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Shale and water

There is another shale-gas-in-water story doing the rounds. Robert Jackson, a researcher from Duke University in North Carolina, says that he has found higher concentrations of alkanes in water samples near shale wells than in equivalent sites that have not been subject to hydraulic fracturing.

Interestingly the study appears to have been conducted in Pennsylvania, where in towns like the now notorious Dimock, water supplies have long been contaminated by gas naturally leaking from the ground. In fact, according to the Supplementary Information (Fig S1) several of the sampling sites came from around Dimock itself. I don't quite follow why, if you were trying to learn something about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater, you would choose to study somewhere where the water was already contaminated. Would it not make more sense to go to, say, the Bakken or Utica shales?

I'm not the only one thinking along these lines. The Telegraph, discussing the same story, notes that no methane contamination has been found elsewhere:

Studies in different shale formations have also shown no signs of escaped gas, suggesting that leakages could only be a problem in certain areas.

A paper worthy of closer examination I would say.

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Reader Comments (31)

are you out of your mind? this is HS level rubbish, the usual green zombie meme that can't even die. it's unworthy of being mentioned.

Jun 25, 2013 at 9:16 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

This study is a measure of the desparation of the alarmists to keep their dream alive.

Jun 25, 2013 at 9:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Jones

While watching a segment on last week's fracking Horizon about methane in the water, it was pointed out that there was more methane in the water in wells close to the fracking sites.

And it made me wonder about a couple of things:

a. would it make sense to place a fracking extraction head somewhere where it was already known that there was a lot of free methane, for example, somewhere where there was methane in the wells?

b. why are the people who were interviewed so fracking weird? Jeeze, something has been wrong in them there hills for a long time!

Jun 25, 2013 at 9:25 AM | Registered Commentersteve ta

I don't quite follow why, if you were trying to learn something about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater, you would choose to study somewhere where the water was already contaminated.
Don't you, Andrew? I do!
Or to be more precise if I wanted to prove that hydraulic fracturing has an adverse effect on groundwater I would certainly choose to study somewhere where I knew the water was already contaminated.
The surprising thing — though perhaps we should no longer be surprised at the corruption of society by "scientists" and the craven acquiescence by ignorant media and compliant politicians — is why nobody (except apparently you and, the Lord be praised!, the Daily Telegraph) have called him out on this piece of brazen scientific dishonesty.
Perhaps he is just one more worshipper at the altar of The Ends Justify The Means.

Jun 25, 2013 at 9:30 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

As far as the UK is concerned, with most of the shale gas exploration being in the Lancs area, it's worth noting that The majority of raw water in the North West comes from upland surface water reservoirs.

According to this report, 81% of the water supply in N England is from surface water.

Jun 25, 2013 at 9:38 AM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

It's also worth noting that only those using borehole water directly would possibly be affected by such contaminants, all public supply is treated prior to distribution. Those using boreholes should already be having testing done, and should have identified any contamination. If I remember correctly, the biggest problem with borehole water is not the chemical contaminants, but the biological ones (dead animals for example).

Jun 25, 2013 at 9:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

Again psientists, subscribing to the CAGW meme, fail to use correct scientific method.
That is an unbiased control.
The correct procedure here is ...oh never mind, you cannot argue logic with someone who is driven by faith.

Jun 25, 2013 at 9:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

Another sham study where the evidence is water boarded until the desired results are achieved.
Duke should review Jackson closely. That school has been taken advantage of by unscrupulous scientists before.

Jun 25, 2013 at 10:00 AM | Unregistered Commenterlurker, passing through laughing

Comments on the article take it to pieces, I am happy to say.

Jun 25, 2013 at 10:35 AM | Registered Commenterjeremyp99

Bore holes are by definition mini-fraccing events so the alkanes will build up at the exact concentration defined by hydrostatic pressure and the Henry's Law coefficient.

The real problem is that we have bred a generation of scientific junkies dependent on junk grants for junk work.

Jun 25, 2013 at 10:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlecM

Like others, I agree with the central premise, the research ought to have centred on areas where water has not been found to be contaminated prior to local fracking, and to ascertain whether any change has taken place as a consequence of local fracking.

Of course, it may be the case where there is a prior history of contamination, that fracking exacerbates that problem. That is something that could be looked into but one would need strong evidence of the level and extent of contamination before fracking occurred, and without good data on that, it would be difficult to ascertain whether contamination has been exacerbated or become more commonplace.

The study appears fundamentally flawed.

As regards some comments, Ii will add my penny's worth. I don't know much about it but my Dad was head of water supply for one of the large water authorities and when I was yound, I frequently attended bore:hole sites, pumping stations, river water extraction sites, dams, water processing facilities and the like.

Jun 25, 2013 at 9:53 AM | Cumbrian Lad

Bore holes are not wells as one might see in a garden. They are not open, but capped with a pump installed extracting water from below the water table. It is difficult to see how they could be contaminated by dead animals. I would have thought that biological contaminants would have been filtered by the natural process of the water working its way through the sands, mud, rock above (depending upon the geology). In any case, the water is further treated before use, although I suspect that some bore hole water is very pure (and I recall drinking some at the source of extraction without further processing).

Jun 25, 2013 at 10:38 AM | AlecM

Aren't bore holes drilled? They are not usually piled, still less created by the injection of hydraulic pressure. There is some merit in the rant in your final para.

Jun 25, 2013 at 11:11 AM | Unregistered Commenterrichard verney

As already noted, very few homes have their own boreholes in this country and, in areas supplied by groundwater, the supply qualities are closely monitored by the water companies.
Another key point which was not highlighted in last week's fracking documentary.

In that programme, the "scientist" who demonstrated methane in the water of a home commented that "tests" had shown that the gas was not the typical biogenic methane often found in aquifers. He said it originated from the much deeper shale. I have not heard of this being proved before; despite many claims by the antis and investigations by the EPA.
So I wonder if he was part of a team with the author of this latest claim.

Jun 25, 2013 at 11:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterMikeH

This Jackson chap was on that rather inconclusive Horizon programme. He actually cut a rather sober figure and suggested that methane was not due to the fracking itself, but might be caused by poor shielding ( with cement he said ) of the borehole.

I bet the BBC was really frustrated while making that programme. They simply couldn't find any real hard proof that fracking was dangerous or toxic, even the earthquakes were not as big as those caused by conventional mining. I think that there's a serious problem with making shows about geology. I saw a repeat of iain Stewart's Rise of the Continents and the interesting nuggets of information ( e.g. lithium in Bolivia being formed by subduction ) was submerged amongst a load of irritating padding.

Jun 25, 2013 at 11:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Barrett

The solubility of these gasses in water is very low. Any additional gas would remain as such and be easily removed in water processing by normal venting to atmosphere.

The paper is an attempt to turn a molehill into a mountain by exaggeration of scale - typical green tactic.

Jun 25, 2013 at 11:21 AM | Unregistered Commenterssat

The majority of rural households in America have their own wells, being miles from the mains water supply, and these can become contaminated with alkenes naturally without fracking. Non of the tested wells had tests taken before the fracking so we do not know whether the present contaminants are natural or from the extraction process.
The BBC program about fracking confirmed that the only real reason for contamination was poorly installed borehole shielding not directly from gas leakage.
Here in the UK the majority of us are on mains treated water so no chance of contamination because of the treatment.

Jun 25, 2013 at 11:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

@richard verney
Bacteria have been found hundreds of meters below the surface in solid rocks. these can produce methane as a respiration byproduct and when they die.

Jun 25, 2013 at 12:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

I saw the Horizon program too. It started of optimistically with lots of frakking benefits. Then the "everything is hunky-dory - or is it?" meme entered then it went downhill.

Any mention of frakking in the Peak District and we cut to a long shot of what was probably a cement works. Methane in the US well water was explained by frakking even though the had just explained that no frakking chemicals were present and that frakking took place over a mile below ground. How long was that well rope again?

Our witness to the bad water (already described by steveta) pointed to houses on bottled water. She seemed to miss one out. An interview with them might have restored some balance but we did not get one, nor did we see the claimed purple water.

Interestingly, earthquakes were dismissed as a non-problem.

Jun 25, 2013 at 12:05 PM | Unregistered Commentergraphicconception

Richard Verney:

You're quite right Richard, I was being a little general with my terms. There is a large variety of off-mains abstraction for (especially) rural dwellings, and they can range from the technically strong, as you describe, to more or less funneling spring water into tanks. The latter is prone to bio contamination, though bacteria can and do build up in sealed systems.

The main point still being, in the UK we are less dependent on groundwater, and where it exists at present it needs to be monitored. The public supply is not at all affected by any potential fraccing contamination.

Jun 25, 2013 at 2:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

Also, "this" study has been a while in the making. Why it was in the PNAS two years ago and also now, I do not know:

With the DoI and USGS reports finished without a worry, I am sure it is not that interesting.

Jun 25, 2013 at 3:31 PM | Unregistered Commenterintrepid_wanders

"I don't quite follow why, if you were trying to learn something about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater, you would choose to study somewhere where the water was already contaminated"

And have the data disagree with the pre-determined result, why ever would they do that?

Jun 25, 2013 at 3:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Ozanne

Dimock sounds like the Yamal of fraking alarmism. Yamel was a miraculous discovery -- a site whose trees happened to grow in a way that supported the AWG narrative. It sounds like Dimock is becoming the celebrity site of the anti-fraking industry.

Jun 25, 2013 at 4:29 PM | Unregistered Commentermpaul

It's worth noting that his sampling concentrated on the Pennsylvanian part of the Marcellus shale, rather than on wells in New York state (where frakking has not yet been allowed due to political opposition).
One recent study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) provides sound science and facts about naturally occurring conditions in the region. Since New York has not yet experienced shale gas drilling, the USGS analysis captures a picture of conditions prior to such energy production taking place. Its analysis serves as a scientific baseline if New York decides to lift its moratorium.

The USGS study of water wells in New York found that more than half of wells sampled (53%) had detectable levels of methane, 9% of wells had methane concentrations that the Office of Surface Mining says signify an “action level where the situation should be closely monitored”, and 2% had concentrations considered ignitable, requiring immediate action to mitigate danger of explosion.

The director of the USGS stated that "citizens need to be aware that methane occurs naturally in some groundwater systems.” John Hanger, the former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection stated: “The USGS findings of methane in New York water wells are pre-gas drilling and have nothing to do with gas drilling.” See:

The scientific monitoring done by USGS prior to any drilling not only establishes a monitoring benchmark in New York, but also begs the question on whether the gas concentrations found in Pennsylvaia were there in the base.

Jun 25, 2013 at 5:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterWellers

A must read is this full rebuttal of the anti-fracking arguments in Gasland II:

Jun 25, 2013 at 6:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterEric Gisin

Perhaps we should require Cuadrilla (etc) to do a site survey of local properties before drilling/fracking, measuring the water quality, retaining samples and surveying buildings. Then if anyone subsequently claims damage, the company or the authorities can simply compare with the survey data. If there is a clear change, they pay to repair or make good. If not, they don't. Simples!

Jun 25, 2013 at 6:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterMeta

Imagine if the real threat to safe wellwater was publicized ...

"Radium contamination has been found in well water used by hundreds of homeowners who live just north of Annapolis along the Severn and Magothy rivers.

Of the 1,300 wells tested by Anne Arundel County workers, 63 percent had elevated levels of the cancer-causing substance, according to a Washington Post review of county records. A substantial number of wells showed radium levels considered alarmingly high by experts."

Jun 25, 2013 at 8:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterBruce

The greens need something better than this. Fracking is not a problem when done properly and it is not difficult to do it properly. Shale gas and oil have an economics problem, not an environmental problem.

Jun 25, 2013 at 9:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterVangel

"Shale gas and oil have an economics problem, not an environmental problem."
Only when they are subject to ludicrous "green" taxes.

Jun 25, 2013 at 11:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

The Nuclear Reactor on a British Trident Submarine is the size of a Dustbin inside a Cubical the size of a Broom Cupboard and that can power an entire city the Size of Bristol.

Forget about old fart farmers with their own Private Wind Turbines on their land.
But any old fart or private investor with any bit of land anywhere can have their own Private Gas Turbine.All they need is Planning permission an Electricity pylon nearby and a gas Pipe from a Shale Field under ground and they are in business.Who needs a smart Grid then

A modern Siemans German built Gas Turbine the size of one Engine from an Airbus /Boeing 747 with a 5 inch Gas Pipe can power an entire town.

Investors in Private Gas fired UK Electricity Generation.Maybe why the Nuclear industry is running so scared.

Jun 25, 2013 at 11:31 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

@jamsid a submarine nuclear reactor is a little bigger than you state.
It is about the size of a small room. I have been inside one, before fueling and sealing of course:-).

Nevertheless the point you make is valid. The very low energy density (and unreliability) of wind is precisely why we gave up windmills some 150 years ago.

Jun 26, 2013 at 9:33 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

The BBC seems to have a rule for its news readers that the word "controversial" should be inserted before "tracking" when introducing any news item about shale gas.

There are lots of other things, not energy related, that are controversial, but the BBC rarely bothers to use the word when introducing those topics.

Jun 26, 2013 at 10:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoy

There's a very clear and even handed description of some of the problems "The Role of Isotopes in Monitoring Water Quality Impacts Associated with Shale Gas Drilling" here.

The take home: without a proper baseline study and post-drilling follow up, there's no way of telling what's going on. All opinion is just that: opinion, not science.

Jun 26, 2013 at 10:47 AM | Registered CommenterHector Pascal

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