Appalachian Basin

Methane Migration – Not All It’s Hyped Up To Be!

This past week, the Wayne County Oil & Gas Task Force invited two professional and very experienced geologists, Burt Waite and Brian Oram, to discuss the issue of methane in our water. Measurable methane in underground water supplies has become a hot topic issue as many in the anti-gas community have used this fairly common issue as a rallying call to end natural gas development in our region. While everyone is entitled to their opinions, it is  clear science, experience and history have shown methane migration is naturally occurring in Pennsylvania. Furthermore, actual research, not that anecdotal kind found on and similar anti-gas screed sites, suggests methane in our water should be the least of our worries. More on this after the jump. The first speaker, Burt Waite, is a senior geologist and program director with Moody & Associates, Inc, a member of the Independent Oil and Gas Association (IOGA) and the Mayor of Cochran, PA. His presentation (found here) focused on the science behind methane migration, industry best practices to prevent it, and his professional experience. Here are some facts from his presentation:

Pressure, weather, temperature, well depth, etc… can all effect methane concentrations in your water. In other words, water can only be saturated with so much methane unless certain factors change. For example, if your water well draws water deeper then your neighbor’s, there is a chance your water might be saturated with methane while other wells near you are not.  This is because there is potential for a dramatic change in pressure between comparable wells, causing more noticeable amounts of methane to release out of the water. Heavy rain can also change the concentration of methane in your water as Tom explains in his latest post: Spiking the Facts in Head Space Games.

Methane travels to the point of lowest pressure (e.g., water wells and valley bottoms). Gas by nature prefers a path of least resistance. Therefore, it is common to find higher concentrations of methane at the bottom of valleys then the top of mountains. Water wells potentially offer a less-resistant pathway if they are improperly cased.

Methane is not harmful to ingest, drink, or eat. Much is publicized suggesting methane is inherently dangerous. In reality, methane is only dangerous in high concentrations bottled up in tight spaces; like an enclosed well house, basement or crawl space, where a spark or fire could set it off. The are no serious health side-effects from methane as is noticeable in the fact that the  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t have a standard for its presence in drinking water. Click here for a great pamplet from the EPA giving general information about drinking water from home wells.

Experience and literature in this area recognizes methane has been present for decades. Earlier this year, EID-marcellus covered this long history of methane in PA’s water with this post: Flammable Water in Susquehanna Co. – In the 18th Century!


Drilling air could cause pressure front pushing some methane into a nearby well. Make no mistake any drilling process (water wells included) that utilizes compressed air could potentially push methane towards that well. However proper casing requirements on water wells, something PA does not require, could eliminate this all together.

The second speaker, Brian Oram, is a professional geologist with decades of experience in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Recently, Brian was the director of the Center for Environmental Quality at Wilkes University and now operates as B.F. Environmental Consultants.  In fact, Brian was recently highlighted in the Scranton Times-Tribune for a guest article he provided on the technical aspects of methane in our community and water supplies.  Brian has been conducting water quality tests and studies for decades in northeastern Pennsylvania and in his presentation noted,

I lit my first private well in 1989, during my first year when I started working at Wilkes. Not a year ago or two years ago. Methane has been with us a very long time.

Sounds like what we’ve been saying (here, here and here)!  Here are some of Oram’s other facts:

Methane is the least of our worries. Over 50% of water wells in Pennsylvania do not meet federal drinking water standards. Why? Because of poor construction, bad site placement, lack of proper cleaning and maintenance, and environmental contamination. Some Brian Oram Presents a chart common contaminants include:

  • VOC and SOC (more common with those living near gas stations).
  • Iron and manganese
  • Sediments
  • Total coliform Bacterua
  • Sulfur
  • Others include insects, larva, rodent colonies, snakes and mud.

For a more detailed listing and description of the primary and secondary water standards please consult the EPA’s website found here.

Fear is a problem – drilling water wells can produce the same issues. Realistically, anytime someone decides to dig, drill, farm, garden, dump or dispose of something on the surface, the water table and aquifer below could be effected if standards, guidelines and best practices are not employed.  This is especially the case with methane which is highly mobile.

PA needs stricter standards for water wells. Currently Pennsylvania and Alaska are the only two states without strict standards for water wells. Also ground source heating systems, a popular green alternative, do not have minimum casing standards in Pennsylvania either. These systems commonly use chemicals and continually cycling underground to heat and cool a building.  They can also involve fracturing. These systems, however, can more easily impact the water table because they are shallower than gas wells.

As you can see, this was a most illuminating session, proving that facts are, in the end, more interesting and much more useful than the hype we see so often from our anti-gas friends!


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