SGEIS Spills the Beans on Naturally Occurring Methane in NY Water

Over the next few days we will be skimming through the updated Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), available here, which was recently released by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.  For today, our focus will be on methane in private wells and groundwater throughout New York’s history as relayed by the SGEIS.  For a post like this, its best to let the SGEIS speak for itself:

The presence of naturally occurring methane in ground seeps and water wells is well documented throughout New York State.

The existence of naturally occurring methane seeps in New York has been known since the mid 1600s.

In his 1966 report on the Jamestown Aquifer, Crain explained that natural gas could occur in any water well in the area which ends in bedrock or in unconsolidated deposits overlain by fine-grained confining.

Gas that occurs naturally in shallow bedrock and unconsolidated sediments has been known to seep to the surface and/or contaminate water supplies including water wells. Often landowners are not aware of the presence of methane in their well.

In 1987 the Times Union reported that contaminants, including methane, were found in well water in the Orchard Park subdivision near New Scotland, Albany County. Engineers from the Department reported the methane as “natural occurrences found in shale bedrock deposits beneath the development.

These quotes help to paint the background of New Yorkers’ history with methane finding its way to their wells, which has roots long before modern gas drilling techniques were even invented let alone employed in New York state.  Of all these quotes, this is the most compelling and succinct.

The highest methane concentration from all samples analyzed was 22.4 mg/L from a well in Schoharie County; the average detected value was 0.79 mg/L.59 These groundwater results confirm that methane migration to shallow aquifers is a natural phenomenon and can be expected to occur in active and non-active natural gas drilling areas.

It is also important to note that the SGEIS also declares that  natural gas production is often not the cause of private well impairment.

Methane contamination of groundwater is often mistakenly attributed to or blamed on natural gas well drilling and hydraulic fracturing. There are a number of other, more common, reasons that well water can display sudden changes in quality and quantity. Seasonal variations in recharge,stress on the aquifer from usage demand, and mechanical failures are some factors that could lead to degradation of well water.

The SGEIS also provides examples where water well impairment has been unfairly laid at the feet of natural gas producers.

Recently, as part of two separate complaint investigations in the towns of Elmira and Collins,New York, the Department documented that methane gas existed in the shallow aquifers at the two sites long before and prior to the exploration and development for natural gas. Both investigations provided clear evidence that methane contamination was present in the area’s water wells prior to the commencement of natural gas drilling operations.

Also, the SGEIS takes another look at the data produced by the often misquoted and mischaracterized Duke study which EID-Northeast Marcellus covered previously here.  What did the SGEIS say about the Duke study?

In April 2011 researchers from Duke University (Duke) released a report on the occurrence of methane contamination of drinking water associated with Marcellus and Utica Shale gas development.  As part of their study, the authors analyzed groundwater from nine drinking water wells in the Genesee Group in Otsego County, New York for the presence of methane. Of the nine wells, Duke classified one well as being in an active gas extraction area (i.e. a gas well is within 1 km of the water well), and the remaining eight in a non-active gas extraction area. The analysis showed minimal amounts of methane in this sample group, with concentrations significantly below the minimum methane action level (10 mg/L) to maintain the safety of structures and the public. The water well located in the active gas extraction area had 5 to 10 times lessmethane than the wells located in the inactive areas.

We thought you may like to have this information before our friends on the other side begin screaming that wells are already being tainted by hydraulical fracturing in New York even before that fracturing begins. We plan on continuing to comb through the SGEIS to help you understand what it says and what it does not. Given the size of the document we will continue providing these updates over the next few days and weeks so stay tuned for additional updates.


  1. etothek says:

    Thank you for the factual and scientific data! I will remember to bring these facts along to my next Town Council meeting.

  2. Tom says:

    Great job, John! You really pulled out the important stuff and I hope some of those anti-gas radicals who constantly and deliberately confuse hydraulic fracturing with methan issues that precede drilling, are reading. Also, I love your play on words in the title! Hopefully, Mark Rufalo and the other funders of that “I Love My New York Water” campaign are also reading!

    • Bill says:

      I have to agree with Tom here, great work John! Maybe this time, since it came from the SGEIS, the anti-gas agenda will understand “Methane contamination of groundwater is often mistakenly attributed to or blamed on natural gas well drilling and hydraulic fracturing.”

      How much clearer does NY State, the EPA, all the other gas drilling states, countless environmental and scientific agencies have to be?

      • Nicole says:

        I also have to agree with Tom and Bill. This is great, John! Thank you so much for taking the time to read through the SGEIS and pull out pertinent information to share with everyone. I am also glad you started with methane migration because I have attended several meetings on this in the last few weeks and even when a geologist tells people about how it can occur naturally or what actually does happen when natural gas drilling is involved, they are still so skeptical. It is so refreshing to see this information in black and white from the DEC and to have it to cite. I look forward to reading the rest of your analyses!

  3. Stanley R Scobie says:

    A careful reading of what the NY DEC says about “Naturally Ocuring Methane in New York State” shows:

    1. “…from 46 drinking water wells in the Delaware, Genesee, and St. Lawrence River Basins.” ( pg 4-41) the average detected value was 0.79 mg/L. This is way below the dangerous/hazardous level generally accepted as 8-10 mg/L.

    2. From these 46 wells in presumably non-drilling areas (DEC do not explicitly state the proximity to drilling) we can tentatively conclude that generally away from drilling, dangerous levels are fairly rare.

    Taking the single high value reported by DEC of 22.4 mg/L, the only way to get the reported average of 0.79 mg/L is to have nearly all other 45 wells at far below the dangerous level.

    3. We know nothing from this DEC summary about average concentrations of methane near active gas wells.

    4. The DEC data reported on apparently baseline levels is a relatively small sample, the same thing that the “Duke” study was criticized for.

    5. While it is certainly possible to conclude that methane is a somewhat common occurrence in some water wells in NY, we don’t know how general a phenomon this is. Does it occur mainly in low areas or equally often in the hills, etc.

    6. The DEC analysis in the dSGEIS does not mention that the Duke study found rather high levels of methane in water wells within about 3000 ft. of active gas wells. In revaluating the Duke data it is possible to see that fully 50% of the wells within 3000 ft. of gas wells had dangerous levels of methane (above 10 mg/L).

    7. Tentatively, this should be contrasted with the apparent baseline levels reported by DEC of maybe two or three water wells (of 46) having dangerous levels.

    8. Clearly the DEC needs to clarify its presentation of this stuff and refine and expand its data collection.

    I have been given to understand that there are several proximity and baseline studies of methane migration going on in PA. Great. What is needed is a large number of studies of this matter.

    Stanley R Scobie, Ph.D., Binghamton, NY


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