DOE fracking study does not ease concerns about drinking water threats

Last week the AP reported that a study on fracking being conducted by the National Energy Technology Lab (NETL) in Pennsylvania “shows no evidence that chemicals from the natural gas drilling process moved up to contaminate drinking water aquifers at a western Pennsylvania drilling site.”

The oil and gas industry and others have been proclaiming this as evidence that fracking is safe. They are missing important scientific points:

  1. The AP notes that “the results are preliminary” and “the study is still ongoing.”
  2. The NETL researchers state that this particular study is “just one part of ongoing efforts to examine the impacts of a recent boom in oil and gas exploration, not a final answer about the risks.”
  3. NETL also stated: “We are still in the early stages of collecting, analyzing, and validating data from this site. While nothing of concern has been found thus far, the results are far too preliminary to make any firm claims.”

In this study, NETL researchers injected “tracers” into fracking fluid so they could monitor the fracking fluid injected into one gas well and see where it traveled. The researchers monitored other gas wells with seismic tools. One fracture was measured as having traveled 1,800 feet, but none were found to have reached groundwater yet.

For the people that live near these nine wells, that is a relief – and hopefully provides insight into how to reduce the risk of fracking. But it’s not the kind of across-the-board “good news” the gas industry and others have been claiming in the media.

Make no mistake, this study does not alleviate concerns about the very real threat fracking poses to our drinking water supplies.

The reason for that is two-fold:

  • First, no single study can prove that fracking doesn’t cause water contamination, just because it didn’t in this one, presumably well-controlled case. Other scientists have demonstrated that there is potential for long-term water contaminant from fracking; and this one test case isn’t sufficient to discount that it may have already happened, or could still happen, elsewhere. Thousands of oil and gas wells are drilled in the U.S. every year but this is the first and only study of its kind conducted by independent scientists -- what about the rest?
  • Second, water contamination can happen at a number of different stages in a fracking operation. That means not only at thousands of feet deep, but at points all along the way – from the bottom of a well, to leaks and spills above ground. Even the waste that results after a well is fracked creates substantial risks to drinking water—whether its stored in open air pits, injected back into the earth, sent to ill-equipped water treatment plants or spread onto area roadways.

    We still have a lot of unanswered questions and concerns about what risks fracking poses to our drinking water that must be addressed. And so does NETL. We appreciate the work that NETL scientists are doing and look forward to seeing their final report, which won’t be available for months.

    But much more scientific analysis is needed. Anyone who claims that this NETL research shuts the book on fracking research doesn’t understand the study or the science. Or else they’re trying to pull one over on you.

    The more we understand the risks, the better we can protect against them.