Researchers have found dangerously high levels of the explosive gas methane in the drinking water of homes located within two thirds of a mile of hydraulic fracking wells. Duke University environmental scientist Robert Jackson tells host Bruce Gellerman that the water in some homes near the natural gas extraction wells show as much as 17 times the normal amount of methane, levels that can cause tap water to catch on fire.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, isn’t new - it’s been around for more than 60 years. But advances in the process over the past decade have revolutionized the natural gas business.
Drillers, or frackers, pump a cocktail of water, sand, and chemicals deep into the ground under high pressure, cracking open rock, releasing the natural gas locked in shale formations. Today’s technology enables frackers to drill not just down but sideways. But with the expansion of fracking come concerns that methane might be leaking into the drinking water wells of people living near the drill sites.
Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University, studied fracking fields in Pennsylvania and New York State. His research is the first scientific study to show there is a problem.
JACKSON: Well, surprisingly, we found that if you were living near a natural gas well, less than a kilometer away, you were much more likely to have very high methane concentrations in your drinking water - if you were on a private water well.
GELLERMAN: What was the methane doing in the water?
JACKSON: Well I think the most likely explanation is that gas well casings are leaking and that methane is leaking out into the surrounding rock and aquifers and moving that way. But to be perfectly honest, we don’t know the precise mechanism.
GELLERMAN: And so the well casing - that’s the shaft that the gas comes up through and then goes up to the ground.
JACKSON: That’s correct - metal tubes and then cement that provide a protective buffer on the outside.
GELLERMAN: Isn’t methane commonly found, in low levels, in wells?
JACKSON: Methane at low levels is common, especially in the region where we worked. But when you looked at houses that were near a natural gas well, you had much higher concentrations of methane - up into concentrations that are a danger for flammability and even explosions.
GELLERMAN: Can you trace it back to the wells?
JACKSON: Well we couldn’t trace it physically to the well because we, one, don’t have access to the wells - they’re private. Gas wells are private. And we can’t see through the rock. The way we tried to trace it is to use the chemical signature - the isotopes of methane. And what we found was that methane in high concentrations looked much more like deep methane from far underground than the methane that’s found naturally in shallow layers.
GELLERMAN: So one could assume, or draw the conclusion, that this was probably coming from the fracking of the earth.
JACKSON: I think it’s very likely. And we also went one more step: we looked at actual samples coming out of a handful of gas wells, attained data from those wells from the state of Pennsylvania - and when you compare those data to the houses right around those wells, the match was almost perfect.
GELLERMAN: So are these high levels of methane in the drinking water - are they dangerous? I mean, here this stuff is odorless, it’s colorless, it’s tasteless, so is it dangerous?
JACKSON: Typically we don’t worry about methane until the concentrations are so high that someone gets dizzy or asphyxiates, in a coalmine for instance, or when flammability comes into play. One of the things that we’ve called for as a result of our study is for a medical panel to look at the chronic low-level consequences of methane. What happens to people if they breathe or ingest methane through time? I’ve been unable to find any peer-reviewed literature that studies this. And I think it’s something that needs looking at.
GELLERMAN: Did I hear you correctly, did you say there are no health studies about the effect of methane in drinking water?
JACKSON: Well I’m not a medical doctor, but I could not find any studies looking at lower-level concentrations of methane in drinking water - that’s correct.
GELLERMAN: So what are the chemicals that are used in fracking?
JACKSON: Well in fracking fluids, there are everything from sand, which is used to keep open cracks that are formed - sometimes there are organics such as benzene or toluene. Controversially there has been diesel oil that’s used, some acids…there’s a whole potpourri or smörgåsbord of compounds that are used.
We found no evidence for fracking fluids at all - that is most definitely good news. And if in fact the problems that we saw with methane arise primarily from leaking well casings, that may also be a relatively simple problem to fix through better standards for the wells, better application of existing standards…so in a sense, this problem may be able to be fixed fairly easily. We just don’t know yet.
GELLERMAN: So how is it that we have had so many years of fracking and there really is no federal regulations overseeing this whole practice?
JACKSON: You have to remember that the revolution of shale gas is relatively new - it’s only been occurring for approximately a decade. And it’s the shale gas revolution that has brought fracking to the fore. So I think really it’s just a matter of people not thinking about it and not having to think about it until, all of a sudden, there was an explosion of shale gas. The Department of Energy’s estimates for the available natural gas and shale gas have doubled in the last year or two. It’s in West Virginia, Texas - where it began - Arkansas, Louisiana. It’s coming to my home state of North Carolina.
It’s not that the gas wasn’t known about before. It’s just that people didn’t know that you could get it out of the ground cheaply. As an environmental scientist, I don’t know what to wish for sometimes anymore. The shale gas revolution has been a tremendous boom for this country - it’s domestic, it’s cleaner than coal…but it is extremely cheap right now and that low cost is providing a brake, I believe, on the implementation of renewables like solar and wind. It makes it harder for those renewables to penetrate the market.
GELLERMAN: Well, Professor Jackson, thanks so much!
JACKSON: Thank you, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: Robert Jackson is an environmental scientist at Duke University.
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