Appalachian Basin

Methane in Pike County Water Wells Unrelated to Shale Development

Despite being debunked long ago, Josh Fox’s claim that hydraulic fracturing was responsible for methane found in Pennsylvania water wells has taken yet another blow. A recent groundwater study in Pike County, Pennsylvania — completed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in cooperation with the Pike County Conservation District — shows detectable concentrations of methane in 16 of the 20 water wells sampled.

The study began in the summer of 2012 sampled 20 water wells throughout Pike County in various geological formations. Of those 20 wells, four were chosen and monitored monthly for one year to give a solid baseline of water quality for the area.

With 80 percent of the wells testing positive for concentrations of methane, one might assume shale development is taking place in the area. That assumption would be incorrect. In fact, Pike County has no oil & gas development thanks to a now four-year moratorium enacted by the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC).

The results:

  • 16 (80 percent) of the 20 wells had detectable concentrations of methane.
  • Two of those wells had elevated concentrations of methane. (about 3.7 and 5.8 mg/L)
  • The two well-water samples with the highest methane concentrations (about 3.7 and 5.8 mg/L) also had the highest pH values (8.7 and 8.3, respectively) and the highest concentrations of sodium, lithium, boron, fluoride, and bromide.
  • Elevated levels of barium, strontium, and chloride, were also present in the wells with the highest concentrations being in the wells with higher methane concentrations.
  • One well also showed elevated arsenic concentrations, with the arsenic concentration of 30 micrograms per liter (μg/L) it exceeded the drinking-water standard.

The high levels of barium, strontium and chloride are usually mistaken for adverse effects from oil and natural gas development, but the study suspects these came from road salt, septic systems, runoff and natural sources. Again, they had nothing to do with oil and natural gas development.

The study also looked at the origin of the methane in the wells, concluding:

“Although the origin of the elevated methane in two well-water samples was identified as microbial, the source of the methane in the aquifer is unknown; however, isotopic composition of the methane suggests possible generation from organic material within glacial deposits that overlie bedrock aquifers.”

The naturally occurring methane we’re seeing in Pike County is nothing we haven’t seen before. Take a look at neighboring Susquehanna County, Pa., then across the country in Parker County, Texas and even in the Southern Tier of New York where Gov. Cuomo has overseen a six year moratorium on shale development. All of these places have naturally occurring methane that has been there long before oil and natural gas development.

The Pike County Conservation District has applied for a Marcellus Legacy Fund grant to expand the data collected and monitor 60 additional wells. The good news is that, with more and more groundwater baseline data coming in, landowners are getting a better understanding of the water quality issues in this region.

Unfortunately for anti-fracking groups, that means their central talking point about “flaming water” is becoming even harder to sell.


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