Appalachian Basin

STUDY: Naturally-Occurring Methane “Ubiquitous” in NE Pa. Groundwater

A new study in the peer-reviewed journal Groundwater found that naturally-occurring methane is ubiquitous in northeastern Pennsylvania as the region’s groundwater is contained in a hydrocarbon bearing rock that is interspersed with water wells that lack structural integrity.

Time and again, opponents of shale development have pointed to cases of alleged methane contamination of water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania as evidence of hydraulic fracturing contaminating water.  Many examples abound, but the most recent comes from Franklin Forks, Pa., where activists claimed Marcellus Shale development caused a family’s water well to become infused with dangerous levels of the gas. Regulators eventually determined the situation was due to natural causes, but not before the claim drew widespread media acclaim, the attention of celebrities like Yoko Ono and countless activists working overtime to block the advance of responsible shale development in neighboring New York.

It’s really the same old game:  Activists make a claim that shale development impacted water before a scientific investigation shows the claim to be unfounded. In the interim, we see inflammatory headlines about water pollution and environmental damage, all based on claims of harm derived purely from ideological predisposition.  While that may have worked in the past, a new study featured in Groundwater, the peer-reviewed journal of the National Groundwater Association, provides some much needed context regarding methane “contamination” from Marcellus Shale development in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The peer-reviewed study examined over 1,700 water wells in gas-producing and non-gas producing areas, determining that “methane is ubiquitous in groundwater” in the region, and that it is unrelated to Marcellus Shale development.  In fact, the study noted that over 78 percent of the sampled water wells exhibited detectable methane concentrations.  Of these, some 3.4 percent of the sample exceeded action levels at which corrective action is recommended by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The study also examined over 200 years of records, all of which pointed to the fact that methane has been present in the area’s groundwater before anyone even considered drilling a well into the Marcellus Shale.  In its review, the study highlighted just a few of the many historical examples of methane in the region’s groundwater:

  • “Historical documentation suggests that the presence of methane gas in the shallow subsurface has been observed for over 200 years in Susquehanna County…”
  • “There are several dozen instances of flammable effervescing springs and water wells dating back to the late 1700’s…”
  • “Water well drillers have frequently reported encountering gas during drilling, particularly in valleys and other low-lying areas…”

The researchers found that the primary culprits for methane concentrations are (1) the source of the region’s drinking water, (2) the structural integrity of water wells in the region, and (3) natural factors such as topography that can lead to variations in the levels of methane.

The region’s primary source of drinking water – the Catskill Formation – is actually a hydrocarbon rich rock that has been tapped for numerous gas and oil wells over the course of its history.  The study noted, “the 1881 publication ‘The Geology of Susquehanna and Wayne County’ reported significant volumes of gas during the drilling of an oil boring in the Catskill Formation to a depth of 680 feet.”  The researchers found hydrocarbon generation in shallow geology to be rather common in the region as “Several gas fields in the past century have produced from formations less than 3,000 feet below surface in northeastern Pennsylvania (e.g. Shrewsbury Gas Filed, Lovelton Gas Field, Harvey’s Lake Gas Field), and there are numerous reports of gas shows between 80 and 800 feet during the drilling of oil and natural gas wells.”

The study also noted the region’s water wells are not constructed with proper engineering standards to keep unwanted contaminants out of the water they provide.  From the study:

The great majority of water wells in Susquehanna County penetrate the fractured Catskill Formation, in which groundwater flow in unweathered bedrock appears to be controlled by secondary permeability primarily through vertical to near vertical north-south oriented fractures.  Most of the bedrock water wells are unsealed open-hole completions with casing terminating in the shallow bedrock in order to draw water from multiple horizons…” (emphasis added)

So there you have it.  Methane in northeastern Pennsylvania groundwater is actually quite common due to the fact that the rock holding the region’s water aquifer is a hydrocarbon bearing resource, which itself is intersected by water wells that lack proper engineering standards.

The researchers also noted that methane in the region, while ubiquitous, tends to reach its greatest concentration in valleys:

“[A]lthough valley wells represent only 51% of the total water well population, they comprise 88% of the water wells with methane concentrations that exceed 7000 μg/L.”

This was the case regardless of whether or not shale development had taken place in close proximity:

“Furthermore, methane concentrations in valley water wells in gas production areas (i.e., located within 1 km of an active gas well) versus valley water wells in nonproduction areas (i.e., greater than 1 km from a gas well) show no statistical difference, indicating that the regional presence of elevated methane concentrations in valleys is a natural phenomenon. This is not an original finding, as the presence of elevated methane levels in valley water wells in the Appalachian basin has also been observed in a study in West Virginia by Mathis and White (2006), which found that methane concentrations from 170 water wells that exceeded 10,000 μg/L occurred in wells located in valleys and hillsides, as opposed to hill tops (Mathis and White 2006).”

Taking all of these items into consideration, the study noted: “the use of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in northeastern Pennsylvania has not resulted in widespread gas migration into the shallow subsurface.”

Could these natural causes shed some light onto some of the highest profile claims of water contamination, such as Franklin Forks, where activists paraded celebrities around an otherwise quiet rural community to show them the “dangers” of hydraulic fracturing?

A review of topographical surveys (featured below) very clearly indicate that Franklin Forks is in a low lying region of Susquehanna County that is surrounded by three large geographical ridges.

Franklin Forks topographical map

Franklin Forks topographical map

When taken together with isotopic testing conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), it becomes rather clear that the methane in Franklin Forks is unrelated to shale development. As DEP noted in its release:

 “Salt Springs State Park, which historically contains naturally occurring methane… is approximately one mile from the affected homes. The testing determined that the water samples taken from the private water wells contained gas of similar isotopic makeup to the gas in the water samples taken from Salt Springs State Park. Additionally, the water wells and spring exhibited similar water chemistry…DEP’s testing also determined that the gas in the water samples taken from the private water wells was not of the same origin as the natural gas in the nearby gas wells.”

The upshot:  An extensive scientific investigation shows us that methane in northeastern Pennsylvania’s groundwater, as in so many other places, has no connection to shale development.

  • Richard Latker
    Posted at 14:59h, 03 June Reply

    The wisest course of action for landowners, of course, is to test their water long before any fracking operations begin anywhere near their property, or on it. If there are significant levels of methane to begin with, then the study’s conclusions apply, and it is unlikely that any post-fracking methane contamination could spell liability for the fracker.

    However, if the landowner can show baseline testing that is free of methane, especially over the course of time, then it would be up to fracker to prove that methane that suddenly, mysteriously and coincidentally appeared in the water had nothing to do with its operations.

    • Gerald Brickwood
      Posted at 08:04h, 04 June Reply

      Very good Richard! You are exactly correct! The cost of such testing is nothing compared to the cost of contaminated water. While you’re at it be sure to test for a wide variety of analytes also, cover metals, volatile organic compounds, petroleum aromatic hydrocarbons, pesticides etc.

      When reviewing the results consider past land uses also! For example pesticide use in an apple orchard from the 1930s could cause elevated levels of arsenic today.

      • Debbie Esposito
        Posted at 09:58h, 19 August Reply

        A responsible driller will take a baseline water test from the landowners own tap and send it to an independent lab. The driller then makes a copy of the results for the landowner, free of charge.

    • James Bancroft
      Posted at 09:43h, 27 May Reply

      that doesn’t sound like just a consumer protection idea, but one of the oil and gas companies for self defense!

  • Bill Ferullo
    Posted at 19:15h, 04 June Reply

    Low levels are common in some well water ,but when drilling staeted many people have experienced spikes of 25 mg/l or much more !!Stop the BS .We had very little well water issues in NEPA (if any ) until NG drilling started here in the area .Never heard of it until then.Now it’s claims of well construction and ” Oh we had Methane here all along ..just stretching the truth like always !!

    • Ken Glick (EEI)
      Posted at 10:13h, 06 June Reply

      Unfortunately, there are some people – like you – who just can’t accept the fact that they are wrong. Saying that Northeast Pennsylvania methane is ubiquitous is not BS; it’s sound science and it’s peer-reviewed so as to eliminate as much BS as possible.

      Now, if someone could just tell Josh Fox that his hydraulic-fracturing-causes-water-to-catch-fire contentions in his “Gasland” movies are completely wrong, We’ be getting somewhere.

      • Bill Ferullo
        Posted at 16:18h, 06 June Reply

        Ken It did not say there was no methane in people’s well in NEPA ,but if you read my comment correctly I did say at low levels and until drilling started in the areas spikes were uncommon .I have seen many pre drilling water test (with low levels of methane ) that after drilling increased .So to a point you are right it’s not BS ,but it is low traces until drilling .Also another point I will mention is there are other concerns with HVHF process which goes beyond the chemicals .Drilling muds at high psi can cause much of the problems people are having and this comes from those that were once in the drilling industry .As far as Josh Fox is concerned he also had a point in his movie if you consider the spikes caused by NG drilling near water wells ….

        • FrackDaddy
          Posted at 13:25h, 08 November Reply

          Bill, No one went out and had multiple test done on there water before the industry came along. I have lived in that area my whole life, in NEPA and the Southern tier of NY you hear people all the time refer to “hard water” which contains all sorts of natural chemicals. I even had a friend who lived outside Montrose who had to take her laundry to her grandmothers house, Cause they had so much iron in the water it would die there cloths red! But some people see what think is a “Big Piggy Bank” in town and now greed takes over. These “activist” look for People who “are not the sharpest tool in he shed” Convince them they are victims and use them for their agenda, When they have been discredited they just send them out to pasture. Look at the saunters, We can say with no problems after dozens of tests and only being able to get the “brown water” from jugs in his garage that they were liars and mutilated by paid “activist” and when they were done the saunters could not show their face in their own town, Got fair market Value at best for there home and had to move out of state. They lost their home friends and community, And now we are on to the Hadlick’s, Stay Tuned its going to happen again..

    • Richard Latker
      Posted at 13:33h, 06 June Reply

      Bill, you might be right. Or not. All that matters, ultimately, is what can be proven.

      That’s why a sensible fracking law would require baseline testing before any fracking begins.

      It’s a measure the industry opposes, of course. And the greenies just want to ban fracking altogether, whether or not there’s any evidence to support a moratorium.

      Landowners would be unwise to trust the professed opinion of either side.

      • Tom Shepstone
        Posted at 13:40h, 06 June Reply

        Baseline testing already is the law and industry frequently exceeds the 2,500 feet minimum distance out for such testing.

        • Richard Latker
          Posted at 13:47h, 06 June Reply

          Really? If true, I stand corrected. But here in Bedford County, Pa, there certainly was no baseline water testing done in or around any of the wells I’m familiar with.

          Which law specifies this?

          • Tom Shepstone
            Posted at 13:44h, 10 June

            The new standard in PA is 2,500 feet. I think it’s in Act 13.

      • Bill Ferullo
        Posted at 16:29h, 06 June Reply

        One baseline water test is not enough to have proof of drilling causing water issues .Multiple testing over a long period of time (if possible a year or more ) and post drilling continous testing also is needed to show a definite alteration in water quality .The more the better .One pre drill test either by a company or a individual is surely not enough .

      • Bill Ferullo
        Posted at 16:33h, 06 June Reply

        Pre drilling and post drilling on each and every well drilled in a unit is a must .For the better continous testing should be done for possibly yrs after .

    • Pennsy1223
      Posted at 19:10h, 12 January Reply

      Hey Bill here is a direct quote from an article titled “Methane Measured in Tier Wells” by Kevin Begos from the AP dated Dec. 18, 2013.

      “Some upstate New York water wells naturally have explosive levels of methane gas, even in areas that aren’t near oil or gas drilling, according to a new federal study released Tuesday. The U.S. Geological Survey study found that 15% of groundwater samples from 66 household wells across south-central New York contained naturally occurring methane at levels high enough to warrant monitoring or remediation, even though none of the water wells was within a mile of existing or abandoned natural gas wells. Four of the wells were so high that water coming out of the tap could potentially be lit with a match or be an explosive risk.” Source – “Methane Measured in Tier Wells” by Kevin Begos from the AP dated Dec. 18, 2013.

      How can this be? Haven’t we been assured over and over by environmental groups that fracking is the only cause of methane and contamination in water wells? This study raises the obvious question: How did this happen in a state with no fracking? Also, for all those wells in PA that have methane in them with no pre-fracking testing done how can we know for sure fracking is to blame since you are all quick to blame them?

      The methane in the studied wells obviously did not occur overnight so why have these New Yorkers not said one word about it? Or could it be they are waiting for the gas companies to come in so they can blame them?

      To read the federal report on methane in New York upstate wells go to:

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