*UPDATE* USGS Study Again Confirms Safety Record of Hydraulic Fracturing

UPDATE (4:45 pm ET, 1/10/2013): Today, Senator David Vitter (R-La.), Ranking Member of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) committee, acknowledged the USGS study of groundwater quality in the Fayetteville shale region. Senator Vitter applauded the USGS’s use of sound science in its investigation, contrasting that commitment with flawed prior assessments by EPA in Parker County, Tex.; Pavillion, Wyo.; and Dimock, Pa. (among others):

“It’s certainly encouraging to see this positive result from a study using sound and transparent science to draw conclusions instead of ideology.  The EPA’s mishaps with fabricating evidence in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming caused an unnecessary attack on an effective, efficient and safe method of developing domestic energy. Studies like these from the USGS help set the record straight.” [link]

Original post, January 9, 2013

A report released today by the United States Geological Survey again confirms that hydraulic fracturing does not pose a serious risk of polluting drinking water resources. The study examined the water quality of 127 shallow domestic wells in the Fayetteville shale in Arkansas – a region with 4,000 completed producing natural gas wells.  As report lead and USGS hydrologist Timothy Kresse stated, “none of the data that {USGS} looked at as part of this study suggests that any groundwater contamination is resulting from natural gas production activities.”

It’s worth noting up front that two of the authors of the study are none other than Robert Jackson and Avner Vengosh — the same Duke University researchers whose work has been cited far and wide by opponents of shale development as “proof” that hydraulic fracturing contaminates groundwater. Bloomberg News cited their prior findings as suggesting shale development will “put water at risk,” while the Christian Science Monitor claimed their prior work provided evidence hydraulic fracturing is “polluting ground water,” as did even Scientific American.

But what’s abundantly clear, especially now, is that these bold assertions were premature at best — and incorrect at worst. If hydraulic fractured posed a serious and indeed imminent risk to groundwater resources (how else to interpret the alarmist headlines?), then this latest study would not have come to the conclusions that it did. It is unclear, however, if the same media outlets and opposition groups who latched on to research from Jackson and Vengosh – no doubt because they viewed them as credible scientists – will express the same eagerness in reporting what those researchers have now found on the same subject.

As for how the study itself was conducted, all 127 well samples were tested for chloride — a naturally occurring ion that can be used as a “fingerprint” to identify groundwater impacts from development (though it’s worth noting that the mere presence of chloride does not necessarily establish a causal link). These samples were then compared to samples taken from nearby areas between 1951 and 1983.  The result? The concentrations observed in the samples were consistent with the previous ones, indicating no instances of contamination. The report also highlighted that the chloride concentrations from wells within a two mile range of a producing well were similar to concentrations from wells located more than two miles away, which indicates no connection between chloride levels and proximity to natural gas production.

Methane concentrations were also tested in 51 wells. According to the report, methane that was detected was found to be biogenic (naturally occurring) and not a result from natural gas development. From the report:

“Seven samples had methane concentrations greater than or equal to 0.5 mg/L. The carbon isotopic composition of these higher concentration samples, including the highest concentration of 28.5 mg/L, shows the methane was likely biogenic in origin with carbon isotope ratio values ranging from -57.6 to -74.7 per mil.” [link]

That’s good news for the state of Arkansas, and indeed great news for the millions of Americans who rely on clean-burning natural gas developed from shale to heat their homes and keep their lights on.

Of course, for those of us who have always been interested in the facts, this report comes as no surprise.  As state regulators and even the EPA have noted time and again, hydraulic fracturing does not pose a serious risk for groundwater contamination. In fact, those same regulators have noted that they have never once observed a confirmed case of hydraulic fracturing polluting drinking water resources. Today’s results merely reconfirm these facts.

USGS Director Marcia McNutt described the significance of today’s results:

“For more than one hundred years, the USGS has been a source of freely available, unbiased information on our natural resources such as oil, gas, and water, helping government and local leaders make wise decisions for the public good. This new study is important in terms of finding no significant effects on groundwater quality from shale gas development within the area of sampling.”

Shale development in Arkansas in 2012 alone has generated $530 million in state and local taxes and supported more than 33,000 jobs in the state. Today’s report from USGS proves once again that the immense benefits of shale production do not come at the expense of the environment that we all have a vested interest in protecting.


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