A new study from researchers at Duke University has found elevated levels of methane and other stray gases in drinking water near natural gas wells in Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale region.
Previous peer-reviewed studies by Duke scientists found direct evidence of methane contamination in drinking water wells near shale-gas drilling sites in the same region, as well as possible connectivity between deep brines and shallow aquifers, but no evidence of contamination from fracking fluids.
The latest study again finds no evidence of fracking fluids migrating into drinking water supplies.
The probable cause of the methane contamination, the study says, is improper gas well construction - leaking steel pipes and poor cementing of natural gas wells. Still, naturally occurring methane is ubiquitous in water wells throughout the study region - a fact corroborated by a recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study. So, the picture still is not crystal clear.
The bottom line – Duke’s work is solid and important. It points to several conclusions:
- There is an acute need for baseline water quality testing before drilling occurs to identify drinking water characteristics. Pennsylvania and most of the rest of the nation are woefully behind on that front, and the lack of baseline data will continue the controversy.
- There is a need to monitor water quality as drilling occurs and long afterwards.
- Most importantly, natural gas drillers must perform at the highest level - every well, every time - and avoid mistakes that can lead to contamination. Failure is not an option, and is inexcusable.
- There is a co-equal need for state regulations, inspections, and enforcement to be equal to the task of protecting drinking water. That includes - in Pennsylvania, at least - the need to regulate the currently unregulated construction of private water wells.