Good news for fracking: groundwater contamination mechanism found

It is hard to hear the word "fracking" without recalling images of people at their kitchen sink, setting fire to the gases emanating from their tap along with the flowing water.

Tim Evanson/CC BY-SA 2.0

These vivid images spur reasonable worries that fracking disturbs underground hydrogeology, resulting in leakage of hazardous gases into aquifers. And if flammable gases can leak through, what else is getting into our precious drinking water: heavy metals, radioactive substances, toxins?

Well, guess what? All of that is perfectly avoidable. If only the companies building wells would ensure the quality of materials used.

Researchers have just reported the results of their study into the source of water contamination related to fracking wells in Pennsylvania and Texas. Their conclusion? In the words of Prof Robert Jackson from Stanford University:

"The mechanism of contamination looks to be well integrity. 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."

In none of the 113 wells investigated was a direct link found between groundwater contamination and fracturing of the bedrock layers.

In theory, this is good news for the hydraulic fracturing energy sector. It means the risks of drinking water contamination can be managed. But it raises much larger questions: why did the industry let it come to this? After all, it would have been in the industry's best interests not to have leaking wells result in the perfect anti-fracking campaign material.

More importantly, if they cannot regulate their quality themselves, how do we empower federal and state agencies sufficiently to control them?

Simon Fraser University Public Affairs and Media Relations/CC BY 2.0

Even if the risks of groundwater contamination are controllable, this does not give fracking a 'get out of jail free' card in this game. A Stanford-led study just published gives an overview of the risks versus benefits of fracking, highlighting not least that fracking opens formerly unreachable deposits of fossil fuels for humanity to combust, at exactly the moment when the global warming threat requires us to scale back.

Studies have suggested that better management can minimize the risk of fracking related earthquakes. And fracking supporters must justify the benefits in the face of the fragmentation of forest lands by wellheads, pipelines, and access roads and the manage the risks of spills and emissions on local communities.

But sourcing fuels locally does have benefits, not least in national security. Accessing fracking fuel does not mean we must give carte blanche to burning every last molecule of fossil fuel on the planet. If the risks can be managed, the benefits can outweigh them. This paper suggests the industry needs to step up their program -- or answer to the activists that oppose their activity.

The paper, Noble gases identify the mechanisms of fugitive gas contamination in drinking-water wells overlying the Marcellus and Barnett Shales, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)

Tags: Drinking Water | Energy | Fracking | Water Conservation


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