*UPDATE* Texas ‘Fracking Contamination’ Report Is an Embarrassing Media Blunder
UPDATE (6/8/2014; 11:05am ET): Terry Engelder, a widely respected geoscientist from Penn State University, has looked at the data for Parker County and concluded: “The fact is that the RRC-Silverado data set suggests, if anything, that there is NO link between fracking and groundwater contamination in the Fort Worth Basin” (emphasis added). Dr. Engelder also issued a strong rebuke to WFAA’s coverage of the issue, saying the news station “might wish to be more careful about its choice of ‘experts’ and approach only those without an agenda.”
Engelder’s full comments, including his compositional analysis showing that the methane found in groundwater is not from the Barnett Shale, can be found here, or embedded below:
—Original post, June 6, 2014—
A news report from ABC affiliate WFAA in Dallas-Fort Worth alleges that recent tests “prove” fracking is to blame for high levels of methane in a resident’s drinking water aquifer. But aside from inflammatory rhetoric, the report does nothing to contradict the publicly available information showing that shale gas development is unrelated to the methane found in the groundwater.
The case became a national story after the U.S. EPA pushed a now infamous theory of drilling-related contamination, accusing Range Resources of causing high levels of methane to enter resident Steve Lipsky’s drinking water supplies, although the agency later backtracked in the face of evidence to the contrary. Josh Fox, the director of the widely-criticized film Gasland films, has made the case a central part of his argument against fracking.
Critics allege that the methane found in Mr. Lipsky’s water is almost identical in composition to the gas being produced from the Barnett Shale. But extensive analyses — chiefly the use of nitrogen fingerprinting to distinguish between Barnett gas and shallower deposits of methane — have shown that the source is the Strawn formation, which lies just below the water aquifer. A recent investigation by the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas activity in the state, revealed that several private water wells in this particular region were actually drilled below the base of the drinking water aquifer, puncturing the shallower gas-bearing zone.
This is also why “flaming water” was well-documented long before drilling began in the area.
But WFAA’s report disregards all of that, opting for the opinion of at least one researcher whose theory on the source of the methane has previously been exposed as flawed. Geoffrey Thyne — who has done work for the anti-fracking group Earthworks in the past, and whose previous research attempting to link drilling in Colorado to degraded water quality has been debunked — made the exact same claim in January 2013, despite mounds of evidence confirming, based on geochemical fingerprinting, that the gas was not originating from production wells.
This time, Thyne was asked by WFAA to analyze the data released by the Railroad Commission last month. He concluded the composition of methane in the water wells was almost identical to what’s being produced from the Barnett Shale. Both Thyne and WFAA cite an “isotopic analysis” showing similarities between the methane, presumably establishing a link.
But in its analysis, the Railroad Commission addressed that very concern, noting that “the isotopic signature changed in certain water wells,” and for that reason, “the isotope data alone do not appear to be diagnostic of a specific source of gas.”
When assessed for nitrogen content, however, the methane in question matches what’s also found in the shallower Strawn formation, into which several local landowners drilled their water wells. It does not have the same nitrogen content as Barnett Shale gas.
Reviewing the data tables compiled by the Railroad Commission confirms this fact. In the “Summary of Gas Data” table (p. 15), the average nitrogen reading for the water wells was 51.99 percent. Samples of Barnett gas production data (p. 17), however, have an average of only 1.92 percent.
This is consistent with the Weatherford Labs report from 2011 that proved the gas was not coming from the Barnett Shale, but rather the shallower formations from which Range Resources was not producing:
“The natural gas component of the most recent Lipsky well headspace gas samples contains higher N2 [nitrogen] than is encountered in Barnett gas.” (p. 3; emphasis added)
The Weatherford analysis also observed that “high N2/low CO2 samples are characteristic of gases produced from Pennsylvanian reservoirs,” referring to rock strata far shallower than the Barnett Shale.
Even less defensible is that Thyne completely mischaracterizes the drilling and completion process to implicate “fracking,” when clearly that process is not to blame.
What’s more, both Thyne and Payne believe these test results could represent the nation’s first conclusive link between fracking and aquifer contamination.
“And what we seem to have here is the first good example that that in fact is happening,” Thyne said.
For “fracking” to be causing aquifer contamination, as WFAA and Thyne allege, then there would have to be a direct link between the Barnett Shale and the groundwater. However, no evidence is presented in the story that fractures from the Barnett Shale — which lies thousands of feet below the groundwater being tested — have penetrated up through the billions of tons of rock strata that separate that formation from the aquifer.
The Railroad Commission also directly refuted this possibility in a list of facts at the end of its recent report:
- “Hydraulic fracturing was performed in the Barnett shale which occurs at approximately 5,700 feet below ground surface.”
- “The base of the aquifer and the Barnett shale are separated by approximately 5,300 feet of geological strata. Seismic reflection data submitted by Range Resources to the RRC do not show the presence of faults above the Barnett Shale beneath the neighborhood.” (emphasis added)
WFAA made no mention of the lack of communication pathways between the Barnett Shale and the aquifer, yet still asserted that “fracking” was to blame.
Thus, there is nothing to substantiate the claim that “fracking” caused contamination of the aquifer, much less “concrete evidence linking fracking and groundwater contamination,” as WFAA so boldly characterized it.
WFAA is also the outlet that former EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz used in 2010 for the agency’s now-withdrawn endangerment order against Range Resources, premised on the theory that the company was responsible for contaminating groundwater. “We’re about to make a lot of news,” Armendariz wrote to local anti-drilling activists in December 2010, shortly before the order was issued. “Also, time to Tivo channel 8,” Armendariz added, referring to WFAA.
Sharon Wilson, an organizer for the aggressively anti-fracking group Earthworks, responded to the email with elation: “Yee haw! Hats off to the new Sheriff and his deputies!” Armendariz thanked Wilson and others on the email chain for helping to “educate” him about fracking.
Yesterday’s news also clearly was influenced by Wilson, who began celebrating WFAA’s report long before it was ever published.
At 8pm CT on June 5th, Wilson tweeted:
— TXsharon (@TXsharon) June 5, 2014
Wilson then tweeted at least a half dozen times to other activists and even to President Obama about the forthcoming news. When Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox asked for a link, Wilson replied: “working on it.”
Earthworks’ claims about shale development issues have a questionable history. In one particular case, the group interpreted emissions data in a way that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has criticized as “not scientifically appropriate.” Regulators have also called out Earthworks for falsely claiming an investigated emissions event was only 400 feet away from a residence, since the “residence” was actually a water tank.
After looking into the case for a second time, regulators at the Texas Railroad Commission announced late last month that “further investigation by the Commission is not planned at this time,” although they did note a willingness to review any new data that come to light. WFAA’s latest foray into the anti-drilling space, based on a review of the information presented, does nothing to challenge the Railroad Commission’s findings, nor does it present a credible refutation to (or even an acknowledgement of) the extensive nitrogen fingerprinting conducted more than three years ago that proved the methane was not coming from the Barnett Shale. In fact, Railroad Commission data only confirm that fact.
Interestingly, last summer, WFAA ran a separate “investigative report” on the same case. In that report, WFAA suggested the gas was originating from shallower sources — not the Barnett Shale — based on the supposition that the gas wells had been improperly cemented (“Of particular concern is a shallow gas formation just beneath the aquifer called the Strawn,” reporter Brett Shipp, the same author of yesterday’s report, wrote last year). Experts have confirmed, however, that Range’s wells were properly cased and cemented, isolating the well bore from groundwater and in full compliance with state regulations. In last year’s report, WFAA leveraged the opinions of Cornell University’s Tony Ingraffea, whose previous claims on shale well “leaks” were based on data from deepwater Gulf of Mexico wells that do not refer to leaks.
Thus, in the course of a year, WFAA has informed its audience that Barnett Shale gas is the same as the methane found in the region’s groundwater, and that the gas is coming from the Strawn formation. These claims are not reconcilable. Nonetheless, WFAA has maintained that gas drilling must be to blame, using opinions from known drilling critics to implicate shale development regardless of the source.
This looks like a classic case of a conclusion already being made (i.e. drilling and fracking contaminating water), followed by a frantic search for evidence to support it — even if that means delivering baseless and even contradictory statements to keep the prescribed narrative in tact.
**NOTE: EID’s fact sheet on the Parker County case is available here.