Duke Study Claiming ‘Water Contamination from Fracking’ in North Dakota has Zero Evidence

After numerous failed attempts to link fracking to water contamination in Pennsylvania, Texas and Arkansas, Duke professor Avner Vengosh has now turned his attention to North Dakota.

Unsurprisingly, Vengosh’s new Natural Resources Defense Council-funded study follows the similar theme of his past work: it finds no evidence linking water contamination to the fracking process, but still surmises fracking is somehow to blame.

Unfortunately, some reporters will likely just read the press release accompanying the study and take the latter claim at face value, resulting in some very misleading headlines. But a close look at the report reveals Vengosh and company are just offering up the same old tired distortions.

Here are five facts to know about Vengosh’s latest study falsely linking fracking to water contamination.

Fact #1: The study focuses exclusively on brine spills — not the fracking process — but blames contamination on fracking anyway

In a clear attempt to generate headlines, the authors boldly claim their study offers proof “fracking” has contaminated water in North Dakota. Vengosh did not mince words in a press release accompanying the report:

“Until now, research in many regions of the nation has shown that contamination from fracking has been fairly sporadic and inconsistent. In North Dakota, however, we find it is widespread and persistent, with clear evidence of direct water contamination from fracking.”

Ironically, the only thing that’s clear is Vengosh’s effort to muddy the waters on this issue. The above quote fails to note the report focuses exclusively on instances in which brine has been spilled at the surface. Surface spills, of course, have nothing to do with the actual hydraulic fracturing process, which typically occurs about a mile below the earth’s surface. In fact, the report found no evidence whatsoever of migration of fracking fluid from depth into aquifers (the researchers didn’t even attempt to prove the latter, for that matter).

So how in the world do the researchers rationalize that surface spills and fracking are one in the same?  And how do they dream up the notion that brine spills in North Dakota are clear evidence of widespread water contamination from fracking? The following excerpt from the study sums up the researchers’ twisted logic:

“Unlike other areas of the U.S. where decades of conventional oil and gas exploration have generated a legacy of contamination, the exploration rates of conventional oil and gas in North Dakota were significantly lower than recent unconventional operations. Therefore, recent OGW spills are directly associated with recent unconventional oil extraction.”

Not exactly the smoking gun activists are looking for — especially considering there was significant conventional oil production in North Dakota pre-dating unconventional development via high volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. And, although unfortunate, brine spills did occur in North Dakota prior to widespread use of fracking in the Bakken. So the researchers’ logic simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

It is also notable that the study doesn’t appear to find any actual proof that drinking water aquifers have been contaminated by brine spills.

“In North Dakota, the high occurrence of OGW spills is potentially threatening the quality of surface and drinking water sources.”

“Overall, our data show that the Bakken brines are enriched in numerous toxic elements and their release to the environment could directly affect the quality of the impacted water.”

The researchers point out the obvious: spills are bad. But the fact that brine spills “could” “potentially” affect drinking water is not evidence. Fortunately, North Dakota regulators have taken steps to minimize impacts of brine spills (more on that in a bit). But not only does this study find no direct link of water contamination to fracking, it also fails to find that actual drinking water has been adversely affected by brine spills.

Fact #2: Study exaggerates number of severity of spills in North Dakota

It is important to understand exactly why Vengosh carefully chooses the words “widespread” and “persistent” to describe the contamination his study allegedly finds.

Though surface spills are clearly NOT part of the fracking process, the Environmental Protection Agency — under pressure from environmental groups – inappropriately expanded the definition of fracking for the purposes of its landmark 2015 study on fracking and water contamination to include activities associated with oil and gas development, such as surface spills, as part of the fracking process.

EPA actually defines hydraulic fracturing correctly in the executive summary of the paper: “Hydraulic fracturing involves the injection of fluids under pressures great enough to fracturing the oil- and gas-producing formations,” but expands the scope in the study to include processes and procedures used in oil and gas development that have nothing to do with fracturing technology at all, including water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection and waste disposal.

Still, even with this overly broad definition, EPA found: “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”

The EPA study found the number of cases of groundwater being impacted by development activities to be “small” compared to the incredible boom in oil and gas production across the U.S.

“Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”(ES-6)

Since the EPA’s report was released, fracking opponents — many of which have long given up on finding proof of water contamination from the actual fracking process — have shifted their focus to finding “widespread” contamination from anything that could be remotely tied to fracking.

This study claims to have evidence of the latter:

“The results of this study indicate that the water contamination from brine spills is remarkably persistent in the environment, resulting in elevated levels of salts and trace elements that can be preserved in spill sites for at least months to years (up to 4 years for ND 128 and 129 samples) following the original spill.”

But the researchers take some liberties with North Dakota spills data to support their narrative of “widespread” issues, trumpeting the fact that there have been 3,900 brine spills in North Dakota between 2007 and 2015 without providing proper context.

A vast majority of those spills were very small. North Dakota requires companies to report any spills that are a barrel or more, even if they never impact the environment. A vast majority of those 3,900 spills were also contained on site and never affected the environment. For instance, according to the North Dakota Department of Health, 84 percent of salt water spills

(552 of 656) reported between Nov. 1, 2012, and Nov. 11, 2013, were contained on site, as the following graphic illustrates.

Contained-Not Contained

Even the 2014 New York Times database that activists have pointed to as evidence of widespread brine spills in the Bakken shows that 78 percent of brine spills between Jan. 1, 2006, and Oct. 13, 2014, were contained on site and never affected the environment.

So the notion that all 3,900 hundred spills have affected the environment and are therefore evidence of widespread issues is misleading to say the least. Furthermore, the study focuses on just four areas where spills have occurred, two of which happened to be the sites of the largest brine spills on record in North Dakota. Not only does this narrow focus fail to prove a “widespread” problem, extrapolating findings from the worst two spill sites in state history onto all spill sites is an obvious tactic used to advance the authors’ predetermined narrative.

Fact #3: Study focuses on spill sites that are still being cleaned up

The study drew immediate criticism from North Dakota State Health Department environmental chief David Glatt for focusing on three spill sites that are still being cleaned up, as well as a legacy spill at an injection well he said still needs to be addressed. Glatt told The Bismarck Tribune that the study does not look at spill sites that have been cleaned by removing contaminated soil and flushing out fresh water.

The researchers appear to have carefully selected their sample sites to produce results that support their pre-determined narrative of “widespread” issues, leading Glatt to tell The Tribune:

“To say the whole Bakken is a concern, that’s a stretch. The vast majority of spills have been cleaned up and (the contaminants) are a lot closer to (normal) background levels. I wish we would have been contacted. We’ve done a lot of things and a lot of follow up to make sure companies get right on it. The vast majority don’t become a problem.”

Glatt made similar comments to E&E News:

“The sites that they did look at, several of them were sites that are undergoing ongoing remediation. We are very much aware of those problems. But the vast majority of the spills are cleaned up within hours, days, and we have not seen the widespread groundwater, drinking water contamination that is claimed.”

Fact #4: Fails to acknowledge spills are decreasing in proportion to rise in oil production

The aforementioned misleading 2014 New York Times story on spills in the Bakken perpetuated the myth that brine spills are skyrocketing in North Dakota, a notion that Vengosh echoes in the study’s press release:

“The magnitude of oil drilling in North Dakota is overwhelming. More than 9,700 wells have been drilled there in the past decade. This massive development has led to more than 3,900 brine spills, mostly coming from faulty pipes built to transport fracked wells’ flowback water from on-site holding containers to nearby injection wells where it will be disposed underground.”

But it is important to note that the New York Times story is based on a wells-to-spills comparison. A more appropriate production-to-spills comparison actually shows that the rate of spills is falling in proportion to production in the Bakken, as brine spills (both in number and volume) have decreased in North Dakota since 2007 when compared to barrels of oil produced. The Duke study claims that spill rates were actually higher when compared to production in 2007 than they were in 2014, when production skyrocketed to more than 1 million barrels-per-day.

But when you actually look at the data from the New York Times database, from 2009 to 2013, as production in North Dakota went up almost 400 percent, the number of brine spills went down by over 50 percent on a per barrel basis.

According to figures from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), oil production in North Dakota increased by 908 percent from 2004 to 2013, meaning the number of spills per barrel of oil produced actually went down by 25.6 percent, according to the Times’ own figures for spills.

The Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) – a program consisting of researchers from the University of North Dakota that was formed  “with the goal of simultaneously improving Bakken system oil recovery while reducing its environmental footprint” – has said:

“Although the number of spills and spill volume have increased, the number of spills and the total spill volume as a function of oil production are the same as 2001 and have declined since 2007.”

Statewide efforts to address the issue of brine spills have no doubt helped North Dakota make significant progress on the issue. State officials have formed a saltwater spill task force made up of university experts, industry representatives, and state regulators.  Ten of the biggest companies in the Bakken, led by Continental Resources, have partnered with the EERC, and a large part of that group’s efforts are focused on spill prevention and mitigation. The North Dakota legislature also passed a bill in the last session that allocates $1.5 million towards cleaning up legacy spills and a half a million to remediating salt from legacy spills. But not surprisingly, opponents of shale development choose not to acknowledge this progress.

Fact #5: Study funded by anti-fracking group and conducted by a researcher who opposes shale development

The authors of this study report no competing financial interest, but it is common knowledge one of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s primary goals is banning fracking nationwide. The NRDC basically have posted a “how-to-ban-fracking” guide for the state and local levels on their website and has the following to say on fracking on its website:

“Oh, the extreme lengths companies will go to these days to get at oil and gas. Extraction methods are often over-the-top expensive, and things can—and do—go horribly wrong. Take fracking—a process that helps extract oil and natural gas from impermeable rock formations. It all happens deep below the earth’s surface via wells that can stretch for a mile or longer. Up to millions of gallons of water are mixed with sand and chemicals and pumped into these wells at high pressure to break the rock and release the goods.”

Vengosh is well known for his past studies attempting to link fracking to water contamination based on detection of naturally occurring chloride and methane in water wells, and detection of “elevated levels of radioactivity” from a treatment facility that had long ceased treating unconventional wastewater by the time the study was conducted.


Opponents of shale development have long focused efforts to prove water contamination from fracking on Dimock, Pa., Pavillion, Wyo., and Parker County, Texas. But all of those efforts have failed and been thoroughly debunked, while the EPA’s landmark study found, “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.” This has left the anti-fracking movement desperately scrambling to find a new focal point to push one of its central talking points.

To be blunt, North Dakota ain’t it. In fact, it turns out the case for proving water contamination from fracking in the Bakken is even shakier than the “big three” sites activists have focused their efforts on in the past. This study not only focuses on brine spills rather than fracking, it also fails to prove brine spills have contaminated drinking water.

Granted, all industrial processes come with some sort of risk and oil and gas production is no different. If we shut down all industry based on these risks, there would be no industry to speak of. So it is essential to weigh the risks against the benefits  – which include lower energy prices and the fact the U.S. has become the number one oil producer in the world, changing the balance of world power to our favor. The fact that brine spills have significantly decreased when compared to skyrocketing oil production in North Dakota further illustrates that the risks are being managed.


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