This weekend, the Associated Press published a story with an eye-catching headline — “Some States Confirm Water Pollution From Drilling.” But anti-fracking activists hoping for proof of their claims that shale development is “inherently dangerous” better not pop the champagne corks just yet. A deeper dive into the details reveals a much more nuanced picture. In fact, the data obtained by AP actually tell us a lot more about the historic safety of shale development than any sort of uncontrollable risk.
AP investigated wells in four states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas. Out of literally tens thousands of wells, only a small fraction resulted in any complaints related to water – and only a fraction of those wells were actually linked to water quality issues. Let’s have a look at what AP had to say:
–Pennsylvania has confirmed at least 106 water-well contamination cases since 2005, out of more than 5,000 new wells. There were five confirmed cases of water-well contamination in the first nine months of 2012, 18 in all of 2011 and 29 in 2010. The Environmental Department said more complete data may be available in several months.
–Ohio had 37 complaints in 2010 and no confirmed contamination of water supplies; 54 complaints in 2011 and two confirmed cases of contamination; 59 complaints in 2012 and two confirmed contaminations; and 40 complaints for the first 11 months of 2013, with two confirmed contaminations and 14 still under investigation, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mark Bruce said in an email. None of the six confirmed cases of contamination was related to fracking, Bruce said.
–West Virginia has had about 122 complaints that drilling contaminated water wells over the past four years, and in four cases the evidence was strong enough that the driller agreed to take corrective action, officials said.
–A Texas spreadsheet contains more than 2,000 complaints, and 62 of those allege possible well-water contamination from oil and gas activity, said Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees drilling. Texas regulators haven’t confirmed a single case of drilling-related-well contamination in the past 10 years, she said. (emphasis added)
Granted, any instances in which water or land is adversely impacted by development activities means there’s room for improvement. That’s why the industry has supported numerous state level efforts such as in Illinois, Colorado, and Texas (among many others), that enhance existing regulations, including those governing well integrity.
But, if you’re looking to extract some actual meaning from these data and this story, perspective and context are crucial – and, as such, it’s important to point out a few additional facts here.
Right off the bat, one is struck by the enormous gap between “complaints” and confirmed cases. Even though AP spends considerable time expanding on the complaints, it does – to its credit – explain that many allegations often turn out to be completely unrelated to drilling. From AP:
“Experts and regulators agree that investigating complaints of water-well contamination is particularly difficult, in part because some regions also have natural methane gas pollution or other problems unrelated to drilling. A 2011 Penn State study found that about 40 percent of water wells tested prior to gas drilling failed at least one federal drinking water standard. Pennsylvania is one of only a few states that don’t have private water-well construction standards.” (emphasis added)
These facts are underscored by two recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey which determined that there were high levels of methane in water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York. The former included a county where no Marcellus Shale development is occurring, and in the latter, landowners are still suffering from a five-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.
As for the confirmed cases, in Pennsylvania alone the story is quite revealing. As the Marcellus Shale Coalition explained in a blog post today:
- From January 1, 2005 through the end of 2013, there have been 32,625 oil and natural gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania (of which 7,426 were unconventional/Marcellus Shale wells), according to DEP
- There are more than 1 million water wells in Pennsylvania, according to Penn State University and approximately 20,000 new water wells drilled each year.
- And while the natural gas industry takes every step possible to mitigate and eliminate the risk of methane migration and surface spills,106 of the Commonwealth’s water wells have been impacted, according to AP’s analysis.
Based on data from the Pennsylvania DEP, the confirmed cases that AP mentioned constitute about one-third of one-percent (0.33 percent) of all of the oil and gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 2005.
So much for the claims of Josh Fox and his allies that 35 to 60 percent of all wells fail (they can’t decide which percentage it really is). In fact, AP’s numbers are much more in line with an August 2011 report from the Ground Water Protection Council, which found a well failure rate of less than one percent in Ohio and Texas — and that’s before many of the new well casing regulations came to be.
Further, as AP’s data clearly show, the number of cases in Pennsylvania has continued to decline pretty dramatically over the years. From AP:
“In Pennsylvania, the number of confirmed instances of water pollution in the eastern part of the state ‘dropped quite substantially’ in 2013, compared with previous years, Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz wrote in an email. Two instances of drilling affecting water wells were confirmed there last year, she said, and a final decision hasn’t been made in three other cases. But she couldn’t say how many of the other statewide complaints have been resolved or were found to be from natural causes.” (emphasis added)
In Ohio, since 2010, AP uncovered six confirmed cases of contamination. EID contacted the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), and, through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the state regulatory body quickly provided the reports of these incidents. These documents showed that each of the cases were relatively minor and resolved immediately by ODNR and the company involved. In fact, one of these instances was caused by an orphan well that had been drilled prior to ODNR’s existence – more than 60 years ago.
Finally, in West Virginia, there were four potential instances in the past four years which have not been confirmed. In Texas — the largest oil and gas producing state in the country — there have been zero confirmed cases in 10 years.
Texas’ data are also perhaps the most important because, as AP explains, this state “provided the most detail.” The story continues:
“Texas officials supplied a detailed 94-page spreadsheet almost immediately, listing all types of oil and gas related complaints over much of the past two years. The Texas data include the date of the complaint, the landowner, the drilling company and a brief summary of the alleged problems. Many complaints involve other issues, such as odors or abandoned equipment.” (emphasis added)
The bottom line is this: thousands upon thousands of wells have been drilled in the United States in recent years as our nation slashes its reliance on imported energy, creates high-paying jobs, and reduces energy costs for households across the country. Only a fraction of these wells have yielded reportable complaints, and only a fraction of that fraction of wells have actually been identified as having caused any incident at all.
Anti-development activists like to claim that shale is “inherently dangerous,” and thus cannot be managed safely. The numbers actually tell a very different story.