Research & Commentary: New Peer-Reviewed Study Confirms Safety of Hydraulic Fracturing in Texas

Published October 2, 2018

A new peer-reviewed study revealed that there is no link between methane in groundwater and natural gas production in Texas’ Barnett Shale region. The study was published in the academic journal Water Resources Research in August 2018. Most of the natural gas produced in the Barnett region is the result of hydraulic fracturing processes, commonly called “fracking.”

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin conducted samples from more than 450 water wells across 12 Texas counties, and concluded that the methane detected in their samples was naturally occurring. This is the fifth, and last, in a series of studies of the Barnett Shale region by this group of researchers. Their research supports a 2014 Texas Railroad Commission investigation that also concluded methane in water wells was naturally occurring.

“After four years of studies, scientists have found no link between methane present in water wells outside of Fort Worth and nearby gas production activities in the Barnett Shale,” a press release accompanying the study noted. “The methane appears to have migrated naturally to the wells from the shallower Strawn [Group geological] formations and not from the Barnett Shale, where natural gas production and hydraulic fracturing are occurring.”

“Researchers looked at the levels of nitrogen, which, in addition to being found in natural gas deposits, is found in the atmosphere and added to groundwater when it is recharged by rainfall,” the authors noted. “They found that the stray methane gas in the water wells had higher levels of nitrogen than found in the Barnett Shale, with levels being more typical of the levels measured in the Strawn Group. The findings are consistent with the other four studies.” 

“The most likely scenario we envision for affected groundwater wells is localized transport of natural gas from the Strawn Group to the shallow groundwater aquifer that occurred during groundwater well drilling,” the authors stated. “Alternatively, isolated shallow natural gas reservoirs within the Strawn Group may be in contact with groundwater aquifers within the Trinity Group along the unconformable contact these rock units share.… These results suggest that hydraulic fracturing has not affected shallow groundwater drinking sources in this area.”

The existing peer-reviewed evidence clearly shows hydraulic fracturing processes do not impose a systemic impact on groundwater. The Texas study is the fourth peer-reviewed study of 2018 to conclude that fracking is not contaminating groundwater sources. Since 2010, more than two dozen independent studies have not found any systemic impact caused by the 110,000 oil and natural gas wells in operation across the country since 2011. Moreover, these studies are affirmed by the Environmental Protection Agency’s own $29 million, six-year study of fracking’s benign impact on groundwater sources.

Hydraulic fracturing has enabled access and production of cost-effective and abundant energy sources. Furthermore, fracking can ensure that the United States remains the world’s largest energy producer well beyond the twenty-first century. Policymakers should not place unnecessary and harmful regulatory burdens on industries such as the natural gas and oil industries, which are safe, responsible, and have had a positive impact on the economy at the macro and micro levels.

The following documents provide more information about hydraulic fracturing.

The Local Economic and Welfare Consequences of Hydraulic Fracturing
This comprehensive study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research says fracking brings, on average, $1,300 to $1,900 in annual benefits to local households, including a 7 percent increase in average income, a 10 percent increase in employment, and a 6 percent increase in housing prices.

Local Fiscal Effects of a Drilling Downturn: Local Government Impacts of Decreased Oil and Gas Activity in Five U.S. Shale Regions
This study from Resources for the Future finds 82 percent of communities in the five largest shale regions in the United States experienced a net fiscal benefit from hydraulic fracturing despite there having been a large drop in oil and natural gas commodity prices starting in 2014.

Impacts of the Natural Gas and Oil Industry on the U.S. Economy in 2015
This study, conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, shows that the natural gas and oil industry supported 10.3 million U.S. jobs in 2015. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage paid by the natural gas and oil industry, excluding retail station jobs, was $101,181 in 2016, which is nearly 90 percent more than the national average. The study also shows the natural gas and oil industry has had widespread impacts in each of the 50 states.

The Social Benefits of Fossil Fuels
This Heartland Policy Brief by Joseph Bast and Peter Ferrara documents the many benefits from the historic and still ongoing use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are lifting billions of people out of poverty, reducing all the negative effects of poverty on human health, and vastly improving human well-being and safety by powering labor-saving and life-protecting technologies, such as air conditioning, modern medicine, and cars and trucks. They are dramatically increasing the quantity of food humans produce and improving the reliability of the food supply, directly benefiting human health. Further, fossil fuel emissions are possibly contributing to a “Greening of the Earth,” benefiting all the plants and wildlife on the planet.

Ten State Solutions to Emerging Issues
This Heartland Institute booklet explores solutions to the top public policy issues facing the states in 2018 and beyond in the areas of budget and taxes, education, energy and environment, health care, and constitutional reform. The solutions identified are proven reform ideas that have garnered significant support among the states and with legislators.

What If … Hydraulic Fracturing Was Banned?
This study is the fourth in a series of studies produced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. It examines what a nationwide ban on hydraulic fracturing would entail. The report’s authors found by 2022, a ban would cause 14.8 million jobs to “evaporate,” almost double gasoline and electricity prices, and increase natural gas prices by 400 percent. Moreover, cost of living expenses would increase by nearly $4,000 per family, household incomes would be reduced by $873 billion, and GDP would be reduced by $1.6 trillion.

What If … America’s Energy Renaissance Never Happened?
This report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy examines the impact the development of shale oil and gas has had on the United States. The report’s authors found that without the fracking-related “energy renaissance,” 4.3 million jobs in the United States may not have ever been created and $548 billion in annual GDP would have been lost since 2009. The report also found electricity prices would be 31 percent higher and gasoline prices 43 percent higher.

Bill McKibben’s Terrifying Disregard for Fracking Facts
This Heartland Institute Policy Study, written by Research Fellow Isaac Orr, examines how methane emissions are measured, reports the effect those emissions may have on global warming, and discusses several falsehoods journalist Bill McKibben repeats from the discredited movie Gasland. It also evaluates the available fracking alternatives and discusses the relatively small impact new methane-emissions rules enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency will likely have on Earth’s climate.

Compendium of Studies Demonstrating the Safety and Health Benefits of Fracking
This compendium from Energy in Depth features data from 23 peer-reviewed studies, 17 government health and regulatory agencies, and reports from 10 research institutions that demonstrate fracking is linked to numerous health benefits.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Environment & Climate News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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