High Methane Levels in Water Near Hydrofracking Sites

May 9, 2011

There's new evidence that the method of extracting natural gas called "hydraulic fracturing" could be contaminating drinking water. A team of Duke researchers have found elevated levels of methane in well water near hydraulic fracturing sites. That could be an important finding as state legislators consider whether to begin allowing the practice here in North Carolina. Natural gas deposits have been discovered deep under some of the state's most populated counties like Wake, Durham, and Orange.

Duke's Avner Vengosh says the elevated methane levels make drinking water susceptible to fire and could be dangerous to drink, though that's not yet known. He says a documentary film critical of the natural gas industry called "Gasland" shows what can happen.

Avner Vengosh: "So you can see people can light fire on the water coming from the kitchen faucet because of the high methane. So we do see that at some of the houses we investigated."

Vengosh's study focused on hydraulic fracturing sites mainly in Pennsylvania. It found methane levels 17 times higher in water wells near so-called "hydro-fracking" sites. The method isn't allowed in North Carolina. But the discovery of natural gas deposits in the state have legislators and businesses interested.

Vengosh: "For us, I think it's important to be able to get ready for the future if this is becoming relevant for us. We can still have some control and can still do things to prevent harming the environment."

The state senate has placed an energy bill on the calendar for Tuesday, May 10th which could potentially move the state closer to allowing hydraulic fracturing. Vengosh says there are two sides to the debate over natural gas. 

Vengosh: "One side is it definitely should be a substitute for coal. At the same time, there are some environmental consequences. So before we are moving into applying this technology in North Carolina, we should know very well what are the potential environmental consequences and how we deal with it."

The study appears in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.