New Duke Paper a Rehash of Previous (Debunked) Studies

Earlier this month, the Duke team published yet another report that claims shale development poses a risk to water supplies. However this time, it makes the argument through a “survey of the literature” – an evaluation of studies that have already been published.  Of course, many of these studies were written by the Duke researchers themselves — and have, naturally, been thoroughly debunked.

Without further ado, let’s take a minute to revisit those claims:

Claim #1: “[S]hallow aquifers” can be “contaminated by fugitive natural gas (i.e., stray gas contamination) from leaking shale gas and conventional oil and gas wells, potentially followed by water contamination from hydraulic fracturing fluids and/or formation waters from the deep formations.”

FACT: The Duke researchers cite themselves to make this claim, harking back to a study the Duke researchers released last summer, which argues that methane from shale development is migrating into drinking water supplies in Northeast Pennsylvania.  EID has the full debunk of the study on the blog, and the problems haven’t disappeared. The researchers found methane in 82 percent of the water wells they sampled. More than fifty of those wells – among the 141 total homes sampled – were nowhere near natural gas wells.  Yet they still blamed shale development.

Further, the Duke team makes its argument by relying on the misconception that of the two types of gas found in water wells, biogenic gas is typically pre-existing, whereas thermogenic gas (or gas from deeper depths) is the result of natural gas development.  Therefore – without actually coming out and saying it – the researchers link the thermogenic methane they found in water wells to shale development.

Duke’s conclusions have been directly contradicted by several studies.  The U.S. Geological Survey recently released a report finding plenty of thermogenic methane in water wells in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania (an area where the Duke team also took samples).  Importantly, USGS’ samples were baseline samples that predate drilling activity.

Additionally, a more recent study by led by Fred Baldassare from Echelon Applied Geochemistry Consulting also analyzed groundwater in northeastern Pennsylvania and found large amounts of thremogenic gas, prior to any natural gas development.  In fact, 88 percent of the 67 water wells tested had some presence of thermogenic gas, and none of those sampled showed the presence of Marcellus gas.  As the study explains,

“When future isotope data show a stray gas in this area to be thermogenic, that finding cannot be the sole basis for alleging that the stray gas was caused by oil or gas-well drilling.”

Claim #2: “Combined, these studies suggest that stray gas contamination can result from either natural gas leaking up through the well annulus, typically from shallower (intermediate) formations, or through poorly constructed or failing well casings from the shale target formations.”

FACT: As Greenwire explains in an article on the Duke study, “If methane contamination does happen, the question then is how often well casings fail. The review suggests that casing failure is common in the petroleum industry.”

The facts tell a much different story.  The Associated Press recently completed an investigation on confirmed cases of contamination from drilling in several states, including Pennsylvania.  Based on Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection data compiled by the AP, the well failure rate is about one third of one-percent (0.33 percent) of all the oil and gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 2005.

The AP’s findings are right in line with a 2011 report by the Ground Water Protection Council, which found a well failure rate of less than one percent in Ohio and Texas.  Those data, meanwhile, were referring to operating environments from many years ago, well before many of the new casing regulations across the country were implemented.

While a well failure rate of above zero leaves room for improvement – and that’s why numerous states are enhancing their existing regulations, including those governing well integrity – rates below one percent show that failures are far from “common” as the Duke researchers would like us to believe.

Claim #3: “Spills or leaks of hydraulic fracturing and flowback fluids can pollute soil, surface water, and shallow groundwater with organics, salts, metals, and other constituents […] As mentioned earlier, an EPA study in Pavillion, Wyoming found increased concentrations of benzene, xylenes, gasoline range organics, diesel range organics, hydrocarbons, and high pH in two shallow monitoring wells.”

FACT: In its 2011 study, Duke researchers claimed to have found “no evidence for contamination of the shallow wells near active drilling sites from deep brines and/or fracturing fluids.”  Yet, in this latest study they’re claiming the opposite — and using as their example EPA’s draft report on water wells in Pavillion, Wyoming, which itself has been exposed as deeply flawed by Wyoming state regulators, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Just to revisit that case briefly: Due to concerns over the EPA’s methods, the agency agreed to retest the wells, and the U.S. Geological Survey was brought in to do its own sampling.  USGS compiled a data set that had around 50 differences from EPA’s measurements.  USGS also effectively disqualified one of the EPA’s two monitoring wells due to low flow rates and poor construction.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality found accumulation within one of EPA’s monitoring wells, which “indicates the well casing was not constructed of stainless steel as originally reported by EPA. This has been confirmed by EPA.” Using the wrong material for well casing can introduce new compounds into groundwater, which means that EPA may have contaminated the water it was supposed to be sampling.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, when the data had been compiled by the EPA in 2011, “We have absolutely no indication right now that drinking water is at risk.” She later told reporters, “In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.”

Claim #4: “In spite of a 2011 ban on the disposal of shale gas wastewater to streams in PA, evidence for the Marcellus wastewater disposal based on isotopic ratios(35) and elevated Br levels collected from the Clarion River after May 2011 was suggested(113) to reflect either illegal dumping or incomplete implementation of the ban where a portion of unconventional wastewater is still being transferred to brine treatment facilities.”

FACT: The Duke team cites itself heavily here.  It rehashes a study from late last year, which claims to have found “elevated levels of radioactivity” in a western Pennsylvania creek, blaming it on wastewater generated by Marcellus development.  Again, EID has the full debunk here, but the study was conducted from August 2010 to November 2012 and focused on the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility, a facility that Marcellus operators stopped using in May 2011.   The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection affirmed that the plant stopped accepting Marcellus Shale wastewater in 2011.  Fluid Recovery Services, which operates the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility, put it this way:

“Fluid Recovery Services (FRS) is in full compliance with the PA DEP permitting requirements and agreements. The facility is operating under the authorized NPDES permits and has not processed any wastewater classified as originating from unconventional sources such as Marcellus Shale since 2011.”

Ironically, the Duke researchers even admit that “oil and gas operators voluntarily ceased disposal of wastewater from unconventional wells (i.e., Marcellus wastewater) to POTWs” – but that admission is buried in a “Supplemental Information” section, and certainly not advertised to the media. It also doesn’t stop the Duke team from blaming radioactive elements in the water on Marcellus shale development – and in its latest study, it even accuses producers of “illegal dumping”!

Further, in March 2011, Pennsylvania regulators conducted a series of tests on drinking water suppliers in Western Pennsylvania and found no radioactive contaminants in the water. If that’s not enough, the Duke team even admits in the study that the radium levels they found were “well below the industrial discharge limit.”

Claim #5: Potential modes of water resource degradation include “the overuse of water resources, which can compete with other water uses such as agriculture in water-limited environments” […] “nearly half of the shale gas wells in the U.S. were developed in basins with high water scarcity, particularly in Texas and Colorado.”

FACT: One of the organizations Duke cites for this claim is Ceres, an anti-fracking group that recently released a report purporting that shale development is putting large amounts of stress on drought prone areas.  Ceres uses data from the World Resources Institute (WRI) to make this claim, but when you actually look at the data, oil and gas poses virtually the lowest risk to water resources of any industry evaluated.

Water is indeed a precious resource and all water users should work to reduce their water footprint.  But context is important here: in Colorado, where water supplies can be strained, oil and gas development accounts for only 0.1 percent of the state’s total water demand; in drought-prone Texas it’s only 0.05 percent.  In fact a recent report from the University of Texas found that hydraulic fracturing is actually helping to shield Texas from water shortages because it is allowing the state to move away from using more water intensive energy resources.

The Bottom Line

In one important aspect, the Duke researchers have remained consistent: they have repeatedly conceded that there is no evidence of the hydraulic fracturing process contaminating water. In a 2011 paper, Duke admitted that “Based on our data (Table 2), we found no evidence for contamination of the shallow wells near active drilling sites from deep brines and/or fracturing fluids.”  In its 2012 study, Duke reiterated that point, noting that there is “no evidence for increased concentrations of salts, metals, or radioactivity in drinking water wells accompanying shale gas extraction.”

The studies evaluated in this report by the Duke researchers come to the same conclusion. As Greenwire explained, Duke’s latest study illustrates that “Most studies so far have found that fracking itself, narrowly defined, does not pose a risk.”

That may be the one accurate aspect of a report that relies on numerous faulty studies – including their own – to make more dubious conclusions.


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