Posted May 11, 2011
Three weaknesses stand out in the new Duke University study of methane in water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania - research that focuses on the hydraulic fracturing process used to free natural gas and oil from subterranean rock, which has been done for more than 60 years.
First: Levels of methane that researchers claim to have found in water near hydraulically fractured natural gas wells probably aren't a health risk. Even lead author Stephen G. Osborn notes that "dissolved methane in drinking water is not currently classified as a health hazard for ingestion."
Studies show methane evaporates quickly and is rapidly eliminated from the body. Although methane in closed spaces can be risky, the levels described in the study appear to be well below danger thresholds. The fact is Pennsylvania's geology makes methane migration relatively common there.
Second: The Duke study suffers for a lack of baseline data. Most critical: The authors don't have hard data to show how much methane surfaces on its own in northeastern Pennsylvania. They cite "historical sources" but don't say how far back those sources go or exactly what the sources are. Most of their baseline data points are listed as "N/A," which doesn't help the study's integrity.
Here's an important baseline: Without more data it's impossible to distinguish between methane emitted naturally and/or from coal mining and methane released by fracturing. As John Hanger, the state's former Department of Environmental Protection secretary blogged, "Gas migration has been a problem in Pennsylvania for decades, well before the first Marcellus well was drilled in 2005."
Third: The Duke study doesn't attribute the methane to hydraulic fracturing itself but ostensibly to leaky well casings - though it's hard to say because of inconclusive data.
The energy industry recognizes that well construction is key to community safety. That's why API members have developed five documents that specifically and proactively address well construction and environmental protection practices during hydraulic fracturing. Two of them - RP 51R, Environmental Protection for Onshore Oil and Gas Operations, and RP 65-Part 2, Isolating Potential Flow Zones During Well Construction - were created through API's internationally respected standards process. Both documents can be viewed for free (but are not available for downloading or printing) by following this link: http://publications.api.org.
API is confident hydraulic fracturing can be conducted safely. Like the Duke study's authors, API recommends that companies do additional baseline work - not because fracturing is dangerous, but to help communities' comfort levels with the technique."We invite anyone with questions on hydraulic fracturing to visit our website for publically available guidance and background on the issue," said Erik Milito, API's director of upstream and industry operations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.