Appalachian Basin

UC Releases Master’s Thesis (Not Full Report) on Fracking Study; States “No Evidence For Natural Gas Contamination”

After weeks of scrutiny, media attention, and calls from groups and elected officials, the University of Cincinnati (UC) has posted the data from its 28-month study on hydraulic fracturing and groundwater – but it has done so in the form of a master’s thesis written by a student who assisted the lead researchers, rather than in the form of a scientific report.

UC has said that it does plan to publish the study in a scientific journal and it should absolutely make good on its word. However, in the meantime, it’s worth noting that after 191 water samples, the first-ever stable isotope analysis, and most importantly, baseline testing, the 31 page master’s thesis explains that there was “no evidence for natural gas contamination from shale oil and gas mining in any of the sampled groundwater wells of our study.” The results were so overwhelming, that the study clearly reinforced these findings at least five times.

Here are the relevant quotes from the master’s thesis:

  1. “Based on the carbon and hydrogen stable isotope data along with the relatively consistent measurements within individual’s wells over the study period, we have found no evidence for natural gas contamination from shale oil and gas mining in any of the sampled groundwater wells of our study.” (Emphasis added)
  2. We found no positive relationship between CH4 concentration in groundwater and proximity to active gas well sites, and we found no significant change in CH4 concentration, isotopic composition of CH4, pH, or conductivity in water wells during the study period.” (Emphasis added)
  3. “The water wells were sampled two or more times both before and after natural gas extraction activities began nearby. None of the measured parameters significantly varied in these groundwater wells before or after drilling or natural gas production.” (Emphasis added)
  4. “Over the course of the study, regularly monitored groundwater wells did not undergo a significant change in either δ13C-CH4 or δ2H-CH4 values.” (Emphasis added)
  5. [N]o relationship was found between CH4 concentration and proximity to natural gas wells” (emphasis added)

Strangely, however, in the explanation of the report on UC’s website, lead researcher Amy Townsend-Small states,

“In general our work indicates that fracking does not always lead to groundwater contamination, but our data do not refute previous studies from Pennsylvania.”

First, the five quotations above couldn’t be clearer that the researchers did not find any evidence of fracking causing groundwater contamination.

Second, water samples were not taken outside the state of Ohio. There was no data from Pennsylvania, so it is unclear why UC would speculate about data outside the jurisdiction of this study.  Further, the “previous studies from Pennsylvania” are referenced in the master’s thesis in the bibliography as the discredited Duke University studies from 2010, and 2013. As EID has noted many times, the Duke researchers used a tiny sample size, no random sampling, no baseline data, and they found high levels of methane in lots of water wells residing nowhere near natural gas sites.

The UC master’s thesis itself even acknowledges the flaws in the Marcellus shale studies (the issues of not having baseline testing results) and states that Ohio’s water samples in fact refutes the Marcellus studies in question. Take a look:

“While no studies have been performed in the Utica Shale of Ohio, previous studies in the Marcellus Shale regions of Pennsylvania have found elevated levels of CH4 with an isotopic and alkane ratio signature consistent with that of natural gas in drinking water within 1km of active gas wells (15, 16), although these studies did not collect baseline data before the onset of shale gas activity…. however, we did not find any relationship between measured CH4 concentrations and δ13C-CH4 data in this study.” (emphasis added)

Study “would not have been possible” without the help of activists

Much has been made over the funding of the UC study, and rightfully so: 18 percent of the funding for the water sampling came from the Deer Creek Foundation, which also gave $25,000 to the Media Alliance in Oakland, Calif. for a documentary on the “rise of ‘extreme’ oil and gas extraction – fracking, tar sands development, and oil drilling in the Arctic” as well as $20,000 to the Northern Plains Resource Council, a Montana activist group that states on its website, “Fracking damages water, land and wildlife.” The Deer Creek Foundation also donated at least $20,000 to WildEarth Guardians, which is a key player in the “Keep-it-in-the-Ground” anti-fossil fuel movement that has been especially active in Ohio lately.

Meanwhile, 100 percent of the funding for the tools and equipment used to analyze the water samples came from state and federal tax payers.

Apparently one of the reasons why the UC researchers decided to announce their results at an activist town hall meeting was because the private water well samples that were collected came from volunteers recruited by the “generous leader of Carroll Concerned Citizens”. (Carroll Concerned Citizens is listed among the ban-fracking groups in Ohio, the Frackfree American National Coalition.) For a recap of the town hall, which EID exclusively captured, click here.

According to UC’s own admission, the study “would not have been made possible” without the activist help.  In addition, the researches even noted that the team was provided “rest and relaxation” at the private home of the leader of the Carroll Concerned Citizens.

Driving the media to an activist website

For weeks, media outlets, elected officials, and groups across the country have called for the publication of this groundbreaking study, and for weeks, the media has been told that the results could be found only by visiting the activist website hosted by the Carroll Concerned Citizens. Some reporters even stated that after visiting the Carroll Concerned Citizens website they were unable to locate the study.  Here’s an example of one reporter’s quest to obtain the results:

When asked why the University of Cincinnati hasn’t said word one about the latest research by Townsend-Small and her team, Public Relations director M.D. Reilly said the study results were available – on the Concerned Citizens website. “We typically do releases when research is presented at a scientific conference or when it is published in a scientific journal,” Reilly said. Kallanish Energy examined the articles Reilly was gracious enough to provide web addresses for and, while the quartet talked up the professor and her team’s work, there were no results. Perhaps the Concerned Citizens group was just special.” (Emphasis added)

In fairness, the results are posted on the activist website, but are extremely hard to find and what’s more is the public is forced to scroll through agenda-driven anti-fracking propaganda to get to it.


This study is best summarized by lead researcher for the UC Groundwater Study, Dr. Townsend-Small who said,

“I’m really sad to say this but some of our funders, the groups that had given us funding in the past, were a little disappointed in our results. They feel that fracking is scary and so they were hoping our data could point to a reason to ban it.” (emphasis added)

What is not “really sad” is that even though the study “would not have been possible” without the help of activists, the truth has prevailed, yet again, and stands with numerous other findings throughout the nation that continue to prove that hydraulic fracturing is not causing groundwater contamination.

We encourage the University of Cincinnati to expedite its efforts to publish this study in a scientific journal, despite the fact that the findings will continue to “disappoint” agenda-driven anti-fracking groups.


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