FLAMING: Frack towers like this one in Garfield County in Colorado have become part of the landscape in much of the country. (Photo: Andrew Schenkel)
A peer-reviewed study released this week about fracking — the process of injecting a mixture of toxic chemicals deep into the ground at high pressures to access natural gas — has confirmed concerns about safety risks associated with the process. The peer-reviewed study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, drew several different conclusions. Some of the conclusions, like the lack of evidence linking fracking chemicals to contamination in tested water wells, were welcome news to the gas industry, but other findings were more damning.
One of the conclusions was a direct link between fracking wells and the seepage of gas contaminants underground, a finding that proves there are pathways for contaminants to migrate deep underground.
“We certainly didn’t expect to see such a strong relationship between the concentration of methane in water and the nearest gas wells. That was a real surprise,” said Robert Jackson, a biology professor at Duke and one of the report’s authors.
Contamination from methane, and not the mixture of substances used in the chemical cocktail that is injected into frack wells, has been a ubiquitous complaint by people living near fracking wells across the country. In 2004, a methane explosion in Pennsylvania killed three people, including a baby. A 2009 report by ProPublica showed that methane contamination from fracking was present in Colorado, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Perhaps the most well-known example of methane making its way from frack wells into homes was in heavily fracked Dimock, Pa. It was in this small Pennsylvania town that residents reported exploding water wells and tap water that was famously lit on fire in the Academy Award-nominated documentary, "Gasland."
The tap water scene (shown in the above video at about the 2:15 mark) had become the target of many attempts to debunk "Gasland." Gas industry support group Energy In Depth and America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) had put considerable efforts into undermining the flaming tap water claim. Energy In Depth used information from 2008 obtained by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to defend the group's argument that the flaming water had nothing to do with methane from fracking. As recently as April 2011, representatives of COGCC spoke at a congressional hearing in which panelists not only said that flammable water was unrelated to fracking, but COGCC Director David Neslin said contamination from faulty fracking well casings were unrelated to fracking in general (video below). Now it appears there is more science to back up the claims of concerned citizens in Pennsylvania and Colorado.
In a ProPublica article, Ron Carter said, “We weren’t just blowing smoke. What we were talking about was the truth.” Carter is a Dimock resident whose water went bad when drilling began there in 2008 and was later tested as part of the study. “Now I’m happy that at least something helps prove out our theory.”
While the latest study may have proven a few theories, the question that remains is what type of rules and regulations will follow. There are reports that the White House and the EPA want to tighten fracking regulations, but there will be major hurdles to pass for that to happen. Others expect this latest fracking study to be picked apart when the House Science Committee meets this week to discuss fracking regulations.