Landmark federal study adds to research consensus on safety of fracking

A comprehensive U.S. Department of Energy study of hydraulically fractured wells in Pennsylvania — whose importance and preliminary results were discussed here, in my Policy Report on fracturing, and in my Spotlight report on fracking chemicals — has been finalized. The full report is viewable here (pdf file).

The Associated Press reports:

The final report from a landmark federal study on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, found no evidence that chemicals or brine water from the gas drilling process moved upward to contaminate drinking water at a site in western Pennsylvania.

The Department of Energy report, released Monday, was the first time an energy company allowed independent monitoring of a drilling site during the fracking process and for 18 months afterward. After those months of monitoring, researchers found that the chemical-laced fluids used to free gas stayed about 5,000 feet below drinking water supplies.

Scientists used tracer fluids, seismic monitoring, and other tests to look for problems, and created the most detailed public report to date about how fracking affects adjacent rock structures.

The final report followed closely on the heels of major academic research that examined wells in Pennsylvania and Texas and found that all problems with fugitive gas contamination of drinking water owed to faulty well construction, not the process of hydraulic fracturing. I discussed the importance of that research in my newsletter here.

Forbes discussed the implications of both studies:

What the researchers found was that the incidents where there had been groundwater contamination from fracking all were the result of bad drillers ignoring state regulations in Pennsylvania and Texas.  …

Earth shattering isn’t it?  Existing regulations work. No oversight and/or willful disregard for them results in bad consequences.  What needs to happen then is simple; states where drillers are allowed to frack need to have good regs and vigilant oversight. It doesn’t get any more clear than that but that clarity has not taken away any emotion or any politics.

Law360 found additional implications for energy companies and regulators:

A pair of studies released this week concluding that hydraulic fracturing isn’t linked to groundwater contamination could further shift the emphasis of federal and state regulators to the fracked wells themselves, which can foul water supplies if they’re faulty, and put a major dent in lawsuits that claim groundwater contamination was caused by fracking, experts say.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Energy released the results of a study that monitored a fracking operation in the Marcellus Shale in western Pennsylvania but found no evidence that either gas or fracking fluid migrated up from the shale to groundwater. That same day, researchers from Ohio State University, Duke University and the University of Rochester unveiled a study that concluded that fracking in the Marcellus formation and Texas’ Barnett Shale isn’t leading to groundwater contamination but that improperly drilled wells are allowing fugitive shale gas to leak into groundwater.

What’s interesting is that while the university study examined whether fracking fluids could migrate to groundwater during the drilling process, the DOE study examined whether fracking fluids left behind after drilling could migrate to groundwater, according to McDermott Will & Emery LLP partner James Pardo, who frequently represents oil and gas companies.

One was looking top-down, while the other was looking bottom-up, but they ultimately ended up in the same place,” Pardo said.

The studies give strength to arguments from the oil and gas industry, and many regulators, that the fracking process does not lead to groundwater contamination.

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...