Fracturing ‘has no direct’ link to water pollution, UT study finds


By Vicki Vaughan, San Antonio Express-News

Hydraulic fracturing in shale formations “has no direct connection” to groundwater contamination, a study released Thursday concluded.

The study, conducted by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, found that many problems attributed to hydraulic fracturing “are related to processes common to all oil and gas drilling operations,” such as drilling pipe inadequately cased in concrete.

Many reports of contamination can be traced to above-ground spills or other mishandling of wastewater produced from shale drilling and not from hydraulic fracturing, Charles “Chip” Groat, an Energy Institute associate director who led the project, said in a statement.

“These problems are not unique to hydraulic fracturing,” Groat said. In hydraulic fracturing, a mix of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into a well under high pressure to help release natural gas and oil from shale rock.

The study was hailed by the energy industry, which long has said there’s no direct link between hydraulic fracturing and contamination of groundwater. But industry critics said the study should be vetted by independent experts. And critics were heartened that the study noted some aspects of drilling can lead to groundwater contamination.

Industry pleased

The institute’s research team looked at reports of groundwater contamination in three shale plays: the Barnett Shale in North Texas; the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, New York and parts of Appalachia; and the Haynesville Shale in western Louisiana and northeast Texas.

Justin Furnace, president of the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, said the study “echoes what we as an association have been saying: The process is very safe and has been in place for 60 years.”

Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, said he hasn’t seen the study, but “the fact of the matter is there has not been one contaminated well from the hydraulic fracturing process, not one.”

“It’s been over 50 years this thing has been going on, and there hasn’t been one documented case. This study seems to say just exactly what the record has said, basically it’s human error or something that’s common to all drilling operations,” he said.

The UT Energy Institute’s report stands in contrast to a draft report released in December from the Environmental Protection Agency, which said its examination of a hydraulic fracturing site in Pavillion, Wyo., found fracturing fluids and chemicals associated with natural gas production in deep water wells.

Critics of the Energy Institute study were skeptical and cited the EPA study.

“We need to know more about the study,” said Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger of Cuero, who has organized community meetings in DeWitt County because she’s concerned about hydraulic fracturing.

“It’s difficult for researchers to be objective if their university receives a lot of grants and funds from the industry,” she said. “How many grants does that university get from oil and gas operations?”

Energy Institute spokesman Gary Rasp said no industry funds paid for the study, and that money for the study “comes from the University directly. That’s all kinds of different sources.”

The study was authored by an interdisciplinary team of experts, he said.

Rasp noted that the Environmental Defense Fund helped develop the scope of work and methodology for the study.

‘Significant’ risk

Scott Anderson of the Austin office of the EDF wrote in a blog that although the study didn’t confirm any cases of drinking water contamination caused by fracking, that “does not mean such contamination is impossible or that hydraulic fracturing chemicals can’t get loose in the environment in other ways (such as through spills of produced water).”

The study mentions there are ways “natural gas development that can pose significant environmental risk,” he wrote.

The report said, for example, that surface spills in gas development pose greater risks to groundwater than hydraulic fracturing, and that there are gaps in the regulation of well casing (pipe), water disposal and storage.

Puneet Kollipara in Washington contributed to this report.

Categories: General
Vicki Vaughan

43 Responses

  1. jw says:

    So let me see if i understand this article. 1. the company admits putting chemicals in the wells. 2. then the company says when the same chemicals show up as pollutants, that they didn’t do it. 3. Then the same university that sold it’s athletic program to ESPN, says that it can summarize a truthful harmless judgement of their states dominant industry. 4. ahhh pardon me if I laugh at this stupid article that flys in the the face of common sense. first, don’t make a mess. second, if you make a mess clean it up 100%. third, if you can’t clean it up 100% then find a new way to conduct your business, don’t make someone else catch you and shine the light on your dirty greedy practices. fouth, we want renewable clean energy now and if you want provide it we will get it without you.

  2. s3 says:

    But back to the study: this really is a sneaky study, of course, because it doesn’t include the processing of fracking water as part of “fracking” (and they admit this).

    Due to the extremely high water requirements, to correctly process this water would -at the very least- require huge numbers of water processing plants running continuously and trucks hauling toxic waste non-stop out to very specific types of landfills in who knows where (although this will probably not be an issue in Texas). And that example would just be for one single fracking operation.

    UT is garbage. They have at least ten billion reasons to produce “studies” like this, and other schools have almost no such reasons to contradict them, or are perhaps paid to suppress criticism. This worthless story even made the front page of the paper Chron today, with a sensationalist headline that made certain things all too obvious.

  3. s3 says:

    Actually, he burden of proof isn’t on the actual owners of the land to establish a water quality baseline. This is because the “surface owners” usually don’t want their land to be fracked. That’s the whole point of fracking — to (illegally) go in sideways to get at gas on land that you don’t own!

  4. Alamo says:

    To have the UT-Austin researchers study the serious questions surrounding the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process is noteworthy and useful.

    Their conclusion is also not especially surprising to those who have even a passing knowledge of well drilling technology. A successful drilling result always is dependent on the quality of the well casing and cementing process. A well must be cased and cemented properly to acheive any kind of success pure and simple. There are very precise logging instruments that provide that very information–and tell you if that operation has been done correctly.

    When it has, you effectively re-establish the protection that nature has provided in isolating potable water bearing formations and that is generally some 5,000′ or more of rock encasement.

    Other commenters suggested: that UT-Austin was in some way biased toward the oil and gas industry due the petroleum-related endowment and industry related grants, etc. which there certainly could be, but if any peer reviewed research can demonstrate that “perceived bias”, let’s have it. Remember, many of those who are critical of the report are “also paid” to disagree with it and –find fault, etc with the UT-Austin research. Those UT people know full well that a crony/junk science whitewash of hydraulic fracking will not get them or their University very far. Over the past 50-60 years, more than 1,000,000 wells have been fracked–successfully. That statistic would seem to offer strong evidence that the procedure can be, and is done without damaging the environment.

    When problems arise they have been related almost without exception, to surface spills and not subsurface break downs. It’s absolutely imperative that spillage of any kind on a drilling location be scrupulously avoided and remedied immediately if such should occur.

    Although it is rarely done if the surface owners are concerned with water quality problems, I would reccomend as another commenter suggested, to have your water tested BEFORE drilling commences to insure that you have a water quality base line established in the rare event you suspect that a drilling-related problem has occurred. Water quality professionals are in the business for that exact determination.

    It may sound like propaganda to some, but reputable drilling technology begins with protecting the environment–to operate otherwise is to put yourself out of business real quick and damage this important industry generally.

  5. Trail_Tramp says:

    Yes, but the name of the process comes from the word “fracturing”, which does not have a “k” anywhere in it. The anti-oil protesters like to use “fracking” because of the double-entendre.

  6. Robert F. says:

    They tested no water wells and conducted a literature review only. It is the same procedure that declared hydraulic fracturing a sacred cow in the 2005 Energy bill.

    To date no actual peer reviewed scientific study that looked at all the facts, including cases where the industry paid claims and sealed the evidence under non disclosure agreements has ever occurred.

    The closest thing to that is the EPA Pavilion, WY study and we can all see the cheerleaders reaction to that. They have their stooges in DC like Andy Harris (R)MD falling all over themselves to derail and deride any attempt at investigation.

    Long story short, it appears they don’t want to allow any investigation where they cannot control the outcome. Instead they will all rely on cherry picked facts to protect their sacred cow.

  7. Trail_Tramp says:

    Yes, the name of the process comes from the word “fracturing”, which does not have a “k” anywhere in it. The anti-oil protesters like to use “fracking” because of the double-entendre.

  8. Emmanuel says:

    Why you guys believe what a highly probably Texas Oil founded Organization concluded? Don’t be biased. This fracking gives millions to the industry. Looke alive please…

  9. Reidthis says:

    maybe some folks should put on their tin foil hats – like the anti-fracing group. By the way, it is “fracing”, not “fracking” unless you are ignorant on this issue.

    • Dan X. McGraw says:

      Reidthis, for what it’s worth, many companies, including Chesapeake, have adopted the spelling of fracking. It’s a more widely known spelling than fracing — for better or worse.

  10. Slim Chance says:

    So, we finally admit that a good design for the protective steel casing used on a well and getting a cement job that truly isolates the fresh water from the high pressure formation fluids is a good idea. Great news, finally. Now, let’s watch ‘Big Earl’ scream and kick about having to do a good job.

  11. Adler says:

    Opponents want the report vetted by independent experts. Just who would these independent experts be? No other industry uses hydraulic fracturing, so just where are they hiding?

    As far as the EPA is concerned, their report documents their porcedures and they contain errors that no real drilling engineer would ever make.

  12. HoldThemAccountable says:

    To classify the pollution as human-error is a complete fraud. The decision to pollute is done at the board of directors level, whereby the attorneys advise the board it is cheaper to pollute and run the risk of getting caught, because the fine is less than the cost of doing business correctly. I was at a board meeting and took the minutes. I also then asked an attorney from another large energy company, he confirmed it was standard practice in the industry.

    Need the names of the companies to further investigate, email me and I will send them to you along with the names of the individuals involved. Just remember when you speak out or are concerned about wrong doing, it will cost you your job.

  13. Les says:

    First glaring error in this piece is: “such as drilling pipe inadequately cased in concrete”. Drill pipe is NOT cased in concrete, casing is. I quit reading after this.

  14. TexasDan says:

    Must have caught Gore before he contaminated the test site! Dirty little pig!!

  15. tboy in houston says:

    The 50 million dollar donation to UT showed showed up in the mail … donor “unknown”

  16. Roro says:

    Time to add onto Md Anderson.
    Let’s call it the Frack Building!

  17. Hugh Coleman says:

    The nature of this situation is not complete without some information and normal procedures associated with the handling of water for various uses. One fact that few seem to grasp is the fact that we only drink 1% of the water we process. Our ability to sample water is awesome, the obvious other consideration is the fact that we do not sample every drop. Those that say they do not know what to say about the water in their area need to know they can contact labs learn how to properly take samples, and then learn exactly what is in those samples.

  18. Trail_Tramp says:

    The cement job on the surface casing is the critical barrier. It doesn’t matter if the well is frac’d or not.

  19. Peter Roach says:

    This article shows again the importance of compliance issues. New activity is often in the areas of more errors and less initial compliance.

  20. CAD1936 says:

    I have heard from a very credible source that the profs at UT Corpus were told to stay out of the BP gulf spill. There is too much political pressure in the UT research fields to do their job properly. They MAY be correct here but we just don’t have the evidence to be very judgmental.

    However, the industry’s stonewalling so much of the time is an indication that there is much to find out in this area of science. Let’s hope that, for a change, the industry is having more concern for the environment, their employees and the welfare of the American people.

  21. Scott says:

    So, a reputable research institution puts out real science that isn’t in line with liberal media hysteria….. they must be whistling the oil companies’ tune, right?

  22. scald says:

    DRILL! But do it responsibly.

    Lucille and Realist have it right. Instead of going belligerent, ballistic and hostile toward concerned environmentalists, an intelligent pro-fracking community (looking to reap huge profits for the fat cats as well as the local slim cats) should demand responsibility for the entire region. That is, a local community hoping to profit from the natural gas provided, must also demand a penalty for future damages. How about an escrow fund that would set aside large amounts of money, and humongous penalties in case bad things happen? My guess: today’s planners would have a vested reason to make nice, and more important, enhance our energy resources without gouging me.

    Old fogies like me can remember the massive mining era that enriched a few and employed many, but devastated huge regions of America. The same result is poised to happen in the Marcellus shale region, as well as many other parts of America.

    We need the energy, but it must be developed in a responsible way.

  23. SaltWaterCroc says:

    So it is not fracking per se, but oil and gas drilling in general. Sounds like it all needs to be more tightly regulated.

  24. Reuvil says:

    Good news? They are saying almost all contamination is linked to gas and oil production, period.

    Fracking is just as bad or just a likely a culprit as shale gas harvesting.

    They need to improve and have better quality control in general. But, hey, they don’t have to drink the water where they drill, so do you think the big oil companies will spend more to do the job right… nahhh.

  25. s3 says:

    The title is vaguely propagandistic; read the last sentence to fully comprehend what this “study” found. Now we get to see who is in “better safe than sorry” mode and who’s just chimping at the bit to get after any and every energy source they can delude themselves into getting away with taking.

    And really — who knew UT would support fracking — their endowment depends on it!

  26. Indianpaintbrush says:

    Name one, locked, or are you just making an assumption.

  27. txloanguy says:

    That’ll make the EP and AL Gore madder than hades. Gore says capitalism is unsustainable. Capitalism enables him to fly around making crazy predictions like this one. Fracking doesn’t cause water pollution? Heads will spin around on this one.

  28. outsidelookingin says:

    Just wait until the great and powerful OZ finds out about this.

  29. Otter Patton says:

    Bet the big dummy liar in the oval office will hate UT now. Oh wait…. he hates all things Texas already

  30. locked says:

    Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin.
    Their staff, director and advisors are a bunch of old oil farts that are still neck deep in the industry.

  31. Lucille says:

    This seems like it would be a POSITIVE finding for landowners concerned about their fracked land, and townships concerned about their water supply. The study says that contamination is due to mismanagement, thus giving those whose lands and water have been contaminated a basis to sue for damages.
    Those who sign leases for their land should be careful to point this finding out in the lease and specify that the land and water should be left in measurably non-contaminated condition, and test their land and water before tracking is initiated, for a baseline.

  32. mike says:

    Well I guess that clears it all up.

  33. Ted says:

    Well, Charlie, maybe you need to get off the farm.

  34. Realist says:

    So, all that pollution is just the NORMAL pollution of oil/gas production! Thanks! That’s a relief!

    (Btw: I have no problem with oil and production–hard to run an economy without it! But the cost of extraction, INCLUDING any post extraction clean up, ought to be reflected in the cost of the product. Otherwise, you get a superfund site and the taxpayers are left holding the bag. Go ahead and extract, but clean up after yourselves.)

  35. Charlie says:

    This is like letting the weasel count the chickens.

  36. Steve says:

    KEY: 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.

  37. onevois says:

    good news for hydro fracturing. i hope they keep improving the process though.

  38. lil ol me says:

    wow, actual science. And reported ratehr evenly, too! Careful, Chron, you’ll get labeled a flat earther and denier soon.

  39. luckyone says:

    Science won’t matter to the Obama Regime.

  40. Steve says:

    Who funds the Energy Institute?

  41. JimH says:

    UT really stepped in it. I wonder which group will race to the microphone 1st to accuse the school of being funded by “Big Oil”?

  42. disheviled1 says:

    ” Media coverage of hydraulic fracturing is decidedly negative, and few news reports mention scientific research related to the practice”.
    Does this surprise anyone?