August 15, 2013

Concerns Continue Over Fracking Contamination

By Gordon Schnell

The dispute over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, rages on with neither side giving much credence to the other.  Proponents of the practice insist it is a safe and cost-effective way to unlock vast new supplies of oil and natural gas — billions and billions of gallons worth.  Opponents argue that the millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals pumped deep into the ground to break apart the rock and unleash these untapped reserves is a recipe for ecological and environmental disaster.  There is no lack of passion or rhetoric in this heated debate and no bridge in sight that might bring these two warring factions together any time soon.

That is why a recent study by a group of scientists out of the University of Texas is so refreshing in what it set out to do, and so compelling in what it found.  These researchers — spanning the University’s biology, chemistry, biochemistry and environmental science departments — wanted to step outside the fracking firestorm and simply look to the science of whether fracking contaminates our water supply.  They had no preconceived notions of what they might find and no hidden agenda of what they wanted to find.  It was just about the science.  And according to their results, which they readily acknowledge are far from conclusive, the science strongly suggests a direct link between fracking and bad water.

The study simply involved testing the private wells of about 100 homes that tap into the aquifers overlying the Barnett Shale formation in North Texas.  This included as a point of reference samples taken both inside and outside the Barnett Shale where fracking has not occurred.  According to an interview by ProPublica with Brian Fontenot, one of the study’s lead scientists, “our main intent was to bring an unbiased viewpoint here — to just look at the water, see if we could find anything, and report what we found.”  And what Fontenot and his team found was troubling to say the least:

We found that there were actually quite a few examples of elevated constituents, such as heavy metals, the main players being arsenic, selenium and strontium.  And we found each of those metals at levels that are above EPA’s maximum contaminate limit for drinking water.  . . .  Arsenic is a pretty well-known poison.  . . .  The levels that we found would not be a lethal dose, but they’re certainly levels that you would not want to be exposed to for any extended period of time.

Staying true to their attempt to let the science do the talking, the researchers disclaimed any notion that their testing provided “smoking gun” evidence of a direct link between fracking and tainted drinking water.  At the same time, they found the likelihood of such a link inescapable.  Their testing showed that the water contamination occurred in close proximity to fracking where no such contamination existed prior to the onset of fracking.  Or in Fontenot’s own words, “[w]e noticed that when you’re closer to a [fracking] well, you’re more likely to have a problem, and that today’s samples have problems, while yesterday’s samples before the fracking showed up did not.”  Their ultimate conclusion from all of this is that more research needs to be done on the subject.

The results of the Fontenot study are making headlines not only for the simplicity of the approach and the dispassionate manner in which it was carried out.  It is also causing a stir because it was released on virtually the same day the LA Times reported the existence of an internal EPA PowerPoint presentation warning of contamination in several wells surrounding a fracking operation in Dimock, Pennsylvania.  Apparently, the EPA ignored the presentation as well as the views of the local EPA staff that had sampled the water, and closed its Dimock investigation, declaring the water safe to drink.  The Times report noted a string of other fracking investigations the EPA has recently closed suggesting the EPA’s seemingly lax policing in this area “fits a troubling pattern” and may be more about politics than science.

Which brings us back to the importance of the Fontenot study and why it stands out in providing an unadulterated perspective on the risks associated with Fracking.  This is an area of study where neither politics nor rhetoric should play any part.  Afterall, we’re talking about our drinking water.  As Fontenot stressed about his research team, “we’re not anti-industry, we’re not pro-industry.  We’re just here to finally get some scientific data on this subject.”  And that is exactly what their study seemingly does.  Hopefully, it will serve as a model for further study in this critically important area so we can push the rhetoric and politics to the side and finally get to the bottom of the great fracking debate.

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4 Responses to “Concerns Continue Over Fracking Contamination

  1. The UT study led by Dr. Charles Groat was a fraud from day one. Groat had received well over $1 million in direct compensation and stock in the very companies and industry he was “objectively investigating.” That study was soundly discredited as biased in favor of drilling and its claims that no link between drilling and groundwater contamination had been found. Eventually the UT Board of Regents demanded a retraction of the study because it bore the insignia of the University of Texas and it was not an objective study at all.

    This Fontenot Study, if accurate, is refreshing, but for the record I seriously doubt that they could possibly have a baseline testing background upon which to compare their findings because there are over 20,000 wells in the Barnett Shale and drilling here has been done for well over a decade starting long before anybody started testing for possible contamination.

    What is needed and required is a study (or studies) by several respected university research teams and independent profession labs that closely looks at the chemical fingerprint of contaminants in water wells and aquifers, and then compares that to the contaminants found in the frac fluid solutions used in nearby wells to pinpoint the exact cause of groundwater contamination. Such testing and analysis needs to be done without ANY oil and gas industry funding involved, and by people who do not have a vested interest in the outcome of their studies.

  2. Lifetime gag orders and hush money to victims of fracking damage. Gag orders on PA MDs.

    The “Health Study” underway in NYS has excluded public health professionals and follows no recognizable “study” model.

    Several watersheds in NYS are exempted legislatively from fracking. This leaves poor areas open to be victimized by fracking. This is unequal protection.

    Every phase of fracking process exposes the environment and living creatures to hazards.

    Our valuable water resources and public lands are being abused so that corporations can export this product of extreme extraction.

    We need to put our resources into developing renewable resources. Read Tony Ingraffea’s NY Times “Gang Plank” letter.

    1. So does this imply that oil companies got hosed? I tuhoght these guys were “evil billionairs”. I’m not able to follow how gas prices had to do with the tech bubble yet Amazon and google has nothing to do with it.Most of the oil in the world comes from conventional sources that are quite profitable. And oil companies are only evil in the eyes of political operatives on the left or right and the fools who believe their misrepresentations. My point is that Amazon and Google can make profit. So can conventional oil companies. The shale gas players that Mark was hyping were unable to do so because they sold most of their production at below cost. That may be fine for consumers but not for investors. Lack of storage. If you have to produce because stopping means writing down your leases and going bankrupt the prudent thing to do is to keep adding debt and selling gas at a loss for as long as possible. If the public buys it you can reposition yourself as a ‘shale liquids’ company and issue new equities as you add more debt and do it again until reality overtakes you.And ya, its sounds like people are crossing their fingers they strike their wells in a “core area”. No shit. That’s the risk. There’s no guarantee of any sort that dropping millions on a well is going to pay off.Companies know where the core areas are and could be profitable working them. But they can’t grow as big if they stick to such small fields so they went all out and leased unproductive formations. If you are the CEO and can get another $80 million or so before you go bust it certainly beats working another 30 years and only earning around $3-$5 million during that time.I understand your pessimism of this so called “bubble” if your worried that Obama writes them off too (assuming he steals a second term). other than that, big whoop. The Dakota peoples are pigs rollin in shit right now.I am not worried about the people who have gotten rich by getting decent jobs when the rest of the country is hurting. The trouble for them will come after the bubble ends, particularly if they are counting on the same income level and are leveraged.