Posted July 10, 2012
Where to begin in a review of Pro Publica’s article on new research into the migration of subterranean brine to shallow water above? The inflammatory, overreaching headline? The leap from Duke University’s study to conclusions suggesting to the public that hydraulic fracturing is polluting drinking water?
Let’s start there. On that point the article is self-rebutting. See the fourth paragraph:
"No drilling chemicals were detected in the (shallow) water, and there was no correlation between where the natural brine was detected and where drilling takes place."
Then, near the end of the article:
"Nevertheless, (Robert) Jackson, one of the study's authors, said he still considers it unlikely that frack fluids and injected man-made waste are migrating into drinking water supplies. If that were happening, those contaminants would be more likely to appear in his groundwater samples, he said. His group is continuing its research into how the natural brine might have travelled, and how long it took to rise to the surface. 'There is a real time uncertainty,' he said. 'We don't know if this happens over a couple of years, or over millennia.'"
As for the study itself, Jackson and his team say they found that naturally occurring brine migrates upward to shallower depths. They say the risk of the migration could be greater in areas that have undergone hydraulic fracturing. Yet, there’s this from the study’s introductory summary:
“The occurrences of saline water do not correlate with the location of shale-gas wells and are consistent with reported data before rapid shale-gas development in the region …”
Energy In Depth has solid analysis on the study, here. Highlights:
- The study fails (as Jackson notes above) to establish whether the migration occurs over 10 years or 10 million years. Without that, it’s impossible to determine whether the phenomenon is cause for concern.
- If brine is traveling up from thousands of feet below the surface, why haven’t the pathways Duke’s researchers identify allowed natural gas in the Marcellus region to leak out and disappear over time?
- There’s no discussion of whether the Marcellus Shale – which is largely a dry region with “virtually no free water,” according to Penn State’s Terry Engelder – even contains enough brinewater to leak.
Engelder, a Marcellus expert who was asked by the researchers to review their work, notes a number of questions the study leaves unanswered, reducing its usefulness. He writes:
"My review is predicated on the objective of your paper which is stated as a search for '...specific areas of shale-gas development in northeastern Pennsylvania that are at increased risk for contamination of shallow drinking water resources with deeper formation brines...' (the last sentence of your abstract). The term, risk, suggests that your paper veers from a conventional geology paper and enters into the realm of science-based advocacy or if you like, science policy."
Engelder is on target there. Unfortunately, the academics, wittingly or unwittingly, produced a study that is easily morphed into a siren call by opponents of natural gas production. Pro Publica’s article is Exhibit A. Exhibit B is a Bloomberg News story under this headline: “Pennsylvania Fracking Can Put Water at Risk, Study Finds” – despite the fact the study found no evidence of such a risk.
Words like “can,” “may” and “might” camouflage the point that the study didn’t find a correlation between the location of shale-gas wells and occurrences of saline water. To suggest otherwise in a news article is disingenuous and counterproductive in the national discussion of energy from shale.
As Engelder notes, the study is a platform from which advocates can mislead. On this story, The Associated Press got it right, focusing its report on what the study showed: “Gas drilling in northeastern Pennsylvania did not contaminate nearby drinking water wells with salty water, which is a byproduct of the drilling.”
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.