scientists tested 60 drinking water wells in Pennsylvania and New York for the presence of methane. Methane was detected in 51 of the wells, regardless of whether they were near gas extraction operations, but those nearest the drilling sites—within a half-mile—contained higher levels of methane.
“Essentially, the closer you are to a natural gas well, the more likely you are to have methane in your well,” said Rob Jackson, one of the scientists involved in the study. “What surprised me was the consistency of the results.”
The scientists also studied the geochemistry of the methane in the affected drinking water wells and concluded that it matched that found in nearby gas wells.
The immediate danger of methane in drinking water is that it can build up in the well or in a home and explode. Last year, a well in Pennsylvania did just that, as did a home in Ohio in 2007. In both cases, state investigators concluded methane from nearby extraction sites contributed to the explosions.
Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water North Carolina, called the study findings “powerful information,” adding “It’s a level of analytical information I’m glad to see.”
Clean Water North Carolina opposes fracking because of its environmental harm to water and air quality as well as the lack of regulation over the drilling method.
The federal government does not regulate methane in drinking water. In a subsequent paper, Jackson and his colleagues recommended that an independent medical panel review the health effects of inhaling the gas and drinking water that contains methane. The scientists also recommended an investigation into how methane leaks into drinking water wells and sampling drinking and groundwater before and after drilling.
Vik Rao is executive director of the Research Triangle Energy Consortium, which represents Duke, UNC, N.C. State University and the nonprofit RTI International on energy issues. Rao previously worked for energy company Halliburton for 30 years, most recently as senior vice president and chief technology officer.
“If there’s a leak, it’s because the cement casing is bad,” Rao said. “This can be completely prevented.”
The North Carolina Legislature is considering three bills that could open the door for fracking in the state. Environmental groups and some scientists are skeptical that there would be adequate oversight and enforcement of fracking in the state, given the energy industry’s power and the deep cuts—as much as 23 percent—in the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources budget.
“There’s a tremendous amount of wishful thinking that we’ll have true independent oversight of these operations,” Taylor said.