*UPDATE* Four Key Facts on a New Well Integrity Study

UPDATE (9/22/2014; 11:20 am ET): The Texas Railroad Commission (TRC) weighed in on the new well integrity study – and, as the Fort Worth Star Telegram put it, they “were not impressed.”

At a meeting last week, Commissioner David Porter explained,

“When you get away from the sensational headline, [the study] says what we’ve been saying at the commission all along.  The problem is not hydraulic fracturing or drilling.” (emphasis added)

Peter Pope, assistant director of the TRC’s site remediation section echoed that the study actually reinforces what the Commission has been saying – that the “source of elevated methane in water wells in the study area was from the Strawn formation.”

Pope also called out the researchers for blaming contamination on well integrity issues, yet they failed to identify any inspection violations or evidence of any actual leaks.  Meanwhile the TRC has looked into the issue.  In a major report released in May, the Commission did not did not find any wells in Parker County, Texas that had experienced well integrity problems and found that all of them were complying with rules and regulations.  As Pope said,

“While the university study introduces some new geochemical fingerprinting techniques to the study of gas occurring in aquifers in Texas, it appears to fall short of identifying specific migration pathways in the Parker County study area.” (emphasis added)

Original post, September 17, 2014

Researchers with the Nicholas School at Duke University have been quite active over the past few years, producing study after study that draws links between shale gas operations and water contamination.  All of these studies have a similar theme: they admit that they were unable to find evidence to link water contamination and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), but they still surmise that methane from deep shale formations could somehow, potentially, be contaminating water supplies.

This week, researchers Robert Jackson (now with Stanford University) and Avner Vengosh were back, teaming up with researchers from Ohio State and Yale to produce a new study on the same subject.

Here are the important things to know about this new report:

Fact #1: Finds no contamination from deep shale or from the hydraulic fracturing process.

This report clearly states that the researchers did not find any link between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination.  As the researchers explain, the data

“appear to rule out gas contamination by upward migration from depth through overlaying geological strata triggered by horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing.”

The report also shows that there was no evidence of methane from deep formations migrating up to contaminate water:

“[O]ur data do not suggest that horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing has provided a conduit to connect deep Marcellus or Barnett Formations directly to surface aquifers.”

As report researcher Anver Vengosh explained, “These results appear to rule out the possibility that methane has migrated up into drinking water aquifers because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, as some people feared.”  Petroleum geologist Richard Davies said, “It is good to know which parts of the fracking process are the ones we need to worry about.”  The study’s lead author, Thomas Darrah, said the fact that there’s no link to hydraulic fracturing is “good news.”

That’s a pretty big blow to anti-fracking groups like the Sierra Club, which constantly claim fracking is “known to contaminate drinking water” or Food & Water Watch, which just put out a new report, claiming, again, that: “Contaminating water wells with methane and other flammable gases from fracking puts families’ health, safety and property at high risk.”  It’s also not so good for filmmaker Josh Fox, who has long used reports by these same researchers to validate his claims about fracking and water contamination.  As he writes on his Gasland site,

“Industy [sic] arguments that methane occurs naturally in the environment in the Dimock area and therefore should be expected in the water suplly [sic] are dangerously misleading. A Duke University study found that drilling into the methane layer allows the natural but toxic gas to migrate into the water supply… Additionally, Duke University recently conducted a peer-reviewed study that links water contamination with nearby drilling and fracking, concluding that water wells near drilling and fracking operations were seventeen times more likely to contain elevated levels of methane.” (emphasis added)

Not only have these researchers totally debunked anti-fracking activists – they’ve also debunked their own previous research, which produced alarming headlines on “fracking” and water pollution.  For instance, both Jackson and Vengosh were coauthors of a study released only a few months ago that argued,

“[S]hallow aquifers” can be “contaminated by fugitive natural gas (i.e., stray gas contamination) from leaking shale gas and conventional oil and gas wells, potentially followed by water contamination from hydraulic fracturing fluids and/or formation waters from the deep formations.” (emphasis added)

Now these same researchers are admitting in this new report that fluids from “deep formations” are definitely not migrating up to contaminate water.

But it’s no wonder that, after their many attempts to find a link between hydraulic fracturing and contamination, the researchers haven’t been successful.  The U.S. Department of Energy just released its final report this week on a major study in southwestern Pennsylvania, which looked into whether fracking fluid could migrate from deep shale formations to contaminate water.  The report, which the AP called a “landmark federal study,” found no evidence of water contamination from hydraulic fracturing.

On the researchers’ claims about well integrity, however, there are a few important facts to consider.

Fact #2: Study finds no evidence of well integrity failure, yet blames contamination on well integrity failure.

If you’re going to argue that wells are being contaminated due to shale development, as the researchers do in this latest report, wouldn’t it make sense to find out if any of the wells in the area studied had experienced well integrity problems?

One of the areas sampled was Parker County, Texas – the same area where Josh Fox filmed the infamous “flaming hose” in Gasland Part II. In a major report released in May, the Texas Railroad Commission found that the gas wells in the region were constructed in accordance with all rules and regulations, set forth by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), and there were no well integrity problems. The Commission also found no link between drilling or fracking and water contamination.  In fact, the regulators concluded that many landowners’ water wells had been drilled into gas bearing zones, which could explain the high levels of methane.  As the Railroad Commission concluded,

“The occurrence of natural gas in the complainants’ water wells may be attributed to natural migration of gas from the shallow Strawn Formation, exacerbated by water well construction practices whereby some water wells have penetrated ‘red beds’ in the transition interval between the aquifer and the Strawn Formation. Contribution of natural gas to the aquifer by the nearby Barnett Shale gas production wells is not indicated by the physical evidence…” (p. 11; emphasis added)

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania adopted rigorous well integrity rules in 2011, which have been praised by the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER), an organization formed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC):

“DEP is commended for its hydraulic fracturing program. Standards for well casing and  cementing require that the operator conduct those activities to control the well at all times,  prevent migration of gas or other fluids into sources of fresh groundwater; and prevent  pollution of fresh groundwater.”

The study does not identify any inspection violations or evidence of any actual leaks, yet the researchers still blame well integrity issues for contamination.

Fact #3: Well integrity failures are exceedingly rare; regulations are being updated to further enhance safety.

The study suggests,

“Noble gas isotope and hydro-carbon data link four contamination clusters to gas leakage from intermediate-depth strata through failures of annulus cement, three to target production gases that seem to implicate faulty production casings, and one to an underground gas well failure.”

State rules require that groundwater be isolated, which means the casing must extend below the base of the groundwater and be cemented to create a sealed pipe that runs deeper than the aquifer.   For instance, according to Pennsylvania regulations,

 “The operator shall drill to approximately 50 feet below the deepest fresh groundwater or at least 50 feet into consolidated rock, whichever is deeper, and immediately set and permanently cement a string of surface casing to that depth.”

In order for a well to provide a conduit for shallow gases to follow the pipe upward and into groundwater, as the researchers suggest, it would have to be improperly cemented and cased – but again, the researchers found no evidence of regulations being violated (or if they did they certainly didn’t present it).

Further, well integrity failure – when a well actually leaks into the soil or water – happens only if all layers of thick steel and cement (often up to seven separate layers) break or fail.  That can certainly happen – and any instance of that happening means improvements are needed.  But as always, context is crucial.

New data from the Pa. DEP show that only a fraction of one percent of all the wells drilled since 2006 had any issues.  The Associated Press also recently completed an investigation of water contamination in four major oil and gas producing states.  Based on Pa. DEP data, the well failure rate in Pennsylvania is only about one-third of one percent (0.33 percent) of all the oil and natural gas wells drilled in the state since 2005.

In 2011, the Ground Water Protection Council looked at more than 34,000 wells drilled in Ohio from 1983 to 2007 and more than 187,000 wells drilled in Texas between 1993 and 2008.  The GWPC data reveal a well failure rate of 0.03 percent in Ohio and only about 0.01 percent in Texas.

Most recently, researchers at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia released two reports finding that the risk for water contamination and well integrity failure from hydraulic fracturing is quite low.  As one study puts it, “[t]here is a low likelihood of casing integrity loss.”

Of course, any instance of well integrity failure means improvements need to be made, which is why 14 states have either already adopted new well integrity standards or are planning to do so in the near future.

Interestingly, the point that well integrity failures are rare is reflected in the study, although that certainly wasn’t reflected in many of the headlines.  As the AP reported,

“Jackson and colleagues have been studying water contamination around natural gas wells for years and for this study they didn’t chose a random sample, but aimed at areas that seemed to have most complaints of contamination. And even in those areas, it was only in a minority of dozens of sites that they could they connect the contamination to the natural gas wells, he said. In some cases, the contamination was natural and had no connection to gas wells, Jackson said.” (emphasis added)

Fact #4: Work by these researchers has been rebuked by prominent geologists.

Not long after Jackson and Vengosh produced their reports purporting that methane or brine from deep formations could be migrating up to contaminate water supplies, several prominent geologists found fault with their conclusions.

Professor of Geosciences at Penn State Terry Engelder was part of the peer review process for one of their studies and found a number of holes in their report on brine migration.  As Engelder explained, “Flowback water does not qualify as natural, deep-basin brine and I fear that you have mistaken flowback from the Marcellus as natural, deep-basin brine.  The same is true for produced water from the Marcellus, which most likely also originates partly as [fracturing] fluid.”

Fred Baldassare, who spent 35 years working at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, produced a peer-reviewed report that debunked Jackson and Vengosh’s methane contentions.

Baldassare and his fellow researchers found large amounts of thermogenic methane, prior to any natural gas development.  They found that 88 percent of the wells they tested had thermogenic gas, but none of them showed any evidence of Marcellus gas.  As that study puts it,

“When future isotope data show a stray gas in this area to be thermogenic, that finding cannot be the sole basis for alleging that the stray gas was caused by oil or gas-well drilling.”

From their latest study it looks like Jackson and Vengosh would agree with Baldassare on that point.  On the researchers’ latest study, Baldassare expressed serious reservations to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review about the use of noble gases to identify contamination:

“Baldassare said he doubts Darrah’s team’s use of noble gases to mark gas from drilling is the ultimate key to identification, but said it’s worth further study.”

Conclusion

To sum up: In their previous work, these same researchers argued that methane or brine from the Marcellus Shale was traveling from deep shale into groundwater supplies.  After being debunked by several of their peers, now even the researchers have debunked themselves on that point.

Now, they’re arguing that wells that state regulators found were sound (in Texas at least) are actually leaking due to well casing failure.  But without taking into account any data on well failures whatsoever, they can only base that claim on supposition and correlation.

At any rate, we’ll agree with the researchers that after all these years of study, the fact that they still have no evidence to link water contamination to hydraulic fracturing is certainly “good news.” We just wish they would have been as open about that fact with their previous research, which has been used throughout the activist community for years to suggest “fracking” contaminates groundwater.

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