Journalism in the Public Interest

Gas Drilling Companies Hold Data Needed by Researchers to Assess Risk to Water Quality

Drilling companies complain that a recent study that linked methane in water wells to gas drilling lacked critical data. Now it turns out that the industry has been collecting that type of data for years but hasn’t made it public.


Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica

For years the natural gas drilling industry has decried the lack of data that could prove—or disprove—that drilling can cause drinking water contamination. Only baseline data, they said, could show without a doubt that water was clean before drilling began.

The absence of baseline data was one of the most serious criticisms leveled at a group of Duke researchers last week when they published the first peer-reviewed study linking drilling to methane contamination in water supplies.

That study—which found that methane concentrations in drinking water increased dramatically with proximity to gas wells—contained “no baseline information whatsoever,” wrote Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the industry group Energy in Depth, in a statement debunking the study.

Now it turns out that some of that data does exist. It just wasn’t available to the Duke researchers, or to the public.

Ever since high-profile water contamination cases were linked to drilling in Dimock, Pa., in late 2008, drilling companies themselves have been diligently collecting water samples from private wells before they drill, according to several industry consultants who have been working with the data. While Pennsylvania regulations now suggest pre-testing water wells within 1,000 feet of a planned gas well, companies including Chesapeake Energy, Shell and Atlas have been compiling samples from a much larger radius—up to 4,000 feet from every well. The result is one of the largest collections of pre-drilling water samples in the country.

“The industry is sitting on hundreds of thousands of pre and post drilling data sets,” said Robert Jackson, one of the Duke scientists who authored the study, published May 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jackson relied on 68 samples for his study. “I asked them for the data and they wouldn’t share it.”

The water tests could help settle the contentious debate over the environmental risks of drilling, particularly the invasive part of the process called hydraulic fracturing, where millions of gallons of toxic chemicals and water are pumped underground to fracture rock. Residents from Wyoming to Pennsylvania fear that the chemicals will seep into aquifers and pollute water supplies, and in some cases they complain it already has. But the lack of scientific research on the issue—including a dearth of baseline water samples—has hindered efforts by government and regulators to understand the risks.

The industry has two reasons to collect the data: to get to the bottom of water contamination problems, and to protect itself when people complain that drilling harmed their drinking water.

“Unless you have the baseline before the analysis you can argue until the sky turns green,” said Anthony Gorody, a geochemist who often works for the energy industry. “The only real way to address this without anybody bitching and moaning is by doing this before and after.”

Chesapeake Energy alone has tested thousands of private water supplies in the Marcellus Shale, and the company says its findings demonstrate that much of the water was contaminated before drilling began.

“Water quality testing ... has shown numerous issues with local groundwater,” wrote the company’s spokesman, Jim Gipson, in an email to ProPublica. “One out of four water sources have detectable levels of methane present ... and about one in four fail one or more EPA drinking water standards.”

Gipson declined to elaborate on the findings or share Chesapeake’s test results, making it difficult to verify whether the companies had, indeed, found the water was contaminated before drilling began. But he did note that Pennsylvania does not regulate water quality in private wells and that water sampling is typically not done by homeowners.

“This fact substantially explains why many of these pre-existing issues have not been previously identified or resolved by landowners,” he wrote.

It is also unclear whether Pennsylvania state environment officials—who declined to answer questions for this story—have been allowed to review the industry data or are using it when they investigate drilling accidents in the state.

That leaves open questions about who will see the water data, whether it has been verified by independent labs and how it might be useful in the public debate. The Environmental Protection Agency’s study of hydraulic fracturing is due to be completed next year, and the Department of Energy recently appointed a review panel to assess the risks of drilling.

Energy in Depth’s Tucker and others expect the industry will eventually make its data public.

“There has been talk about releasing it and putting it in the public domain,” said Fred Baldassare, a former Pennsylvania environment official and expert on underground gas migration who now consults for the industry. Baldassare said the drilling companies were concerned that releasing water test results could affect property values for residents and amounted to a violation of their privacy. “How do you identify these points while maintaining some confidentiality?”

Jackson said the data should be made available now to independent researchers and to agencies investigating the hydraulic fracturing process. But even without the data, he stands behind his study. The Duke report said that the link between drilling activity and water degradation was clear and said the contaminants could be migrating through manmade underground fractures or, more likely, were coming from cracks in the well structure itself. The researchers said the wells they analyzed had been hydraulically fractured, but that more study of that process was needed to understand whether fracturing might be causing the contamination. No indicators of fracturing fluids were found in the samples.

Jackson likened the questions about drilling risk to those about the link between smoking and lung cancer.

“In an ideal study you follow people through their lives. You take measurements on them in their lungs as they start smoking and as you grow old. That’s what you need to prove cause and effect,” he said. “But instead they asked: ‘If you smoke, did you get lung cancer?’ That doesn’t prove that smoking is the cause, but it’s a pretty good step.

“That’s all we did here. If you live near a gas well are you more likely to have methane contamination? That answer is yes. It’s not proof, but it’s a good first step.”

A couple of points.

If Jackson’s study sampled wells at random, then it might indicate an issue with drilling related to hydraulic fracturing and methane contamination in groundwater. If however as I suspect, Jackson’s study sampled wells with known problems it tells us nothing we didn’t already know before: leaky wells leak methane.

There is at least one contamination case where baseline data was available, Bainbridge Township Ohio. And what did that tell us? Well, for one, it confirmed that even a well with a casing failure didn’t experience any loss of containment of drilling fluids … which is what the Duke study concluded as well. I know this sort of undercuts the main argument of so many of your stories “drilling fluids are contaminating groundwater” but it might be nice if you acknowledged this most salient fact from time to time.

I don’t know whether fracking activities are affecting groundwater or not.  But it seems obvious to me that companies place their gas wells as close as possible to where the gas is naturally found.  So the fact that there is more methane in the water wells located nearer to gas wells seems like it could equally arise from the fact that the gas is already naturally there. Again, baseline levels would help here.

Gentlemen…the methane is murder on the ozone but it"s the water used and the water contaminated…we are going to lose our “North”, you are going to lose the “Eastern Seaboard!!

Seems to me that a state could require that its DEC collect the baseline data itself before a drilling permit issued. It would also allow the state to issue a fine based on the magnitude of the contamination.

Much as industry groups, such as the Marcellus Shale Coalition, would like to detract from Duke’s conclusions, the science is there, and it’s the “good” kind. They gleefully point to one of the study’s conclusions, that no fracture fluids were found in the 68 wells tested. Okay, so fracking may only be indirectly directly to blame, but it’s now safe to say that while methane migration can occur naturally, industrial gas drilling activities have certainly precipitated far more instances, like 17 times more. After all the accidents we’ve seen so far, groundwater pollution from gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale has moved up to the front burner. In that sense, the Duke study is a complete success.

Lee: The gas found in drinking water wells near gas drilling in the Duke study was thermogenic, not shallow, biogenic gas. If thermogenic gas is leaking up “naturally” from the depths of the Earth, that would indicate that there are pathways between those deep gas deposits and the drinking water—something the gas industry vehemently denies whenever they tout the supposed safety of shale gas extraction. No matter where the gas is coming from, the Duke study found it present in levels high enough to present a serious safety hazard.

An article in today’s (5-17-2011) Scranton Times-Tribune reports that the PA DEP has found gas channeling between layers of cemented casing in 22 of Cabot’s gas wells in Dimock, PA (Susquehanna County). In addition, another 3 gas wells in Dimock had previously been found defective by the PA DEP, so that’s a total of 25 defective Cabot gas wells in the Dimock area alone. A second article in that same newspaper reports that Chesapeake has been fined $1 million for contaminating 16 families’ drinking water wells with methane in Bradford County, PA. Different county, different gas company, same result.

Charles Gerlach

May 17, 2011, 8:49 p.m.

If the gas industry is so sure that drilling in the marcellus shale,for gas is so safe and profitable for all , they should be agreeable to pay us the fair market value for our property after they contaminate our water supply.  Not install a water buffalo in our yards indefinitely.
                      Charlie,  Bradford county,PA

Thanks, Mary.  I hadn’t seen that and it is an important point.  Very happy to see interesting and well-reasoned comments.  So often the commenting on stories turns into insult-throwing.

There are several instances of natural gas AND brine contamination of water wells near gas drilling operations which occurred in the early to mid-2000’s in Chautauqua County, New York.  Through a memorandum of understanding, the details have been available to the DEC for years, but our regulators seem intent on ignoring them.  Apparently, they think it’s more important to portray the image of good regulation than to acknowledge the damage that’s occurred on their watch.

Abrahm, a small factual misstatement may require correction. I believe the EPA study is scheduled for completion in 2014 with a preliminary report out next year. Yes/No?

I wonder if this quote from Dr. Jackson might give companies reason to be reticent about sharing their water sampling datasets with him?

“Instead of just safer, though, we would like to see shale gas become largely unnecessary, along with coal and oil. The faster we develop and adopt renewable energy technologies, the less we will have to worry about whether it’s safe for people to drink their water. We should all be able to raise our glasses to that.”

So here he writes and publishes an Op/Ed piece saying he doesn’t care whether it’s safe or not, he wishes these companies would be destroyed regardless.  Then he wants them to cooperate with him?

I thought Professors were supposed to be smart?  :-)  Aww.. I’m just kidding but seriously, that’s not the brightest strategy for getting these companies to cooperate, is it?

Also ...

Mary Sweeney says:

“Lee: The gas found in drinking water wells near gas drilling in the Duke study was thermogenic, not shallow, biogenic gas. If thermogenic gas is leaking up “naturally” from the depths of the Earth, that would indicate that there are pathways between those deep gas deposits and the drinking water—something the gas industry vehemently denies whenever they tout the supposed safety of shale gas extraction. “

Pretty close, but not exactly.  In fact almost all the samples had thermogenic methane in them.  The ones near current gas wells simply had more.  And also it should be noted that because the gas is thermogenic does not mean it came from the Marcellus, the target formation for hydraulic fracturing.  There are other, shallower gas bearing formations that contain thermogenic gas.  Shallower than the Marcellus, but still deep enough (say 1,000-3,000 feet) to have the thermogenic signature.

Also another thing I find striking about the debate on this issue is the way these aquifers seem to be pictured as only receiving these gases vertically, as though the water around each well just sits there like a container waiting to receive something from below.  No, aquifers often have gradients and flows within them, horizontally (or near so).  The methane concentrations need to be mapped using a much larger sample size that is gridded and/or randomized and measured regularly over time to see if there is a plume of this contamination in the areas with high concentration coming from a point source of some kind.

WAIT a minute .. !  I just realized something…

Dr. Jackson has not released HIS data .. the dataset acquired for this most recent Duke U. paper has not been made available.  I’ve personally written him 4 times asking for it (I’m a geologist, and I’ve done environmental/water quality and compliance work), but he has yet to release it, as far as I know.  If I’m wrong point me to the data because I’ve been wanting to map it and play with it. 

So how about it, Dr. Jackson?  If you want others to make their data public, shouldn’t you go ahead and make yours public first?  Wouldn’t that show sincerity, good faith and consistency on your part?

Chris you forgot to include the paragraph before. Taking it out of context like that is dangerous and is a large cause of the hostility surrounding this issue. I have included it.

“We’ll likely be using shale gas for some time, and the problems we’ve highlighted can probably be solved. It would be inaccurate and unfair to say our study proves that fracking should be banned.

Instead of just safer, though, we would like to see shale gas become largely unnecessary, along with coal and oil. The faster we develop and adopt renewable energy technologies, the less we will have to worry about whether it’s safe for people to drink their water. We should all be able to raise our glasses to that.”

They clearly understand the limitations of the study as well as the need for the gas. They also admit that the problems with gas production could be solved in time.

What they are also saying is that if the US actually decides to stop using the same energy sources that we have been using since to 70’s we would all be better for it. I happen to be an engineer that works with both the clean energy industries as well as the coal industry. I agree that it would be better for everyone if we were to bring our energy sources into the 21st century. There are research and products out there it is just a matter of getting them available to the public.

Andrew, Shale Gas has been already deemed “inevitable” in Pennsylvania, though I am not sure by whose authority. It’s the same old, ugly fossil fuel story all over again, and nothing that is happening in Harrisburg indicates that gas will being as a bridge fuel to renewable alternatives. The discussion here is over impact fees and taxation. Not one public official has even mentioned investment in wind, solar or hydro, all of which are we have. There are no visionaries in this debate.
p.s.  An unquenchable, decades-old coal fire still burns deep beneath central Pennsylvania - a toxic, hellish remnant of an energy boom past.

The problem is no one trusts private corporations to do the right things when it comes to protecting the environment or human life or the right to know so we can protect ourselves.  Nor do we trust our elected officials since they can be bought and controlled through campaign contributions and lobbying.  It has become very hard to judge and understand the rules and regulations needed to control this process since knowledge of the process is secret.  We do not know: how to nondestructively test and monitor the wells, what to do with the waste water and if it can be recycled, how to capture the released methane, what to do with the released radon gas, what chemicals are involved and if they are being storied in a safe and secure manner.  New York State should issue no further permits until these questions can be answered and the Hudson Valley, Delaware River and the Finger Lake Region should always be out of bounds.


Been watching the Oil Patch for 41 years (Original member of Enviroment Canada 1970)...caught an Oil Co. spy in our Records Unit the first year…watched the” Internationals” move the decimal point for acceptable Mercury levels one digit to the left(1974)...dioxin which is up for re-regulation finally, was discovered by a fisher (CWS fish biologist) not a Chemical Company…Halliburton had to be supoenaed for their fracking cocktail, this stuff, deep in the earth, is a ticking time bomb, 10 years, 20 years or tomorow?

The methane will make you sick but the huge amount of water needed, used and polluted…even the Scientists are afraid to make estimate!!

Andrew, I left a post here two days ago saying you were right and fair in pointing that out.  I also put in links to the current Stanford study showing at least one possible way the world could get to all renewables by 2050. Plus a link to a recording of a radio show where the Stanford guy was a guest.  I guess ProPublica didnt like the links or something, because they apparently censored the post, which was an innocuous one actually.  I just wanted to drop back by and say that, and also to continue to push for the release of this study data.  It’s really not fair of Duke not to make it available.  I’ve been playing around with publicly available data in the interim, and it’s caused me to realize how densely packed people are up there and how a lot of times they’re right next to a noisy 24/7 construction site during drilling.  And it’s made me realize how many water wells there are up there and how close together they all are.  Over 7,000 water wells in Susquehanna Co. alone (where DImock is).  It’s also made me realize that it’s public information as to who is near drilling and wells and who is not (if anyone cares to look) so there isn’t much reason to withhold the data.  I know that tobacco and electricity family gave an endowment so I guess they can argue that the study was privately funded and they don’t have to give out the data they acquired, but still, that seems a stretch.  It’s in the public’s interest for more people to study this stuff and find out more, even if it’s only for their own enjoyment to do so.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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