Sen. Landrieu Seeks Answers on Fracking and Groundwater

In May 2013, the Senate Energy Committee held a series of forums on natural gas.  The Committee leadership chose the format to encourage open discussion, and I think it did create more back-and-forth discussion than a typical hearing.

I was particularly interested in one discussion at the May 23 forum, where Sen. Landrieu took on the issue of hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination.  I usually find that fracking skeptics are most concerned about groundwater.  It is difficult to rebut their fears.  I think the problem is a pure disagreement on facts.  Environmentalists swear groundwater contamination is prevalent, while industry swears it is impossible.

Sen. Landrieu seems to have had the same experience.  At the third and final forum on May 23, Marc Edwards of Halliburton repeated the industry claim that there has been no groundwater contamination from the last 60 years of fracking.  Sen. Landrieu interjected, asking if anyone else at the table disagreed with that assertion. Deb Nardone of the Sierra Club stepped up to offer a rebuttal, and Sen. Landrieu pressed for a specific instance of contamination.  Ms. Nardone cited methane contamination Dimock, Pennsylvania.

I thought it might be useful to unpack her argument a little bit.  We are talking about two different kinds of methane.  Thermogenic methane forms when organic matter is subjected to heat and pressure deep underground.  Biogenic methane is created by microbial metabolic processes acting on decaying organic matter near the surface.  We are able to tell the difference by looking at the isotopes of the methane components, along with some other evidence.  There is some agreement that methane is commonly found in the Dimock-area water.  Unfortunately, digging into the various types of methane has, so far, failed to lead to agreement on where it comes from.

Some industry defenders argue that methane found in water wells is usually biogenic, and biogenic methane is not the result of fracking.  But environmentalists do not accept that argument.  Rather, they argue that fracking, or perhaps more precisely the proliferation of wells, can cause biogenic gas to migrate into water supplies.  Regardless, in the case of Dimock, as Mrs. Nardone accurately points out, everyone now agrees thermogenic gas is present in many water wells.  But there is still no agreement on where it came from.

The current argument over methane migration in Dimock is framed by two studies.  The first was published in May 2011 by Duke University researchers, and the second was an industry-backed study by GSI Environmental that was published in December 2011.  The Duke study was admittedly preliminary, and made two main conclusions.  First, there was more methane in water wells closer to gas wells.  And second, the methane isotopes in water wells were thermogenic and consistent with nearby gas wells.

The GSI Environmental study, funded by Dimock-area drillers Cabot Oil & Gas, tried to pinpoint the source of this gas.  The report conclude that methane was indeed ubiquitous in the area, but said that is unrelated to shale production.  It found that methane levels correlated with topography, rather than proximity to gas wells.  It also concluded that the methane was from the shallower Devonian deposit, and not the Marcellus deposit the company is producing from.   Accordingly, GSI concluded the methane in the area’s water wells is naturally occurring, and criticized Duke for drawing correlations without considering the full situation.

So in sum, it seems everyone agrees thermogenic methane is present in many Dimock-area wells.  Industry says it is naturally occurring from near-surface shale deposits. Environmentalists allege it the methane has migrated as a result of fracking and increased drilling.  Unfortunately, Sen. Landrieu cut the discussion short and this factual disagreement was not directly addressed. Sen. Wyden asked for written comments on the matter, but the Committee has yet to share any followup comments received.

A few others weighed in on this topic.  Mr. Edwards pointed out that Ms. Nardone was talking about methane, which is not a chemical that is injected into the ground by the producers.  Amy Mall of the National Resources Defense Council cited a Scranton Times Review article entitled “Sunday Times review of DEP drilling records reveals water damage, murky testing methods.” The article has been forcefully rebutted by the industry group Energy in Depth. Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund agreed with industry that fracking itself does not cause groundwater contamination.  He pointed out, however, that improper casing or surface water discharge can harm groundwater. Texas regulator Barry Smitherman rejected Ms. Nardone’s claim, and said that no regulator would sit idly by while his or her state is polluted.

The exchange was capped by a comment from Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), who praised Sen. Landrieu for raising this point.  He warned the witnesses that as policymakers make decisions they have to decide who to trust, and those making extravagant claims may lose credibility and thus the ability to influence policy.