In a possible foreshadowing of long-awaited findings by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin has found “no direct link to reports of groundwater contamination” from the controversial natural gas extraction method known as fracking.
According to project leader Charles Groat, “From what we’ve seen so far, many of the [groundwater contamination] problems appear to be related to other aspects of drilling operations, such as poor casing or cement jobs, rather than to hydraulic fracturing, per se.”
The Institute made its announcement at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver in February. As with everything associated with the natural gas boom that began with the discovery of large deposits of shale gas in the Northeast, Southeast and Mountain West, the Institute’s findings stirred controversy that will linger at least until the EPA completes its own study of the impact of fracking on drinking water. That study started in 2010.
Fracking is a method for extracting natural gas and oil from shale rock, a process that remains both promising and controversial. The technology has been in use for decades, but several factors have increased the potential opportunities to deploy it, including improved technology, the rise in oil and gas prices and, most visibly, the fact that the new shale-gas deposits in the Southeastern and Northeastern United States can be recovered by only that method.
The University of Texas study challenges environmentalists’ core contention that fracking fluids risk polluting groundwater. Indeed, in a fracking mix, there are often traces of chemicals deemed toxic. The formulae change depending on local geological conditions and even the local weather.
According to EnergyFromShale.org, a project of the American Petroleum Institute, the typical mix is 90 percent water and 9.5 percent sand. The remaining 0.5 percent is a mixture of benign and not-so-benign ingredients, which can include ethylene glycol, isopropanol, diesel fuel and hydrochloric acid – all in small quantities, but quantities that environmentalists fear could damage nearby groundwater aquifers.
The Energy Institute studied the Barnett Shale in north Texas, the Marcellus Shale that ranges from upstate New York into Pennsylvania, Maryland and other Appalachian states, and the Haynesville Shale in western Louisiana and northeast Texas.
The Energy Institute asserts that fracking puts those fluids below groundwater aquifers, which means the water supplies are safe from contamination. However, Groat, who has a doctorate in geology, emphasizes that fracking is one step in the process of shale-gas development, which could threaten groundwater if not properly regulated.
According to Groat, the EPA study “is focusing on groundwater quality as it can be impacted by several of the shale-gas development steps.” Groat’s study did not rule out pollution from surface spills of chemicals and improper casing of wells, nor did it foreclose the existence of groundwater contamination risks that pertain to all oil and gas operations, as opposed to fracking alone.
The Energy Institute’s study also found that the capacity of regulators to enforce rules to protect groundwater from shale-oil operations was “highly variable” among the states. Most violations are of a type associated with traditional forms of gas drilling, not specific to fracking. And according to the study, when state enforcers act, their actions usually pertain to what they can easily detect, such as surface spills, rather than releases of toxic materials deep underground, “perhaps because they are easier to observe,” the report states. However, the report takes the position that spill prevention is the most “urgent” issue for regulators to address.
The Energy Institute study also looked at public perceptions of fracking, analyzing news media coverage of the technology as it is being proposed for the three shale areas under study.
“Roughly two-thirds of the articles and stories examined were deemed negative, a finding that was consistent nationally and at local levels,” the report said, with only 19 percent of national TV stories and 25 percent of national newspaper stories taking a neutral stance.
“Researchers also found that less than 20 percent of newspaper articles on hydraulic fracturing mention scientific research related to the issue,” according to the study. Television and online news were slightly more interested in presenting scientific data.
The study itself has been criticized by the media. For instance, on the website of the weekly Dallas Observer, Brantley Hargrove suggested that Groat’s finding that groundwater would be safe from fracking was biased by the Institute’s Texas location, near the Barnett Shale, “where aquifers sit thousands of feet above the shale rock,” unlike Wyoming “where horizontal fracks and aquifers are much closer together.”
Pavillion, Wyo., is the locale for the only suspected groundwater leak of fracking-related chemicals, according to the EPA. Wyoming officials have challenged the EPA’s assertion that fracking was responsible for contaminating those wells. Groat was unavailable to comment on Hargrove’s suggestion.
An anti-fracking blog, “Arlington TX Barnett Shale Blogger,” claimed the study should be discredited because it was “industry funded.” Groat told the AAAS’s publication, ScienceNOW, that the Institute’s study was “independent” and funded by the university only.
On the other hand, the notably conservative Investors Business Daily editorialized on the study, saying its findings meant that “[g]iven the facts, the Environmental Protection Agency should stop trying to demonize fracking.”