Scientists at Duke University released a new study last week that could not identify any threat of groundwater water contamination from the affects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Simply stated by Nathaniel Warner, lead author of the study, “These findings demonstrate that shale gas development, at least in this area, has been done without negatively impacting drinking water resources.”
The study took place across north-central Arkansas in the Fayetteville shale region, where 4,000 new wells have been drilled since 2004. Scientists from Duke and members of the US Geological Survey analyzed 127 local drinking water wells for any traces of leaked methane gas or various toxic chemicals that are associated with the fracking process. Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, explains their findings;
Only a fraction of the groundwater samples we collected contained dissolved methane, mostly in low concentrations, and the isotopic fingerprint of the carbon in the methane in our samples was different from the carbon in deep shale gas in all but two cases…[the methane] was produced primarily by biological activity in the region’s shallow aquifers and not from shale gas contamination.
Duke researchers used isotopic tracers to identify the sources of all components of the well water for each test area. In addition, comparisons were made between the water and chemical compositions of wells near, and far from fracking sites in the region to reinforce their findings.
Despite the results in Arkansas, conclusions have varied among many notable studies regarding the ramifications of hydraulic fracturing. The EPA found “no unequivocal evidence” of health risks from a fracking study in 2004, yet is currently in the process of a more extensive analysis to be released in 2014. In Dimock Township, Pennsylvania, however, a study was conducted in 2009 after a water well exploded, showing unacceptable levels of many substances like arsenic, barium and methane.
Even Duke researchers have found mixed results from their fracking studies. Contrary to the most recent study’s results, Duke performed similar testing in 68 northeastern Pennsylvanian wells two years ago. Much like the Arkansas study, no sizable amounts of contaminants from fracking fluids were found in well water. However, elevated levels of methane gas near Marcellus shale fracking sites were abundant. But how elevated is elevated?
Stephen Osborn, research associate at Duke’s Nicholas School, said in 2011 “[w]e found measurable amounts of methane in 85 percent of the samples, but levels were 17 times higher on average in wells located within a kilometer of active hydrofracking sites.”
If both tests are any indication about the debatable nature of fracking and its effects, they illustrate how important stringent restrictions are for every region where drilling occurs. As of now, important standards regarding drilling chemicals, well depth, and the like can vary greatly state-to-state. Andrew Place, interim director of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development in Pittsburgh, agrees, “It does clearly speak to the need to think about [fracking] from a regional and local perspective.”
Although President Obama has repeatedly stated fracking is a safe means of natural gas generation when executed properly, the debate about what defines ‘safe fracking’ appears muddled on a national level. With growing desires to utilize natural gas and the resulting necessity to frack more, a comprehensive, all-encompassing set of standards would be the next logical step to maintain organization (and positive public relations) within the industry. Until then, important questions will continue to loom and remain unanswered.