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.
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.
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.