New Waves November 2011

Breaking news about water resources research and education in Texas

UT hydraulic fracturing study: so far no direct link to groundwater contamination

Preliminary findings on the use of hydraulic fracturing in shale gas development suggest no direct link to reports of groundwater contamination, according to the project leader for a study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute.

“From what we’ve seen so far, many of the problems appear to be related to other aspects of drilling operations, such as poor casing or cement jobs, rather than to hydraulic fracturing, per se,” said Dr. Charles ‘Chip’ Groat, a geology professor and Energy Institute associate director, who is leading the project.

Groat provided initial observations from the study, which the Energy Institute is funding, at a Nov. 9 briefing in Fort Worth attended by local government officials, regulators, energy company executives, representatives of community groups and others.

The Energy Institute’s final report, expected to be issued early next year, will include an analysis of reports of groundwater contamination ascribed to hydraulic fracturing within North Texas’ Barnett Shale, as well as the Haynesville Shale in East Texas and Northwest Louisiana, and the Marcellus Shale, which includes portions of New York, Pennsylvania and several Appalachian states.

“What we’re trying to do is separate fact from fiction,” Groat said.

The Energy Institute team includes experts from the university’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, Bureau of Economic Geology, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, School of Law and College of Communication. Representatives of the Environmental Defense Fund will review and comment on any recommendations included in the final report prior to its publication. A peer group also will review the team’s findings.

“Our goal is to inject science into what has become an emotional debate and provide policymakers a foundation to develop sound rules and regulations,” Groat said.

Hydraulic fracturing involves the high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals into a shale seam, which causes the rock to shatter, releasing natural gas. The process is conducted after a well bore has been drilled and lined with concrete to prevent interaction between the deep, gas-bearing shale and shallow freshwater aquifers.

Other preliminary findings from the study:

  • Many allegations of groundwater contamination appear to be related to above-ground spills or other mishandling of wastewater produced from shale gas drilling, rather than from hydraulic fracturing itself.
  • The lack of baseline studies in areas of shale gas development makes it difficult to evaluate the long-term, cumulative effects and risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. Groat said researchers could recommend additional baseline studies, depending on final evaluation of data yet to be compiled.
  • Although some states have been proactive in overseeing shale gas development, most regulations were written before the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing.
  • Media coverage of hydraulic fracturing is decidedly negative, and few news reports mention scientific research of the practice.

For more information, see the entire UT news release.

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