A new study links hydraulic fracturing with local groundwater pollution in Pennsylvania’s enormously productive Marcellus shale. The New York Times reports:
“This is the first case published with a complete story showing organic compounds attributed to shale gas development found in a homeowner’s well,” said Susan Brantley, one of the study’s authors and a geoscientist from Pennsylvania State University.
[…] In this study, the researchers note that the contamination may have stemmed from a lack of integrity in the drill wells and not from the actual fracking process far below. The industry criticized the new study, saying that it provided no proof that the chemical came from a nearby well.
Greens will be salivating at this news, as they’ve long hoped for a smoking gun with which to discredit fracking (and no, lighting water on fire in a sensationalist documentary doesn’t count). They’ll be disappointed, then, that this latest research isn’t damning for the drilling practice. The authors of this paper found trace amounts of a chemical used in the fracking process (in addition to paint and cosmetics) in Pennsylvania drinking water samples, but the concentrations of the chemical were on the order of parts per trillion, and weren’t high enough to run afoul of safety regulations. The research also can’t claim to definitely connect fracking with these contaminations, but rather suggest that it was the likeliest culprit.
That said, water is a precious resource and protecting against its contamination should obviously be a priority for the shale industry. Thankfully, we can have our cake and eat it too, as the shale boom and clean water aren’t mutually exclusive. Shale deposits typically sit thousands of feet below the water table, separated by impermeable rock that prevents oil, gas, or the slurry pumped to extract those hydrocarbons from drifting into the water we use. The dangers to our water supply come from the vertical wells we drill down to these shale plays, and the slurry ponds and unused wells in which we store fracking wastewater. The vertical wells are encased with cement, and if properly installed should prevent leaks like the one alleged by this latest research.
The wastewater question is trickier, especially since the storage of this fracking byproduct in unused wells has been linked with an increase in earthquakes. The shale industry is working on ways to recycle wastewater (there’s an obvious financial incentive there) or even frack without water. Smart regulation needs to balance the good shale can do with the risks its exploitation can entail, but you’ll excuse us if we get the feeling that environmentalists have no desire to see such a middle ground reached. They’ll no doubt tout this latest research as reason enough to shut the shale boom down, but that conclusion simply doesn’t follow from the facts.