Charleston Gazette-Mail | May 1, 2017
Hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells has not contaminated groundwater in northwestern West Virginia, according to a study by Duke University scientists released this month. But accidental spills of fracking wastewater may pose a threat to surface water in the region, the scientists said.
The three-year study, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded what many in the natural gas industry have been saying for years: The extreme risks opponents claim fracking poses aren’t true.
That’s not to say the industry shouldn’t continue to be careful and deliberate in its fracturing process. And gas drillers and their associates must learn to be more careful when handling fracking wastewater, which comes back out of the gas well after the hydraulic fracturing procedure and must be disposed of in permitted facilities.
Hydraulic fracturing is the process of injecting pressurized water, sand and chemicals deep into highly dense shale rock formations to fracture the rock, allowing cracks and pathways for natural gas to come through.
While natural gas and oil wells have been fractured for generations, the technology of hydraulic fracturing to access huge gas reserves in the much more compact Marcellus, Utica and other shales came into use in the late 2000s.
“Currently there is no scientific data that demonstrates that hydraulic fracturing is intrinsically unsafe compared to other oil and gas wells,” said Timothy Carr, professor of geology at West Virginia University in December 2014. At that time, he called for more research, which the Duke study has provided.
“Based on consistent evidence from comprehensive testing, we found no indication of groundwater contamination over the three-year course of our study,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment in a news release. “However, we did find that spill water associated with fracked wells and their wastewater has an impact on the quality of streams in areas of intense shale gas development.”
“The bottom-line assessment,” he said, “is that groundwater is so far not being impacted, but surface water is more readily contaminated because of the frequency of spills.”
The peer-reviewed study was published this month in the European journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta.
The Duke team collaborated with researchers from Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Stanford University and the French Geological Survey to sample water from 112 drinking wells in northwestern West Virginia over a three-year period. Twenty of the water wells were sampled before drilling or fracking began to provide a control group for comparisons.
Hopefully, this study will help ease the irrational hysteria around fracking but serve as a reminder to the natural gas industry to keep operating safely and carefully.