‘Those’ Duke researchers show that hydraulic fracturing is safe

The News & Observer reported in August that

[Robert Jackson and Avner Vengosh of Duke University] are among the few academics issuing high-profile challenges to energy industry claims that drilling is environmentally safe, yet they have had a low profile in fracking deliberations in Raleigh. But as state officials prepare for a last round of public hearings that will start later this month, the professors will be finalizing research that could show that methane in Pennsylvania’s drinking water was caused by fracking.

Deep in the report, it was alluded to that James Womack, then-chairman of the Mining & Energy Commission drawing up state rules for energy exploration using hydraulic fracturing; Vikram Rao, who is now chairman; and Jackson and Vengosh agreed on something. That point of agreement was that “The most likely pathway for shale gas in drinking water would be shoddy well shafts that leak gas flowing out of the well head.”

The paper’s editorial board followed up by accusing the governor and Republican leaders of letting Jackson and Vengosh’s research fall on “deaf ears.” This research, the N&O stated outright, offers “compelling evidence that shale gas extraction, fracking, causes drinking water problems in other states.” The editorial asked

Can [Republicans] be counted upon to do their due diligence when it comes to safety research about fracking, even to the point of changing course and acknowledging that perhaps fracking isn’t for North Carolina after all?

Well (no pun intended), today the N&O reported on Jackson and Vengosh’s findings.

What the researchers found will not surprise JLF readers. As I explained in a newsletter, helpfully titled “With hydraulic fracturing, well construction is the key,” in my Policy Report on hydraulic fracturing, and in my followup Spotlight report on the chemicals used,

The process of hydraulic fracturing is not intrinsically dangerous. A growing consensus among energy companies, state regulators, academics, and environmentalists is that the safety issue rests in well construction.

That is good news; it means that safe drilling is achievable through proper regulation and company due diligence.

The story comes under the headline “Duke scientists: Faulty wells, not fracking, contaminated drinking water in Texas, Pennsylvania.” (The headline appears to have been changed, per the URL. It appears it was originally “Duke scientists: Fracking didn’t contaminate drinking water in Texas, Pennsylvania.”)

Anyway, here is a snippet:

A group of Duke University scientists often accused of anti-fracking bias have published their most definitive research to date linking shale gas exploration with methane gas contamination of drinking water.

But —

It was necessary to put that spin on it in the opening sentence, which is why the next sentence has to begin with “But.”

— their paper, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, exonerates fracking from the most serious environmental risks. The study blames the water contamination on leaky well shafts near the earth’s surface, not on the process of hydraulic fracturing itself, which takes place thousands of feet underground.

The distinction is critical because fracking foes base much of their opposition to natural gas drilling on the fear that fracturing shale rock poses an environmental danger. They worry that fracturing, or fracking, could cause toxic chemicals and radioactive elements to flow out through fissures and contaminate freshwater aquifers on which residents and farming operations depend.

The findings of the Duke researchers, based on 133 drinking water wells in Texas and Pennsylvania, corroborate claims by the energy industry that the fracturing process alone is not likely to imperil drinking water.

“We’re saying to the industry, the good news is we don’t think it’s actually from the hydraulic fracturing itself,” said Avner Vengosh, Duke professor of geochemistry and water quality. …

That strengthens the finding in the joint study of hydraulic fracturing in North Carolina released in 2012 by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Commerce under Gov. Bev Perdue, that “information available to date suggests that production of natural gas by means of hydraulic fracturing can be done safely as long as the right protections are in place.”

Strong well-construction regulations are paramount. Hydraulic fracturing is a safe process.

Jon Sanders / Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...