A peer-reviewed study by researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) shows the hydraulic fracturing process, commonly referred to as “fracking,” is not contaminating groundwater in the Utica Shale region of Ohio.
Fracking involves the high-pressure injection of water, containing sand and certain other chemicals, into an oil or gas wellbore to create cracks in deep-rock formations to release natural gas or oil and allow it to flow more freely for extraction.
Confirms Previous Research
The study, published in the scientific journal Environmental Monitoring Assessment, is the first to look at methane sources in this region of Ohio.
It adds to a growing body of research which has found fracking is not systemically polluting groundwater. Since 2010, at least 24 studies—from researchers at Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Yale University, and elsewhere—have been produced, each finding no water pollution from fracking.
These findings were reinforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s $29 million, six-year study of fracking’s effect on groundwater sources, which failed to find any systemic impact from the 110,000 oil and natural gas wells in operation using fracking across the country since 2011.
Methane Levels Declined
After collecting 180 samples from more than two-dozen wells in Belmont, Carroll, Columbiana, Harrison, and Stark Counties in eastern Ohio from 2012 to 2015, the UC researchers found “no relationship between [methane] concentration or source in groundwater and proximity to active gas well sites.”
“These data indicate that high levels of biogenic [methane] can be present in groundwater wells independent of hydraulic fracturing activity,” the authors write. “Contrary to our hypothesis, we did not see an increase in [methane] concentration or change in isotopic composition of [methane] in groundwater in regularly monitored wells over the study period … despite a large increase in the number of producing shale gas wells in our study area.”
In a surprise to the researchers, the evidence showed a modest decline in well-water methane levels during the period of the study. “In fact, we saw a decrease in [methane] concentration in some of our regularly monitored wells, although the number of samples in our time series is relatively small,” the scientists wrote.
“The low numbers of significant correlations indicate there may be natural variability in concentrations of biogenic [methane] in groundwater in our study area (contrary to our expectation),” the UC scientists conclude.
Disappointed by Good News
The study was funded by environmentalist foundations: the David & Sara Weston Foundation and the Deer Creek Foundation. According to the authors, the results failed to meet their own and their funders’ expectations. The authors had originally hypothesized fracking was contaminating groundwater in the Utica Shale region.
“I’m really sad to say this, but some of our funders, the groups that had given us funding in the past, were a little disappointed in our results,” various news outlets reported lead researcher Amy Townsend-Small saying at a meeting of Carroll Concerned Citizens, a local group opposed to fracking, shortly after releasing the study’s results. “They feel that fracking is scary, and so they were hoping our data could point to a reason to ban it.”
‘Safe for Our Water’
Fracking is safe, says Isaac Orr, a policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.
“The final publication of this data is good for the University of Cincinnati and good for science in general,” said Orr. “Hypotheses must be tested against real-world data, and if the data do not support a given hypothesis, that’s important to know.
“Fracking is no longer a brand-new technology; we know it is safe for our water,” Orr said.
Jordan McGillis, a policy analyst at the Institute for Energy Research, says the UC study reinforces abundant previous research that found fracking is safe.
“The data have once again shown hydraulic fracturing is a safe practice,” said McGillis. “Findings such as those made in the University of Cincinnati study are reassuring as our electricity sector continues its shift to natural gas, especially in an environment which may incentivize more alarming findings.”
Timothy Benson ([email protected]) is a policy analyst with The Heartland Institute.
Timothy Benson, “Research & Commentary: Peer-Reviewed Study of Fracking in Ohio Is Latest to Show No Groundwater Contamination,” The Heartland Institute, May 16, 2018: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/research–commentary-peer-reviewed-study-of-fracking-in-ohio-is-latest-to-show-no-groundwater-contamination