Fracking is good for you. Trust me, I have a nice voice and I could be your neighbor.

By The Intersection | May 10, 2011 4:55 pm

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., an HIV research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action

In light of the recent publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on the impact of fracking (hydraulic fracturing method of extracting subterranean natural gas), I thought I would examine how the Natural Gas Industry has been dealing with the growing controversy over this process.  The PNAS paper entitled Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing details the environmental damages incurred due to the application of this method in northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York.  It seems to be the smoking gun many have been awaiting on this issue, particularly those who are working to pass the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act. This is a controversy worth following.  Similar to my previous post on the “deathers” (a burgeoning denialist movement), it seems this may be the next anti-science movement.

Given the established protocol for driving a wedge between the public and the scientific community as observed in the evolution and climate debates, I had an idea of what to expect from the industry lobbyists and public relations officers.  After all, it seems that there is only one anti-science playbook.

Here are some of the tactics I expected to find:

1) Deny the charges (Fracking is not dangerous or a threat to the environment, your family or the community-at-large).
2) Attack the messenger (Environmentalists are not like you and don’t represent your values).
3) Create doubt about the science (The research is insufficient to claim that the practice is unsafe or bad for the environment).
4) Provide “scientific” evidence that represents your side, despite the fact that it oversimplifies the science or is completely false. Cite ambiguous scientific sources that were very likely funded by the industry (Scientists have confirmed that natural gas is not a contaminate in drinking water. Instead, it’s methane, but we’re not drilling for methane, so it’s not our concern).
5) Make measured statements designed to garner support and appeal to a specific value system (Natural gas is actually “better” for the environment than other energy sources and above all it’s good for the economy).
6)  Make an appeal for trust (We must be fair and responsible here).

I didn’t have to dig very far before I discovered a video produced by America’s Natural Gas Alliance to rebut the “Gasland” documentary.  The video met most of my expectations.

View the video and let’s discuss:

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Comments (36)

  1. dirk

    “The [natural gas] reserves, because of the ability to frack shale rock, have been increasing. We believe that it is possible to safely and responsibly extract natural gas, and the US government remains committed to do that.”

    -Energy Secretary Steven Chu

  2. Mike H

    As someone who has worked in the O&G industry I read this study cover to cover, along with its supplements as it directly affects me and my livelihood. Like you, I see this report as a “smoking gun” of sorts, but probably not for the same reason you do. Pundits, journalists and activists have hammered away on the safety of hydraulic fracturing for several years now. Their most serious allegation was that hydraulic fracturing was responsible water table contamination from fracturing fluids. I have read stories about fouled water from New York, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and Texas all detailing widespread and mysterious health problems in the local populations. The problem is I never much believed them. You see the sedimentary shale sits thousands of feet beneath the water table and the two are separated by thousands of feet of impermeable rock (well not “impermeable” but with intrinsic permeability of 10^-15). That’s why the gas has been trapped there for 200 million years … it can’t go anywhere so how were the drilling fluids with viscosities several orders of magnitude greater supposed to go anywhere?

    The Duke study apparently confirmed this by stating that they “found no evidence for contamination of drinking-water samples with deep saline brines or fracturing fluids”.

    But the methane contamination … right. See, the thing about that is its difficult to evaluate that portion of their conclusions without knowing a bit more about the methodology of the study. If the study’s authors chose wells at random, the gas companies might have a problem on their hands. It could, and I emphasize could” indicate widespread failures with well head casings or some similar systemic problem. However if the study’s authors chose wells that were known to be problematic, it takes a great a great deal of the bite out of this portion of the conclusion. If there were a known defect with a wellhead casing or some similar issue, you would expect to see elevated methane levels in groundwater. I have contacted the authors of the study to find out how they selected their sample wells and what that selection criteria was.

    You see a systemic problem with tens of thousands of wells is a serious issue but the report or HF critics can’t make that claim. However failure of few wells really isnt a serious issue to the industry as a whole.

    I find a lot of your kind of sensationalism with respect to industry though and your “credentials” aside, I don’t see how you are any kind of expert to offer any sort of meaningful opinion on this subject.

    Given the established protocol for driving a wedge between the public and industry as observed in the nuclear and the hydraulic fracturing debates, I had an idea of what to expect from the deep ecology religionists and other assorted left wing shills. After all, it seems that there is only one anti-science playbook.

    Here are some of the tactics I expected to find:

    1) Push conclusions not supported by the evidence (Fracking is polluting groundwater with dangerous chemicals).
    2) Attack the messenger (anyone who disagrees with us in a paid industry shill).
    3) Create doubt about the science (while there has been no study indicating gas migration through low permeability geology, that doesn’t mean it isnt happening).
    4) Provide “scientific” evidence that represents your side, despite the fact that it oversimplifies the science or is completely false. Cite ambiguous scientific sources that were very likely funded by the environmental lobby (Two words: Theo Colborn).
    5) Make measured statements designed to garner support and appeal to a specific value system (all resource extraction activities are inherently dangerous and their risks cannot be managed to an acceptable degree).
    6) Make an appeal for trust (we only care about the air, water, and your children!).

    Well, you are certainly correct about one thing …. this is a controversy worth following, for no other reason than to, once again, see a “War on Science”

  3. Naveed

    Mike H. I’d be interested to know how you explain away some of the videos that have been floating around that actually show peoples tap water able to be lit on fire. Perhaps their water was always flammable? Maybe these people were just near the very few well head casings that failed? Why do we deserve water that isn’t flammable?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ev-GY_uS2fI&feature=related

    anyway there’s a link to one. Perhaps you’re convinced this one is fake. Well I encourage you to click on one of other videos in the sidebar that show the same problem. Perhaps they’re all fake? I have seen this problem being reported at more legitimate sources.

    I agree that sometimes the environmentalists go too far Mike, but when peoples water is on fire. Their water is on fire!

  4. Nullius in Verba

    It’s an interesting paper – as usual, one would have to examine the science in more detail. My immediate reaction was “hang on, methane isn’t toxic” but lets take a look and see where it goes.

    Looking at the abstract, they say they found peak values of 64 mg/l, which sounded a bit high to me. A quick check indicates methane solubility in water is about 30-40 mg/l in water, depending on temperature, so that’s an oddity.

    It’s odder still since the water was collected, stored for transport, and tested later in the lab. Even stored on ice, one wouldn’t expect solutions to remain supersaturated. Was this loss compensated for, and if so, how?

    This also means that the methane solution remains saturated, even a kilometre from the nearest well. Water will not diffuse through rock that fast, so presumably there is groundwater flow that is moving past the wells and carrying the dissolved methane with it. If the methane dissolves at the wellhead at 40 mg/l, and enters the general flow, wouldn’t one expect it to be diluted? If we suppose it spreads out from a casing on the order of a metre in diameter to a half-circle two kilometres in diameter, would it not be diluted by around a factor of 2000? Would not the original concentration then be 2000 times higher than at the sample sites? (It’s not impossible, if gas is being forced into the rock and only dissolving later.) Or alternatively, if the dissolved CH4 forms narrow plumes directly downstream of the wells, then how remarkable is it that so many wells are found to be contaminated? There are roughly half with virtually no dissolved gas, and half with values above 20 mg/l.

    I don’t know – I’ve only spent about ten minutes looking at your paper. But my first question if I was reviewing such a paper would be to ask for discussion of the groundwater flow geology and modelling of the dispersion of gas in water. How is this supposed to work? Which way is it flowing, how fast, and at what depths?

    It would need more information to be able to draw any conclusions, but my immediate response would be that there are unexplained features that need further study to understand what is really going on here.

    So, since that’s not unequivocally supportive, is that a denier tactic?

  5. That’s why the gas has been trapped there for 200 million years … it can’t go anywhere so how were the drilling fluids with viscosities several orders of magnitude greater supposed to go anywhere?

    The gas can’t go anywhere? How do you think your industry makes a profit?

  6. SigmaX

    @Mike H: Loved your post, lol. While watching the video I was thinking “wait, which side is the pro-science side here?” If we’re arguing against anti-vaxxers, scientists are pro-industry, just like those of us in favor of nuclear. Science and industry are not always adversaries.

    Regardless, I appreciate trouncing on trixy rhetoric no matter what side of any debate. The video was horrendous. Horrendous in an I-don’t-trust-them-but-they-stull-affected-my-opinion-because-I-don’t-know-enough-to-argue sort of way.

  7. person

    Are you some idiot? The water fracking contaminates is flammable! I want youto drink that. And have your wife and children drink it. Ya, thats right.

  8. Jake

    The person that made this movie stinks. I sold some of my land to frackers and now i got toxic water. Thanks for the useles movie!

  9. TB

    I haven’t seen the film, I’ll look at this youtube video when I get a chance. But this comment stood out for me.

    Mike H: “However failure of few wells really isnt a serious issue to the industry as a whole.”

    That is actually precisely the issue. Leaving aside how you quantify “few,” we know there’s been a spill of these chemicals – thousands of gallons – that made their way to a creek. We now know that methane has been detected in a peer-reviewed study. And we also know that there have been explosions – and deaths – in private homes that may be connected to this.

    Given that, and although I’m not a scientist, I will be looking suspiciously at the content of the rest of your comment.

  10. Mike H

    @TB

    Methane in water wells is as old as indoor plumbing.

    The peer reviewed study is interesting but without more information on its site selection criteria and, as another poster pointed out, its sampling technique (given that the reported samples would have been supersaturated at STP), many questions remain unanswered.

    Any human activity, regardless of what it is, carries risks. Its important to understand what those risks are and how easily they can be mitigated. Are you somehow suggesting that an industrial activity can be performed perfectly without risk to either people or the environmental 100% of the time without exception? Or put more plainly, what is an acceptable level of failure for a gas drilling operation that causes bodily harm or offsite loss of containment …. is it 1 in 10,000 per annum or 1 in 50,000 per annum? To state that no level of risk is appropriate means that drilling for gas is entirely unacceptable in any circumstance.

    There are 52,000 gas wells producing in Pennsylvania. Based on the number of producing wells and the number of incidents, I think the producers have a very good track record and outside the bad PR, the few widely reported incidents don’t reflect poorly on the industry as a whole. If you disagree, I am sure you can come up with some kind of quantifiable metric to compare it against. After all, I wouldn’t suspect that someone would hold an opinion as strong and definitive as yours on anecdotal evidence alone.

  11. TB

    ” Are you somehow suggesting that an industrial activity can be performed perfectly without risk to either people or the environmental 100% of the time without exception?”
    Now you really are worthy of suspicion! Insinuating that I’m advocating for an impossible standard as a way of heading off any examination of the issue? Do you have a financial interest in this issue that brings you to post here? I only noted how you dismissed concerns without really addressing them. That’s smoke, now you’ve got me interested in looking for the fire.

  12. Mike H

    @TB

    It appears that you do have some sense in that you are not advocating for an impossible standard … that’s good. However, in all fairness, are there not individuals who apply an unachievable standard for these kinds of activities? So what, in your estimation, is an appropriate level of risk for this activity?

    Do you have a financial interest in this issue that brings you to post here?

    Referring back to the esteemed “Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D’s” list of tactics used in the “anti-science playbook” it appears you are utilizing method #2, Attacking the messenger.

    But if you must know, then no, I have no “financial interest” in posting here. I worked for a large pipeline company for several years, then for a refinery and now for an OEM/A&E. I have sat on several AGA and API boards and have co-written several technical papers and standard revisions.

    But back to my initial point. It was my understanding that part of the peer review process involved rigorously challenging assumptions and methodology. Does it bother anyone that there are several significant missing gaps in the study’s methodology?

  13. TB

    (UPDATE: I edited this after posting to include responses to Mike H’s @8)

    And that link is to a 1951 report. Here’s a more recent one:

    http://www.propublica.org/article/officials-in-three-states-pin-water-woes-on-gas-drilling-426

    Where it says that methane does migrate naturally. However, it also says

    “The Ohio Department of Natural Resources later issued a 153-page report (PDF) that blamed a nearby gas well’s faulty concrete casing and hydraulic fracturing — a deep-drilling process that shoots millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the ground under explosive pressure — for pushing methane into an aquifer and causing the explosion.”

    Raising questions about research is one thing. But you’re doing it in a very peculiar, specific way. For instance, you said: “Their most serious allegation was that hydraulic fracturing was responsible water table contamination from fracturing fluids.”

    And yet, methane figures quite prominently in this story and these studies. How do you explain that?

    Here’s a story about the industry response: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/10/natural-gas-fracking_n_859999.html

    “The natural gas industry on Tuesday was alternately disputing the findings of a new Duke University study on methane contamination of drinking water near gas well sites, or dismissing the study’s results as highlighting an old problem that the industry and regulators are already fixing.”

    So it’s either not accurate or was accurate but no longer or … And I wonder, does the new law they talk about apply to existing wells or does it only apply to new ones?

    The problem isn’t that we’re drilling. The problem is we may be drilling without the proper regulatory oversight. From the Propublica link: “Those arguments helped the gas drilling industry win rare exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act when Congress enacted the 2005 Energy Policy Act.”

    You said: “Referring back to the esteemed “Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D’s” list of tactics used in the “anti-science playbook” it appears you are utilizing method #2, Attacking the messenger.”

    Nope, I’m suspicious of the message and asked questions about the motivations of the messenger. I’ve said nothing against you personally. But you have established that you have more than a casual view of the industry. Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen.

    You said” “But back to my initial point. It was my understanding that part of the peer review process involved rigorously challenging assumptions and methodology. Does it bother anyone that there are several significant missing gaps in the study’s methodology?”

    That hasn’t yet been established. Or are you attacking the messengers?

    Finally, you said: “If you disagree, I am sure you can come up with some kind of quantifiable metric to compare it against. After all, I wouldn’t suspect that someone would hold an opinion as strong and definitive as yours on anecdotal evidence alone.”

    My metric right now is how accurately you’ve characterized the debate. And since, by my metric, you’ve dealt with some things in a questionable way, my conclusion is that I need to look elsewhere for more reliable sourcing.

  14. TTT

    To state that no level of risk is appropriate means that drilling for gas is entirely unacceptable in any circumstance.

    How much does the industry accept its own risk levels–that is, the risk of punitive lawsuits and legislation if well failure does cause toxic contamination and death? Is it willing to face the consequences of inadvertently killing people, or will it try to hide behind the statistics of a relatively low death rate?

    Shutting down a few clumsy companies here and there will not be a serious issue in terms of how people access energy as a whole. That gas underground will always be valuable and there will always be someone else willing to dig for it.

  15. Nullius In Verba

    “toxic contamination”?

  16. Mike H

    And yet, methane figures quite prominently in this story and these studies. How do you explain that?

    One of my original points about the recent Duke study was on selection criteria. If the Duke research team selected wells that had already been identified as problematic, then the study tells us nothing new about methane contamination as it was a known issue with these few wells. If they chose wells completely at random it would indicate a systemic problem that affects all wells regardless if they had indicated problems in the past. Another commented questions the sampling techniques because the reported measurements are above methane’s solubility at STP.

    Doesn’t this make sense to you? I really don’t know how to clarify it any further.

    Additionally, the Duke research team found no indication that fracturing fluid had contaminated the groundwater. Allegations of groundwater contamination from fracturing fluid have been made by opponents despite a complete lack of evidence.

    The problem isn’t that we’re drilling. The problem is we may be drilling without the proper regulatory oversight. From the Propublica link: “Those arguments helped the gas drilling industry win rare exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act when Congress enacted the 2005 Energy Policy Act.”

    First of all, I doubt you are familiar with the existing federal, state and local regulatory oversight involved in gas drilling. For example, gas drilling is covered by OSHA’s process safety management regulations for highly hazardous chemicals, site specific environmental impact statements have to be generated, and (believe it or not) the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act. What the exclusion in the Safe Drinking Water Act covers relates to the similarity between hydraulic fracturing and deep well disposal regulations. The exclusion in the Clean Water Act relates only to the section on erosion and sediment control. If you want to know the technical rationale as to why these exemptions were made, I could explain them to you but I suspect you already have a perfectly comfortable answer in your head and don’t want to be confused with the facts.

    This only covers federal regs, the respective states and municipalities can and do apply their own specific rules

    But back to your original point … what additional new “proper regulatory oversight” do you think is required? Please be specific.

    My metric right now is how accurately you’ve characterized the debate. And since, by my metric, you’ve dealt with some things in a questionable way, my conclusion is that I need to look elsewhere for reliable sourcing.

    I’m sure that when you find the “reliable” source that reconfirms your current perspective on the subject, you’ll respond with a hearty “bahhhhhhhh”.

  17. Mike H

    Nope, I’m suspicious of the message and asked questions about the motivations of the messenger.

    LOL … you are simply question the messenger and his message! That’s cute, but it doesn’t really square away with what you wrote earlier.

    Now you really are worthy of suspicion! Insinuating that I’m advocating for an impossible standard as a way of heading off any examination of the issue? Do you have a financial interest in this issue that brings you to post here? I only noted how you dismissed concerns without really addressing them. That’s smoke, now you’ve got me interested in looking for the fire.

  18. TB

    Mike: “One of my original points about the recent Duke study was on selection criteria. If the Duke research team selected wells that had already been identified as problematic, then the study tells us nothing new about methane contamination as it was a known issue with these few wells.”

    I’m glad you brought this up again, because it’s worth highlighting. There are problematic wells. How widespread is the problem? This study didn’t set out to answer that question, it set out to confirm whether contaminants could be found in the wells studied. They have. In this, we find justification for continuing scrutiny and asking questions.

    As I pointed out above, there are still elements within the industry that deny this can happen.

    Mike: “If they chose wells completely at random it would indicate a systemic problem that affects all wells regardless if they had indicated problems in the past. Another commented questions the sampling techniques because the reported measurements are above methane’s solubility at STP.
    Doesn’t this make sense to you? I really don’t know how to clarify it any further.”

    Sure, in a moving-the-goal-posts kind of way. “Is it systemic” is a question that people may not understand. It’s not just the fracking process, I’m learning that it’s well casings, horizontal drilling, higher pressures, old wells vs. new and more. And that’s just today! This study didn’t address “systemic” problems and that wasn’t the question it was trying to answer. Questioning the report for not answering questions it didn’t ask isn’t a reliable metric of whether the report answered questions it DID ask.

    Mike: “Additionally, the Duke research team found no indication that fracturing fluid had contaminated the groundwater. Allegations of groundwater contamination from fracturing fluid have been made by opponents despite a complete lack of evidence.”

    A complete lack of evidence?

    “In the last year Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has determined that Cabot was responsible for several spills of diesel fuel and drilling mud and for an 8,000-gallon leak of hydraulic fracturing fluids being prepared by a contractor, Halliburton, that seeped into a fresh water stream in September.
    The DEP concluded early on that faulty well construction allowed contaminants to leak from Cabot’s wells into water supplies.”

    That’s from http://www.propublica.org/article/pa-residents-sue-gas-driller-for-contamination-health-concerns-1120

    The lawsuit, according to the story, alleges “that Cabot allowed methane and metals to seep into drinking water wells, failed to uphold terms of its contracts with landowners, and acted fraudulently when it said that the drilling process, including the chemicals used in the underground manipulation process called hydraulic fracturing, could not contaminate groundwater and posed no harm to the people who live there.”

    That would be one of those “known” problems, right?

    Mike: “First of all, I doubt you are familiar with the existing federal, state and local regulatory oversight involved in gas drilling. … (snip) If you want to know the technical rationale as to why these exemptions were made, I could explain them to you but I suspect you already have a perfectly comfortable answer in your head and don’t want to be confused with the facts.”

    No, thank you. I don’t have the facts yet, but based on our conversation so far, it would be best for me to seek a different resource.

    “But back to your original point … what additional new “proper regulatory oversight” do you think is required? Please be specific.”

    Now why would you ask me for specific regulatory action when I’ve only just started to look into this? Are you implying that I should be able to answer this question after less than one day of occasional internet searching? Why would anyone try and impose that standard?
    And seeing as how I said “may,” how do you know that current regulation is adequate if we don’t scrutinize the industry? And, are you saying that the documented evidence, including this new report, isn’t adequate to justify additional scrutiny?
    How do we know if there’s a problem unless we investigate? At this point, it’s possible that there may be deaths and health-related issues resulting from the industry practices. Note, I said “possible” and “may.”

    Mike: “I’m sure that when you find the “reliable” source that reconfirms your current perspective on the subject, you’ll respond with a hearty “bahhhhhhhh”.”

    My perspective is to become informed. I’ll listen to honest advocacy from either side, but discovering misleading advocacy will definitely influence my opinion.

  19. Dark Tent

    Nullius in Verba says

    Looking at the abstract, they say they found peak values of 64 mg/l, which sounded a bit high to me. A quick check indicates methane solubility in water is about 30-40 mg/l in water, depending on temperature, so that’s an oddity.

    It’s odder still since the water was collected, stored for transport, and tested later in the lab.
    Even stored on ice, one wouldn’t expect solutions to remain supersaturated.

    Ever had a carbonated beverage, Nullius?

    Apparently not, because as anyone who has ever had a bottle of cocoa-cola knows, the coke (supersaturated with CO2) does not lose its carbonation right away, even if left open to the air. In fact, that takes several hours even at room temperature.

    And that’s with the top left off.

    If you put the screw top back on, the pressure of the CO2 gas builds up in the space above the liquid, impeding further out-gassing.

    This is hardly rocket science. Any 4 year old knows this.

    Unless these researchers are complete idiots, they would almost certainly have stored the water in sealed containers until the testing (which may actually have been done soon after collection, at any rate).

  20. Mike H

    I’m glad you brought this up again, because it’s worth highlighting. There are problematic wells. How widespread is the problem? This study didn’t set out to answer that question, it set out to confirm whether contaminants could be found in the wells studied. They have. In this, we find justification for continuing scrutiny and asking questions.

    But if the study only sampled from wells with known issue the study tells us NOTHING we didn’t already know. Going to a well that has already been reported to be leaking methane and confirming this doesn’t bring any new data to the debate.

    The study didn’t address “systemic” problems and that wasn’t the question it was trying to answer. Questioning the report for not answering questions it didn’t ask isn’t a reliable metric of whether the report answered questions it DID ask.

    But individuals, like Josh Fox and the esteemed “Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D” are making claims of widespread systemic issues with gas drilling operations when no data supports that. More specific to the point individuals are making these same claims of widespread systemic issues with gas drilling operations and using the Duke study as their reference with the esteemed “Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D” referring to it as “a smoking gun”.

    A complete lack of evidence?

    From fracturing fluid intruduced during drilling … yes.

    The lawsuit, according to the story, alleges “that Cabot allowed methane and metals to seep into drinking water wells, failed to uphold terms of its contracts with landowners, and acted fraudulently when it said that the drilling process, including the chemicals used in the underground manipulation process called hydraulic fracturing, could not contaminate groundwater and posed no harm to the people who live there.”

    The loss of containment was not specific to the hydraulic fracturing process and was a storage issue. Thank you for reiterating my point.

    No, thank you. I don’t have the facts yet, but based on our conversation so far, it would be best for me to seek a different resource.

    I’m sure you will find many websites that will give you a detailed explanation of the intricacies of environmental regulations and how they relate to various industrial activities. Good luck with that

    Now why would you ask me for specific regulatory action when I’ve only just started to look into this? Are you implying that I should be able to answer this question after less than one day of occasional internet searching? Why would anyone try and impose that standard?
    You, and people like the esteemed “Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D” seem to have such strong opinions on the subject, I just naturally assumed that these opinions were formed after a lengthy and thoughtful consideration of all the relevant facts. Far be it from me to assume that you would base such a storng conviction off of such a superficial analysis.

    And seeing as how I said “may,” how do you know that current regulation is adequate if we don’t scrutinize the industry? And, are you saying that the documented evidence, including this new report, isn’t adequate to justify additional scrutiny?

    That’s exactly what I am saying. This new study (If my suspicions about the site selection criteria hold true) as well as the additional anecdotal news reports leads me to believe that the existing issues don’t warrant a complete overhall of gas drilling regulations.

    My perspective is to become informed. I’ll listen to honest advocacy from either side, but discovering misleading advocacy will definitely influence my opinion.

    bahhhhhh … bahhhhhhh

  21. Mike H

    Unless these researchers are complete idiots, they would almost certainly have stored the water in sealed containers until the testing (which may actually have been done soon after collection, at any rate).

    Then the methodology or a reference to some accepted sampling standard would have been spelled out in the study .. no? After all, this is hardly rocket science and any 4 year old knows this

  22. TB

    Me: “are you saying that the documented evidence, including this new report, isn’t adequate to justify additional scrutiny?”
    Mike: “That’s exactly what I am saying. ”

    Got it.

  23. Mike H

    Good to see I have finnaly gotten through to you.

  24. Nullius in Verba

    “In fact, that takes several hours even at room temperature. And that’s with the top left off.”

    Unless the water is extracted from a long way below the water table, why wouldn’t it have already had many hours (or more likely, days) to come to equilibrium? The water pressure at the level of the water table is normally 1 atmosphere, unless it is an artesian well.

    I only said it was an oddity, not an impossibility.

  25. Dark Tent

    Nullius,

    Your above statement makes it pretty clear (to anyone who has ever had a carbonated beverage) that you were simply under a misapprehension about water that is supersaturated with a gas (methane, CO2, etc):

    “It’s odder still since the water was collected, stored for transport, and tested later in the lab. Even stored on ice, one wouldn’t expect solutions to remain supersaturated. Was this loss compensated for, and if so, how?”

    Apparently I also need to point out that if the water samples were actually left un-stoppered after collection* and thereby allowed to lose some of the methane gas before testing, the measured methane concentrations would be underestimates of the actual concentrations at the time of collection.

    *I will ignore the obvious problem involved with trying to transport water in un-stoppered containers (again, that even a 4 year old would appreciate)

  26. Nullius in Verba

    #21,

    Even stoppered, some gas would come out of solution. And yes, I was saying that they would be underestimates.

    It’s an oddity that requires further explanation. How does it happen that the solution is over-saturated, even after travelling a kilometre at groundwater percolation speeds through open rock, without getting diluted? What was its concentration at source? What is the pattern of spread?

    If somebody spilled some soda water in the river at the top of the hill, and I took a sample from the same river a kilometre downstream, I’d be surprised to see it still saturated. It’s not impossible, but it seems like something non-obvious is going on. I’d want to see it explained before taking the results for granted.

  27. Dark Tent

    Nullius,

    After you educate yourself about the very basic gas chemistry involved, you might want to actually read the report — in which the researchers describe such things as the depth of the wells from which samples were taken (36 m to 190 m) and reference (and provide a link to) the sampling and sample collection methods.

    …as opposed to simply speculating about “water pressure”, “percolation speeds” and the rest.

    The latter is pointless.

  28. TB

    Through to me? No. Understand the disinformation you’re peddling – yes.

  29. Nullius in Verba

    #23,

    Those weren’t the questions I was asking.

    I only spent about ten minutes skimming through the report, but I couldn’t see any modelling or explanation of the gas dispersion pattern underground. Do you have a more specific page/paragraph reference?

  30. Dark Tent

    Nullius.

    Perhaps you should spend more than ten minutes reading (but only if you don’t want to sound uninformed, of course)

    Frankly, based on your questions/statements, I seriously doubt you read more than the abstract.

    Your focus (harping) on the “64 mg/l” sample (the maximum) is simply misguided

    Looking at the abstract, they say they found peak values of 64 mg/l, which sounded a bit high to me. A quick check indicates methane solubility in water is about 30-40 mg/l in water, depending on temperature, so that’s an oddity.

    It’s odder still since the water was collected, stored for transport, and tested later in the lab. Even stored on ice, one wouldn’t expect solutions to remain supersaturated. Was this loss compensated for, and if so, how?

    This also means that the methane solution remains saturated, even a kilometre from the nearest well.

    Had you read the report, you would have followed the link to the collection methodology that explains that the samples are collected under pressure and put in bags that are immediately sealed and put on ice.

    Furthermore, it is certainly possible that a sample that came from depth (as the report indicates, one of the wells was 190m deep) and hence higher pressure could contain a concentration of gas above the saturation level at 1 atm and room temp,.

    But your assumption that the 64mg/L sample was necessarily a “supersaturated” solution is simply not warranted.

    If the sample was collected at a point where methane gas was actively bubbling up through the well water, the sample could contain a methane concentration that exceeds the saturation concentration without it being a saturated solution. Gas bubbles that were not in solution would be collected along with the liquid (which might or might not be saturated with methane) and the net effect could be a concentration higher than the saturation concentration at STP.

    Despite your own “doubts”, the 64 mg/L concentration is hardly unprecedented.

    A few minutes searching on google produced the USGS report (Jan 2006), Methane in West Virginia Ground Waterwhich found

    Methane concentrations in ground water for the 170 wells ranged from not detected to 68.5 mg/L.

    In other words, USGS found a concentration even higher than the maximum found in the PNAS study.

    Finally, you have completely missed the forest for the trees in this case (perhaps quite purposely). Your obsession with one sample which had the maximum concentration has led you to ignore the most important conclusion of the study:

    Methane concentrations were 17-times higher on average (19.2 mg CH4 L−1) in shallow wells from active drilling and extraction areas than in wells from nonactive areas (1.1 mg L−1 on average; P < 0.05; Fig. 3 and
    Table 1).

    If you are actually under the impression that asking uninformed questions without even bothering to read what you are supposedly “questioning” (and trying to cast doubt on the report based on your uninformed assumptions about “How that 64mg/L sample could be possible) is somehow useful (or even skeptical), then there is not a lot I or anyone else here can do to help you.

  31. Bobito

    This issue seems quite simplistic. Is the fracturing process regulated enough to reduce the risks to an acceptable level? All of the negative impacts reported are due to problems and no issues have happened when things are running as they should. So it’s not the process that pollutes, it’s what happens when things go wrong.

    This is the same debate we have all the time, just a different technique being debated. And, as usual, the lines are drawn politically. One side (liberals) that overstate the risks, and the other side (conservatives) that understate the risks. Hmmmm, where have we seen this before?…

    We can’t create dams because it will harm the fish.
    We can’t have nuclear power due to risk of nuclear waste.
    We can’t drill for oil in Alaska due to risk of spills.
    We can’t drill off-shore due to risks of spills.
    We can’t ship oil in due to risk of spills.
    We can’t mine for coal due to damage to environment.

    I understand where this comes from, it’s using the tactic of “we are all going to die” as a way of gaining traction against well financed big business propaganda. But when a film like Gasland comes out, and the propaganda machine shoots it down, it doesn’t mean that the film or the take down was correct. From what I can tell, the film overstated the facts as much as the gas industry’s response did.

    It’s a sad world we live in that the only voices we hear are from the far ends of any debate. Doesn’t anybody want the straight facts anymore?

  32. Nullius in Verba

    #26,

    I wasn’t “harping” on it. I mentioned it as an oddity, and moved on to the real question, which was gaining an understanding of how the groundwater flow worked to get these high concentrations so far from the wells. I’ve only been discussing it further because you made a particular point of it.

    “the samples are collected under pressure and put in bags that are immediately sealed and put on ice”

    Excellent. Now tell me how elastic these bags are, the volume/proportion of air that can be included with the sample, and how much the bag can expand for any given pressure change. Because otherwise that’s meaningless.

    Pressure-sensitive samples obviously need to be kept in rigid pressure vessels and fully filled – whereupon temperature is irrelevant. “Bags” are clearly not ideal for that.

    “Despite your own “doubts”, the 64 mg/L concentration is hardly unprecedented.”

    I haven’t suggested it is.

    “it is certainly possible that a sample that came from depth (as the report indicates, one of the wells was 190m deep) and hence higher pressure”

    Is that depth below the surface or depth below the water table? If the former, why does that imply high pressure? If the latter, what is the purpose in drilling a well that deep? And how did they get the sample bag in?

    “If you are actually under the impression that asking uninformed questions without even bothering to read what you are supposedly “questioning””

    Asking questions is the way to learn. Not asking questions, and just assuming that all the unstated details and background works out fine, is the way to miss serious mistakes. Questioning a result doesn’t mean that one thinks it is mistaken, it is the way you ensure that it isn’t.

    And while I have no problem with you questioning my assumptions and checking my reasoning, I’m unimpressed at the way that you’re assuming ignorance on my part and failing to read what I say while jumping to conclusions and accusing me of the same thing. Being civil about it works better.

  33. Ward in the Woods

    Just follow the money. Who stands to gain more? Residents/ranchers
    who want pure water, or gas companies. You can’t wash dirty water.

  34. The Intersection

    #35 Chris says,
    “I personally find Dr. Vernon’s writing about this issue insulting and
    offensive.”
    and
    “he feels
    perfectly comfortable calling anyone who would dare question it
    “anti-science” and attempts to make what amounts to a preemptive smear job
    against any critics of the study.”

    First, your defensiveness in response to my post is probably due to your personal investment in the fossil fuel industry. I don’t believe I have been particularly insulting or offensive.

    Second, I challenge you to find a false statement in my post.

  35. The Intersection

    Mr. Salmon,
    Despite the fact that I have more important things to do, I will give you the benefit of a response to your petty criticisms. If you’d like for me to “play” lawyer with my words, I will “play” this game with you. But, just this once so you can get your attention fix.

    You say that I should tell you when you state a falsehood. Well, the first false assumption that you made is that I did not read the paper. I read the paper and I was compelled by the data. That does not mean that I accept it without question or that I do not expect the authors to release more information. It means that the data is compelling and deserves to be considered when thinking of where we should go with the hydraulic fracturing process. As it stands, there seems to be a considerable conclusion to be drawn that could ultimately reflect badly on the hydraulic fracturing industry.

    That you and I disagree on the interpretation of the data, does not suggest that I did not read the paper. Without going one sentence further, I can make the argument that if my interpretation, which I feel is the most rational and least affected by motivated reasoning, is proven to be correct through more testing and additional release of information, then you will have a difficult time in a few months supporting your arguments and ultimately my “correct” interpretation of the data will be justified. If your interpretation proves to be correct, which I highly doubt judging from the authors’ “complete” paper, then I will be very surprised and will reconsider my position. However, given the title of the paper “Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing,” I think the author’s feel confident they have established a real correlation between fracking and methane contamination of drinking water.

    Now, to more specifically address your concerns:

    Chris Salmon says,

    “Maybe I’m mistaken but weren’t you referring to anyone who criticizes the Duke study as follows: “the next anti-science movement” – “driving a wedge between the public and the scientific community as observed in the evolution and climate debates” – “there is only one anti-science playbook” ??

    Actually, no. Those who criticize the PNAS paper on unbiased terms without anything to personally gain would be most trustworthy and deserve to have their criticisms considered. Those who work in the fossil fuel industry or for interests thereof should be viewed with skepticism. If their criticisms prove to be objective, then they should also be considered.

    Chris Salmon says,

    “Then the entire list of ” tactics I expected to find” indicates that anyone who criticizes the Duke study is nothing but a dumb, reality denying, fact ignoring anti-scientific one-dimensional industry cheerleader, doesn’t it?”

    Absolutely not. Dumb, reality denying, fact ignoring anti-scientific one-dimensional industry cheerleaders have a way of revealing themselves without making that assumption.

    Chris Salmon says,

    “Also doesn’t number 4 in that list indicate to your readers that they should view any science presented that is not in agreement with the Duke study as bad or “completely false” science?”

    Again, no. Any science that is based on traditional scientific method without personal bias or industry interference and sheds light on the Duke study should be considered. Monday morning quarterbacking from behind a computer does not constitute “science.” If someone has a problem with the results of the Duke study, they should gather the funding to do the follow-up work.

    Chris Salmon says,

    “Cite ambiguous scientific sources that were very likely funded by the industry ” – isn’t this DIRECTLY saying that all scientists that work in the oil business are not to be trusted, that they’re to be considered as lacking in ethics and scientific integrity, that they dishonestly report observations and falsify results?”

    No. Science is science. If you produce science that meets the peer review process and holds up to the test of time and repetition, even industry scientists can be trusted just as any other scientist. Sarcasm intended. I know plenty of industry scientists who maintain perfect scientific integrity. However, I must admit when I see the funding sources for some science, I go to extra lengths to ensure that it meets the smell test. Obviously, you understand the concept of “conflict of interest statements.” There’s a reason, scientists must include these in most of their publications.

    Chris Salmon says,

    “So can’t you understand why I might find this insulting and offensive? Do you really think it’s only “due to [my] personal investment in the fossil fuel industry?””

    No. Yes.

    Chris Salmon says,

    “This is a false statement for a couple of reasons. Number one, they did not establish, or claim to establish, that environmental damages had occurred.”

    I would classify methane contamination in drinking water to be environmental damages.

    Chris Salmon says,

    “this was a natural occurrence unrelated to man’s activities was one of three possibilities that the authors specifically listed.”

    Now, I must ask if you really read this paper, because the natural occurrence of which you speak was dismissed based on the data.”

    Chris Salmon says,

    “They looked for environmental damage from Marcellus Shale formation water and saline frac fluid, but were unable to find it in any sample.”

    This is an inaccurate statement. The authors did not test for frac fluids. Should I call you a liar as you have called me? I won’t be waiting for your apology. I shall go on.

    Chris Salmon says,

    “they did not establish, or claim to establish, a cause. They listed three possible causes. They did not quantify or put any weighting on these three causes”

    Actually, you’re wrong again, Mr. Salmon. They write, “The first [possible mechanism] is physical displacement of gas-rich deep solutions from target formation. Given the lithostatic and hydrostatic pressures for 1-2 km of overlying geological strata, and our results that appear to rule out the rapid movement of deep brines to near the surface, we believe that this mechanism is unlikely.” Each of the explanations require failures during the process (hydraulic fracturing generates new fractures or enlarges existing one above the target shale formation) or during the extraction of gas following hydraulic fracturing (leaky gas-well casings). Either way, if there was no fracking, it is unlikely there would be increased levels of methane in the drinking water. Seems someone needs to re-read the article.
    That they recommend more research is the responsible message considering that this evidence points to a potential risk of contaminating drinking water due to the hydraulic fracturing process.

    Chris Salmon says,

    “Next, you state: “It seems to be the smoking gun many have been awaiting on this issue, particularly those who are working to pass the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act. ”
    This is a false statement, also for a couple of reasons. First, a quick Google search shows that “smoking gun” is defined as: “A piece of incontrovertible incriminating evidence.” The study reached no conclusions at all as to why they found the values they found in the sample set they acquired. Therefore it is not possible for the study to be deemed a “smoking gun,” as they did not establish incontrovertible evidence of anything other than their sample values.”

    OK. Let’s play lawyer. “It seems…” is much too ambiguous and leaves open the possibility that it is not the smoking gun. However, I will argue that this “is” the smoking gun and I challenge you to do the science to disprove it. Good luck.

    The rest of your comments are even more petty than those to which I have replied.

    I’ll finish by stating for the other readers that they should take notice that Chris Salmon is doing exactly what we would predict in a case of motivated reasoning. When faced with strong evidence that supports a finding that challenges his “beliefs,” he has chosen to question the science (which is honorable), but his arguments are neither objective nor sufficient to overturn the evidence. He has a vested interest in the arguing for fracking. After all, he benefits directly from oil and gas industry. He has attacked me by questioning my credentials as a scientist (a trademark of the denialist movement). Finally, he has attempted to create an unrelated controversy where there is none, yet, by complaining that the Duke scientists have not yet released all their data.

    The obvious next step in this process is to do additional research. Mr. Salmon argues that there is no need to exercise caution or consider that this report makes a very strong case that the hydraulic fracturing process might lead to environmental damages. We may later find that only certain areas of the country with specific geological formations are at risk, but we must do at least three things as we move forward,
    1) take action to inform the public
    2) do the necessary research to identify at-risk areas
    3) slow the expansion of this practice within the U.S.

    That is all.

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