Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Energy revealed that the preliminary results of a study of one Western Pennsylvania Marcellus natural gas well over a one year period has so far showed no evidence that fracking fluids had migrated upwards to contaminate drinking water.
According to published reports that are worth reading, the drilling fluids used in the Greene County, PA well were tagged with tracer chemicals. Those chemicals weren't detected in a monitoring zone 5,000 feet below the surface - almost a mile below groundwater, which is typically found at depths of about 500 feet. The study also showed that most of the man-made fractures for that well traveled just a few hundred feet; one fracture traveled 1,800 feet out from the well bore. Still, all of the fractures were at least 6,000 feet below the surface - a mile below any drinking water.
The study is an important one. But is it - as some suggest - a landmark? I think it's more of a milestone in a longer journey. The study is of one well, and the results so far are from one year. These preliminary results do not represent a clean bill of health for fracking. The study is ongoing. Kathryn Klaber, CEO of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, was quoted in reaction to the study as saying, commendably, that "It's important that we continue to seek partnerships that can study these issues and inform the public of the findings." I could not agree more. Indeed, the use of tracer chemicals for monitoring efforts should become the industry standard, and required in regulation.
So, the data so far say that the primary threats to drinking water from fracking are surface leaks and spills of fracking fluids and wastewater; methane migration due to cementing and casing errors or shoddy practices; and improper disposal of drilling wastewater. All of those threats can be minimized with excellent industry practice and strong regulations and enforcement. And they can be further reduced - if not avoided altogether - with the development of waterless fracking technologies.