mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Shale Booms On
Fracking Not at Fault in Water Contamination

Poorly encased wells are to blame for water contamination in fracked wells, not the controversial drilling process, according to a new study. The BBC reports:

The researchers used noble gases to trace the path of methane as these inert chemicals are not affected by microbial activity or oxidation. […] By measuring the ratios of the noble materials to the methane they were able to accurately determine the distance to the likely source. […]

“The mechanism of contamination looks to be well integrity,” said one of the authors, Prof Robert Jackson from Stanford University. […] “In about half the cases we believe the contamination came from poor cementing and in the other half it came from well casings that leaked.”

This makes sense—fracking generally occurs thousands of feet underground, far, far below aquifers being tapped for drinking water. The water tables and the shale rock being hydraulically fractured are separated by impermeable layers of rock—that’s how these aquifers formed in the first place. It stands to reason, then, that contamination of drinking water would have to occur in the vertical parts of these wells that travel through these underground water reservoirs.

Water pollution is a serious issue, and one that certainly deserves ongoing scrutiny. But it seems as if the drinking water contamination issues that greens have pointed to as reasons to stop the shale boom have occurred due to well failures (often because of poorly poured cement casings), rather than due to fracking itself. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for improvement here, but it does suggest this is a manageable risk, rather than an indelible feature of the drilling process.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Shawn Wooster

    Isn’t it all part of the same process? And while it makes sense that well casings are to blame, it’s hardly likely that any well-casing maker or fracking company will ever admit to any fault in the process for fear of litigation.

    • Ernst Bloefeld

      The get unsuccessfully sued all the time. Unsuccessful because there is rarely any legitimate damage caused.

      • Shawn Wooster

        Lawsuits are actually successful more than you might realize. The fact is, drilling companies settle out of court in order to avoid bad press and they also force the plaintiffs to sign non-disclosure agreements in which they promise not to talk about the settlements.

        Also, the article itself notes that water contamination occurs (in half the cases, at least, but what about the rest?) as a result of poor cementing and defective well-casings. Fine: so water contamination in half the cases is due to processes other than fracking. Can we have a conversation on how to get those fixed? Who is overseeing their construction? If those well-casings are poorly built and cause pollution, who is to be held accountable?

        So, I’m not against fracking. Quite the contrary. But the fact is, we can improve. Indeed, we must improve. We are set to see an unprecedented drill, well and refinery boom in this country, which is exciting considering the positive geopolitical implications it will have for us, but it also portends portends potential environmental disaster. We currently have somewhere around 100,000 fracking wells already drilled in America, with tens of thousands more slated for construction. Low-end estimates put well failures (cracked casings, cracking concrete basins, etc.) at around 5%. 5% means 5,000 well failures. Statistically 5% doesn’t seem like much, but tell that to the tens of thousands of folks who are affected by those failures. The silver lining is that we can fix these with minimal regulation and with minimal loss to energy companies.

        • Ernst Bloefeld

          Hi Shawn,

          I am in the industry here in Canada. The drilling company is not responsible for the completion and cementing, the oil or gas company that owns the well is. In my 40 year career I cannot think of one lawsuit concerning well failure that was successfully litigated and none come to mind that were settled. My policy has been to let them sue, if we are wrong the court will find us guilty. That said, when a completion job has failed, we have always gone in and recompleted, just cheaper. I think almost all of my peers do the same thing.

          The 5% number seems really high. In our geology here in the West it is in the perhaps 0.5% range. That said I think any is too many. But this industry spends a lot of time and money researching for better and cheaper ways to do everything. Higher quality as in fewer errors is always cheaper.

          My point is that fracing has no greater environmental impact than conventional oil and gas production. Other than the incredible amounts of water used. That is an issue that I am dedicated to fixing.

    • Texas_Accountant


      It is the same process in all wells, regardless of hydraulic fracturing or horizontal drilling. Do you want to outlaw all drilling?

      • Shawn Wooster

        No, I don’t want to see fracking outlawed. The fact that the US is fast-becoming energy independent is exciting to me. But I do think that there are some very legitimate concerns about the polluting potential of fracking. Whether it be due to cracked or poorly-designed well-casings, or whether be due to the actual process itself, I still think we need to be willing to engage in a conversation that has the potential to admit that there is room for improvement. I don’t think that there is enough transparency on the part of fracking companies. I don’t think that there is enough oversight. I think that there is too much easy deniability and not enough accountability.

        As the article above notes, water contamination is associated with fracking. This is a serious issue. I have relatives in both Pennsylvania and Montana who never experienced polluted well water until fracking rigs appeared next door. Their groundwater has been tested and contains many of the very same chemicals used in the fracking process. Before these rigs were built, my relatives had their ground water supply tested. It was contaminant-free. Now, it’s the opposite. They spend a ton of money every year to have bottled water shipped for drinking, bathing, and watering the pets. There land and home values are virtually nil because nobody wants to live in a home that has no access to fresh water. I don’t know what the solution for them is.

        My family has traditionally been a no-govt, hands-off kind of people, but fracking is challenging us. I don’t want to see it shut down, but I do want some honesty. I want to be able to have honest conversations about the potential for pollution due to fracking, but the quickness with which folks politicize the issue is disheartening.

  • Thirdsyphon

    One obvious open question is whether the specific conditions that apply in fracking operations played a role in causing the cement casings to fail. This problem doesn’t seem to have occurred with anything close to this frequency in fields that use regular wells. There are all sorts of reasons why this might be the case (more wells have to be drilled for each field in fracking, leading to a possible motive to cut corners; the fluid pressure involved in fracking may be higher than current well designs can account form leading to failures) and all sorts of technologies that might be employed going forward to address the problem (use removable steel sleeving to a depth below the water table; failing that, pour a lot more cement) but until this issue and others have been addressed, the industry is going to have a rough time convincing densely populated areas to allow them to operate freely.

    • Fat_Man

      “This problem doesn’t seem to have occurred with anything close to this frequency in fields that use regular wells.”


      • ThomasD

        We would also have to know survey sampling rates to determine if any comparisons were appropriate.

        Not finding a problem not being the same thing as not looking for a problem.

    • Ernst Bloefeld

      You are seriously incorrect. You seem to be someone who believes that reading some stuff on the internet is the same thing as knowledge.

      What you need to learn about is the process of well completions. This is where any contamination to the ground water cycle is likely to happen. It happens as a result of difficult geology at the surface or poorly done completions. About 100,000 wells were completed in Canada and the United States in 2013. Of these a few hundred developed problems that potentially affected the ground water cycle. The risk is incredibly low. The actual damage is nearly non-existent. Completions are generally well engineered and cement and casing jobs are normally excellent. But it is an industrial activity done on a vast scale, and well, nothing is perfect.

      There is no difference between fraced wells and conventional wells in how they are completed. The completion is identical for both. What you probably also do not know is that between 60 and 80 percent of all oil and gas wells are stimulated using hydraulic fracturing and have been since the late 1940’s. The process was well understood and engineered from 1960 onward.

      The reality is that poorly completed farm water wells cause much greater contamination of water than oil and gas wells. The contamination by e coli by the introduction of animal fecal matter into the ground water cycle causes considerably more toxic risk than the rare instance of incursion of oil and particularly gas.

      You will doubtless try to prove that there are endless numbers of water wells contaminated by gas to the point that the water lights on fire. You will find, if you investigate thoroughly that in almost all instances, the water always lit on fire.

      You may find some contamination of water through the fracing of Coal Bed Methane, but that is done within the ground water cycle. Not at all comparable to the horizontal well fracing taking place all over the world. In most of those cases you will find that ground water has been flammable for centuries as the CBM has seeped into the ground water cycle forever.

      • Tina848

        Someone who has a clue – so unusual around here. I did my internship at an EPA lab testing farm wells, many years ago. Biggest issue wasn’t “toxic chemicals”, but rather bacteria. I had to tell a lot of farmers to shock their wells and buy UV light systems. Bacteria is what will kill you, especially E. Coli.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The fact that dozens of contaminants are present at the surface of the earth at any one time, and exposed to water and weather is completely ignored by all these stupid environmentalist objections to anything mankind does. The stuff is already here, we live in an environment filled with toxins, heavy metals, and hydrocarbon related non-polar solvents. The green’s objections to fracking are utterly ridiculous, and demonstrate their incredible stupidity and separation from reality.

    • Shawn Wooster

      Yeah, but those contaminants are not found in the quantities and concentrations used in the fracking process.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service