Mountain States

New CU Study Finds Fracking not to Blame for Methane in DJ Basin Water Wells

A University of Colorado (CU) research team is out with a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, which concludes that fracking “could not be specifically attributed” to methane tainted water wells in Colorado’s DJ Basin. The study looked at decades of data generated by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) detailing water quality across Colorado’s portion of the DJ Basin. Here are the four things to know about the latest CU study.

Fact #1: Researchers find that fracking is not to blame for methane in water wells

Out of 42 water wells containing thermogenic methane that researchers believe is linked to oil and natural gas development, none could be attributed to fracking. As the study concludes:

“A total of 42 water wells contained thermogenic stray gas, representing 32 separate cases of contamination, occurring at the rate of two cases per year since 2001. None of the cases could be specifically attributed to recent horizontal well drilling or hydraulic fracturing. Assessment of the risk of thermogenic methane release should therefore address the full history and life cycle of both conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations.” (emphasis added)

The finding that fracking is not to connected to methane contaminated water wells in Colorado’s DJ Basin debunks a central claim of anti-fracking activists, going all the way back to Josh Fox’s 2010 film Gasland, which depicted a Weld County man lighting his tap water on fire. And researchers even addressed Fox’s controversial scene when speaking with the media. As the AP reports:

“I think it’s important for people to realize that being able to light your tap water on fire in many cases is a natural occurrence,” said Owen Sherwood, lead author of the study and a research associate at the University of Colorado. (emphasis added)

Of course, Josh Fox should have already known this. Two years before the release of Gasland, Colorado regulators had investigated that exact case, and determined hydraulic fracturing and oil and gas development had nothing to do with it. “There are no indications of oil & gas related impacts to water well,” according to the COGCC report. The film garnered so much attention that after its release, COGCC noted once again that the landowner’s water well “contained biogenic gas that was not related to oil and gas activity.”

Fact #2: Methane contamination is “rare”

Looking at nearly 30 years’ worth of COGCC data covering 924 water wells, researchers found that the vast majority of methane-tainted water wells were not connected to oil and natural gas development but more likely exposed from “shallow coal seams.” From there, the team isolated 42 water wells they believe were exposed to methane migrating from underlying oil and natural gas development. From the study:

“The rate of oil and gas wellbore failure was estimated as 0.06% of the 54,000 oil and gas wells in the basin (upper estimate) to 0.15% of the 20,700 wells in the area where stray gas contamination occurred (upper estimate) and has remained steady at about two cases per year since 2001.”

While safety and environmental protection are always an ongoing paramount concern for oil and natural gas developers, it should be noted that what researchers did find is a remarkably low rate of well integrity isssues in an area that is said to contain more than 50,000 oil and gas wells developed over a span of 60 years. And as the AP reports, the study’s authors acknowledged how rare methane contamination from historic wells occurs:

“It’s relatively rare, a rate of about two cases a year” since 2000, Sherwood said.

Fact #3: Researchers say today’s regulations prevent contamination

Of the 11 cases of wellbore failure that the researchers identified, each one was drilled before 1993, before regulations in the state were updated to require placement of deeper surface casings. From the study:

“All 11 cases of wellbore failure involved vertical wells drilled before 1993, 7 of which were hydraulically fractured. All 11 wells had short surface casings and uncemented intermediate sections. Six wells also had casing leaks revealed by MIT failure and one well had a wellhead seal leak; however, there likely would have been no impact to groundwater had these wells been constructed with sufficiently deep surface casings.”

Fact #4: CSU researchers produced similar results as another recent study that did “not indicate a systemic problem”

Another recent study from Colorado State University (CSU) found similar results.  As one of the authors told the Denver Post, there “isn’t a chronic, the-sky-is-falling type of problem with water contamination.” CSU Today reported when that study was released:

“Our study does not indicate a systemic problem with oil and gas activity polluting water wells with methane in the Denver-Julesburg Basin,” Carlson said. “As with any industrial activity, there does appear to be a low-level risk of impact to the surrounding environment. Regulations aimed at well drilling, casing and surface activity have changed significantly over the past five years, driving these risks to even lower levels.”

While the CSU researchers found thermogenic methane present in a small percentage of wells in the region, they were quick to highlight to the media that this is not exactly cause for alarm. From the Denver Post:

“My guess is that most the thermogenic methane-contaminated wells we see out there are 10 to 30 years old,” Carlson said. “Well-casing requirements and monitoring have tightened up significantly since the 2009 regulations.”


This new study is just the latest scientific analysis to rebuke anti-fossil fuel activists who have long-claimed that fracking is tainting drinking water. As with any industrial activity, shale development entails risks, but this study clearly shows that these risks are being managed. Activists simply ignore those facts as they wage a campaign to ban the development of our resources in Colorado in order to drive their political ideology.


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