If Natural Gas Wells Used In Fracking Are Contaminating Water, Why Isn’t Fracking To Blame?

Sep 17, 2014

A Duke study shows that faulty gas wells, not fracking itself, were responsible for water contamination at several sites in Pennsylvania and Texas.
Credit Environmental Protection Agency

Big news came out this week about fracking: Duke scientists have found that natural gas wells used in fracking caused contamination in eight drinking water wells in Texas and Pennsylvania.

Many of you might have seen the videos of people living near gas exploration sites who can light their tap water on fire, because there’s so much methane in it. But the energy industry has solidly defended its position that the gas could be naturally occurring. There’s no evidence fracking caused the contamination.

This Duke study is a big deal, because it traced the methane in contaminated water wells to nearby natural gas wells. Thousands of feet beneath those wells, hydraulic fracturing is being used to get the methane from deep underground.

You might say that links the drinking water contamination to fracking, but... It technically doesn’t.

The average person might be tempted to put the whole shebang – drilling to explore for gas, pumping water and sand and chemicals into the ground to break up the deep gas-filled rock, pumping gas up to the surface – under the “fracking” umbrella.

But the oil and gas industry disagrees. As far as it's concerned, fracking is simply the part where they’re spraying stuff to break up the rock. So far, there is no evidence that causes ground water contamination.

A reader on wunc.org posted these questions on my original story:

Joe Flowers • 15 hours ago

Would the water in these wells be contaminated if there were no Fracking?  Were the wells already contaminated at the same quantity and quality levels of contaminants before the Fracking occurred?

They’re fair questions. Article co-author Avner Vengosh says no.

The Duke Water Quality and Geochemistry professor says the methane isotopes show that the heightened gas levels in the water came from the natural gas wells. That’s eight out of 133 gas wells in Pennsylvania and Texas in this study, by the way. Vengosh says they actually watched the Texas levels rise as gas development progressed.

But there’s good news: The pipes can be replaced and the wellheads repaired. The leaks could be stopped. And states like North Carolina – where no fracking has been done yet – has time to potentially beef up well regulations.

So, fracking hasn’t been proven to cause water contamination, so far. But a solution to eight examples of contamination has become apparent. That’s a big day for environmentalists and the energy industry alike.