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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Study finds faulty wells - not fracking - pollutes drinking water

A new study has found - not surprisingly, in my view - that contamination of drinking water by fugitive methane is due to faulty wells and not hydraulic fracturing.

That's what the data has suggested all along, but the issue has become muddied because of imprecise use of terms like "fracking" to - in some quarters - embrace the total unconventional natural gas development process. That imprecision too often masks urgent problems - and self-evident solutions.

According to this report by BBC News: 
The scientists analysed content from 113 wells in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and 20 in the Barnett shale in Texas. They found eight clusters of wells with problems. 
"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."
Cement is used in the oil and gas extraction industry to fill the spaces between the well casing and the sides of the well.
In one case the methane was linked to the failure of an underground well. In none of the investigated wells was there a direct link to fracking.
"These results appear to rule out the possibility that methane has migrated up into drinking water aquifers because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, as some people feared," said Prof Avner Vengosh, from Duke University.
The solution is self-evident:  
The scientists believe that most of the problems they have identified can be resolved with better enforcement of existing regulations.
"You need strong rules and regulations on well integrity," said Prof Jackson.
"You need generous setbacks that protect homes and schools and water sources from drilling, sometimes farther than the drillers would want. You need enough inspectors on the ground to keep people honest and you need separation between the industry and the inspectors and you don't always have that in the US." 
Words for shale gas-producing states to live by.

The Guardian, in its report on the study, notes:
The finding was in line with a number of earlier studies on leaks in the cement casing of natural gas wells.
In Pennsylvania, state inspectors found about 9% of steel and cement casings on wells drilled since the start of the natural gas boom were compromised. There was an even higher risk on newer wells drilled since 2009, especially in the north-western part of the state, the inspectors found.
These high well-failure rates are totally unacceptable. They demand swift, strong regulatory action - including a rewrite of our bloodied, flawed Act 13.

The paper concludes on an important cautionary note - that the fracking process may affect the integrity of gas wells, and needs further study: 
Future work should evaluate whether the large volumes of water and high pressures required for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing influence well integrity. 
And that evaluation should cover not only the first time a well is fracked, but also when it’s refracked - perhaps multiple times – a point I raised here

Monday, September 15, 2014

Paper: residual frack water not a threat to groundwater

Researchers from Penn State University and Cornell University, along with a geologist from Royal Dutch Shell, say that water injected during hydraulic fracturing operations remains locked in the shale formation and poses no threat to groundwater supplies.

Their paper - The fate of residual treatment water in gas shale - was published in the September issue of the Journal of Unconventional Oil and Gas Resources.

According to Natural Gas Intel, the researchers found that water that gets driven into the shale in the fracking process stays there:
According to the report's abstract, "more than [5 million gallons] of water containing additives is commonly injected into a typical horizontal well in gas shale to open fractures and allow gas recovery. Less than half of this treatment water is recovered as flowback or later production brine, and in many cases recovery is [less than] 30%"… 
"Some have suggested that this RTW poses a long term and serious risk to shallow aquifers by virtue of being free water that can flow upward along natural pathways, mainly fractures and faults," the researchers said. "These concerns are based on single phase Darcy Law physics, which is not appropriate when gas and water are both present. In addition, the combined volume of the RTW and the initial brine in gas shale is too small to impact near surface aquifers even if it could escape. 
"When capillary and osmotic forces are considered, there are no forces propelling the RTW upward from gas shale along natural pathways. The physics dominating these processes ensure that capillary and osmotic forces both propel the RTW into the matrix of the shale, thus permanently sequestering it." 
The research was funded by the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America and Penn State’s Appalachian Basin Black Shale Group.  Predictably, critics pounced on the funding sources for the study (as well as for another study I blogged about last week). The answer to all of that is more study and application of the scientific process and peer-review.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Connecting some dots on drilling wastewater

Sometimes, the process of making some sense out of the mass of information that’s constantly coming out about the impacts of unconventional natural gas development involves the ability to connect some dots.   

Wastewater from drilling provides a case in point.

This article from Inside Climate News reports on a new study published in the journal Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts that analyzed what's in the water that comes back out of a well after it’s been fracked and put into production – called produced water.

Organic compounds in produced waters from shale gas well, according to the report, shows that:
fracking-produced water shouldn't be allowed near drinking water…
[R]researchers identified 25 inorganic chemicals in the waste. Of those, at least six were found at levels that would make the water unsafe to drink—barium, chromium, copper, mercury, arsenic and antimony. Depending on the chemical, consuming it at high levels can cause high blood pressure, skin damage, liver or kidney damage, stomach issues, or cancer. 
But the study's innovation involved examining and identifying over 50 organic chemicals in the waste—an area that's been little studied previously. Some of these are potentially dangerous, depending on their concentrations, such as the cancer-causing toluene and ethylbenzene... 
Those findings are of obvious concern, but unfortunately, 
Researchers did not look closely at the waste's naturally occurring radioactive materials. 
That’s especially pertinent for Marcellus development, where NORM and TENORM are huge, looming, unresolved issues.

But there's more: 
According to the study authors, the most surprising find was the presence of group of organic compounds called halocarbons, some of which are potentially toxic. These chemicals are not native to the geology of the area being drilled; nor are they found in the man-made fluids purposefully injected down a well during fracking. 
These toxic chemicals result from chemical reactions that occur down-hole. That is an area that is very poorly understood, and needs lots more study, illumination - and regulation and reporting. Here's why:
[T]he study author…said the observed levels of these inorganic compounds are minimal and "not a cause for panic."
At higher levels, however, some of the observed halocarbons—including a type called organobromides, which has been associated with liver damage—could pose a public health risk. And their unanticipated presence indicates that the way wastewater is treated should be reviewed... 
(Incidentally, in saying “A single fracked well can use over 2 million gallons of water”, the article vastly understates the amount of water used, at least in the Marcellus play.)

Meanwhile, in Utah, state regulators fined an operator of wastewater impoundments for allowing fracking chemicals like methanol and other volatile organic compounds into the air. Previously, regulators had assumed that the emissions from these impoundments were minimal, but discovered that they were woefully wrong.

The article goes on to say that: 
Other states are beginning to impose stricter regulations. Pennsylvania might be a sign of things to come for pond regulations. In 2010, after the state had a spate of high-profile fracking water spills, including one that spilled 50,000 gallons of wastewater at a drilling site, the state beefed up enforcement of environmental regulations regarding ponds and now has some of the most stringent regulations in the nation, including requirements for groundwater monitoring and environmental remediation. 
Pennsylvania should NOT be the exemplar.  The state’s requirements are not nearly tough enough, because - connecting the dots - it's obvious that the water that comes back out of the well during after after fracking contains hazardous, volatile chemicals. It should not be allowed to be stored in impoundments for any duration.  These impoundments leak, have contaminated groundwater and soil, and present a severe public health risk - the apparent magnitude of which grows with each new study.  

Drilling wastewater impoundments must be banned.  Period.  Closed-loop, closed-container systems for all drilling-related fluids must be required.

Will regulators connect the dots?  

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Study - people who live near fracking sites more likely to become sick

The impacts of unconventional gas drilling on public health is a frequent topic of this blog. It's a vital question – especially here in Pennsylvania, where the Governor and General Assembly failed the public by refusing to create a public health registry to study the health impacts of drilling.  Since then, there have been revelations of official throttling of state health department employees when it comes to handling health complaints about gas drilling, followed by a weak attempt at face-saving

The calls for intensive studies grow increasingly urgent.  A health symptom survey conducted in Washington County, Pennsylvania has found an association between proximity to active gas wells and respiratory and skin irritations.

Proximity to Natural Gas Wells and Reported Health Status: Results of a Household Survey in Washington County, Pennsylvania discusses the results of a survey of 492 persons in 180 randomly selected households with ground-fed water wells in an area of active natural gas drilling in that county.  It was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, and found: 
an increased frequency of reported symptoms over the past year in households in closer proximity to active gas wells compared to households farther from gas wells. This association was also seen for certain categories of symptoms, including skin conditions and upper respiratory symptoms...
The results of this study suggest that natural gas drilling activities could be associated with increased reports of dermal and upper respiratory symptoms in nearby communities and support the need for further research into health effects of natural gas extraction activities. Such research could include longitudinal assessment of the health of individuals living in proximity to natural gas drilling activities, medical confirmation of health conditions, and more precise assessment of contaminant exposures. 
Clearly, as the researchers concluded, more study is needed.  Urgently.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bad news for birds - and us

The bad climate news keeps coming.

The National Audubon Society has some profoundly disturbing news about the threat that global climate disruption poses to North America’s birds.

Audubon finds that more than half of all bird species on the continent are at grave risk:
Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. Our models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.
Of the 314 species at risk from global warming, 126 of them are classified as climate endangered. These birds are projected to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2050. The other 188 species are classified as climate threatened and expected to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2080 if global warming continues at its current pace.

In Pennsylvania 84 species may greatly decrease or disappear entirely. 

The potential - or more accurately, likely - destruction is grotesque and immoral.

Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Association reports that atmospheric CO2 concentrations increased more between 2012 and 2013 than during any other year since 1984, reaching a new record high in 2013. In fact, WMO says that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually increased last year at the fastest rate for nearly 30 years.

Sometimes, additional commentary seems superfluous.