Journalism in the Public Interest

Scientific Study Links Flammable Drinking Water to Fracking

For the first time, a peer-reviewed scientific study has linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire.

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Bart Johnson

May 10, 2011, 12:22 p.m.


About 40,000 wells a year are drilled in the US. If you claim that 5% are leaking, that’s 2,000 per year, year after year. This is several orders of magnitudes higher than the number of demonstrated incidents/cases talked about in things like “Gasland”.

May I ask, what’s the source of your 5% failure rate claim?


May 10, 2011, 12:43 p.m.

Round and round we go on the semantics/denial merry-go-round.  Doesn’t matter which side of the argument you are on, we can all admit that the public is always the last to know of the real cost of any industrial action.  That is the issue here.  That is the problem.  An educated public would be motivated by the facts and likely to push for alternatives.  This is the last thing that industry wants, hence the pushback and misdirection.


May 10, 2011, 1:02 p.m.

I did not say leaking wells; I said wells would have an environmental problem, leaks are just one problem of many and I did not say that many wells would be drilled per year but that is the projected numbers of wells to be drilled in PA
The source is from the PA Department of Environmental Protection

Mary Sweeney

May 10, 2011, 1:48 p.m.

According to the ProPublica article, “The water was also analyzed for signs that dangerous fluids from inside the gas wells might have escaped into water supplies. The group tested for salts, radium and other chemicals that, if detected, would have signaled that the produced water or natural fluids in the well’s target zone were making it to the aquifers. But those types of fluids were not found. The group did not test for fracking chemicals or hydrocarbons like benzene, relying instead on the saline or radioactive compounds like radium as indicators.”

I’m not sure exactly what they tested for, but if they used saline and radioactive compounds as indicators, then wouldn’t that be a test only for fracking fluid that was on its way back up from the shale formation? Did they test to see if fracking fluid on its way down to the shale formation may have entered the water table? When the fracking fluid is on its way down, it has not yet have picked up the salt and radioactive materials from the deeper layers. If there are bad gas well casings, what happens when fracking fluid is forced through the bad casings on its way to the shale formations?

Travis Y

May 10, 2011, 2:21 p.m.

@ David Meiser

Your math is off:

“using the most conservative numbers of 30,000 and a 99.9% safety record it would still mean that 300 wells would have an environmental problem. “

30,000 * .001 = 30

not 300

likewise, 90,000 would be 90, not 900.  Quite manageable I might say


May 10, 2011, 5:11 p.m.

It looks like the industry hacks have been paid to invade the comments. I live in western North Dakota. In the middle of the Bakken formation. It’s turned a quiet, peaceful landscape into an industrial wasteland. Like a giant industrial park.

And they use fracking to get to the oil. More and more reports about environmental destruction. Even if the fracking didn’t contaminate one gallon of water, the whole oil extraction process has destroyed the landscape. It’s a disaster area.

Chris Anti fracking. an actuall fractivist

May 10, 2011, 7:24 p.m.

This study actually says “did not test for fracking chemicals”
the most likely reason is that they don’t know what to test for nor do they want to spend the mony on the equipment, over a million $ to own still high to lease, and brackable.
  So they relied on companion salts and radiation, a method not proven definative. hence the statement ‘“further study requird’.
I just visited catt county ny on saturday and found sent ed gas in two locations just driving by. unsented gas bubbling out of the ground in a puddle on the top of a hill; water buffalo’s just in-sight beside well heads.
  The methan in the water displaces oxygen in the blood. in the absense of oxygen illness occuress. it comes in orally and by skin transmission.
The frack fluids do not have to be in the well water. it may remainin the soil when drilling crews maliciously spread it on farm land. Then they also spill it into rivers and streams also spread on highways.

Jefferson’s “the persuit of happiness” was selected over Locks “property” as an inalionable right. Those who reverse this are unAmerican, and in the case of harm to our nation ‘Trateorous.


May 10, 2011, 9:12 p.m.

Somehow I am left with the impression that the frackers aren’t so frackin’ sure of their frackin’ process that they’re willing to indemnify everybody within a 30 mile radius forevermore…


May 10, 2011, 9:18 p.m.

p.s. if you’re looking for me, my real name is not steve forbes.


May 11, 2011, 7:28 a.m.

TravisY is right on the money. And here is more anecdotal evidence, similar to Thomas Smith’s post, to support what he is saying. It is not the hydrofracking that causes methane leakage into drinking water. Six years ago I had property in Newark Valley, NY. The folks living across from us had to drill their water well very deep to get water and ended up with so much methane in their water that the pressure from the methane would ‘hammer’ their appliances and faucets when using the water. There was no hydrofracking going on there. Just drilling the water well. Methane is part of the natural geology here. I am not employed by gas or oil companies. I own a farm where we raise all our animals on pasture. We use as little energy as possible, generate little waste, use no chemicals. So, don’t try to paint me with the ‘ugly’ brush. We take great pains to care for this good earth. I just don’t believe the bullying and blathering about every facet of natural gas production. I do want to protect my water, my grandchildren, animals and the air. I also want to see the natural gas production proceed, but with care and caution to get us to our next step towards cleaner, more efficient energy usage. I still want my lights to turn on when I flip the switch and need to travel to town to for provisions. Most of us can’t afford the elitist solutions of ‘smart’ cars and solar panels. So, we do our best to keep our energy costs down by recycling as much as possible (including composting and feeding food scraps to animals), heating with wood instead of oil, consolidating trips, buying locally. What is your best, what is your solution?

Brendan Morrison

May 11, 2011, 9:39 a.m.

Finally a scientific study that ties in what was already well known. And it will still take years and more “scientific studies” before anything is done. And the natural gas companies will continue to deny deny deny and lie lie lie because the longer it goes on the more money they will make. Compare that to what they will lose in lawsuits that are dragged out and they will make a huge profit. Everyone affected will take a huge loss. Get the facts

Jerry rubin

May 11, 2011, 3:33 p.m.

The real issue in this story begs the question, how do we get the dwindling supply of energy.

We speak of the National debt destroying the chances of the next generation, or children and possibly their children.  But, forget for a moment about the money.  Where does our energy come from to provide the needs of the following generation, and more importantly, “at what cost”!

If there is no safe water left to drink, no land to farm, no food to eat, we have no environment to live in.  There is NO future for the coming generation.  Not even the wealthy, just like in Europe during the Middle Ages were able to lock themselves in a castle and survive the plague!!!!

Chris Salmon

May 12, 2011, 2:28 p.m.

The more I think about it, the more this study doesn’t actually show anything, due to sampling problems for this tiny 68 sample size. 

First discard their effort to find formation or frac fluid in the samples and compare that to gas well locations, because they didn’t find any of the kinds of these fluids they were looking for in any sample.  Other signatures of frac fluid they didn’t even look for, so discard those, too.

Look at it like this:  they are left with claiming analyze the change one variable (presence of thermogenic natural gas in water wells) has to another variable (production of said thermogenic gas) by the geographic proximity of samples where they will measure amounts of the first variable to the locations of where the second variable occurs.

As far as I can tell from the actual paper, they

- made no effort to randomize, grid or otherwise assure that the sample locations were truly a representative random sample and free from bias that would give false results inapplicable to general population, i.e., any other water in the aquifer.
- made no effort to control the samples for other variables and isolate the variable they were trying to study, and make sure that the sample values used are directly comparable to one another and ONLY show the relationship between thermogenic natural gas concentration to proximity to gas production.  So that the sampled values aren’t reflecting a change due to any other variable than proximity to gas production, and you’re comparing apples to apples.

For instance, if the samples were taken from wells that varied in distance to a gas reservoir containing thermogenic natural gas, then the change in the concentration of this gas among the samples would be influenced by this, and you’d have to eliminate this change from the measurements and isolate ONLY the change due to proximity to gas production in order to see it by itself. 

Yes, the more I think about this, the more likely it seems to me that these study results might be totally worthless.  If they didn’t eliminate bias from the sample locations and control for other variables and only isolate thermogenic gas contentrations vs. distance from gas production, then the conclusions would only apply to this dataset and couldn’t be said to be generally applicable.

If I’m wrong here, someone please point it out, because I’m thinking I’m on the right track here to getting closer to the truth.


May 13, 2011, 9:49 a.m.

Um, a lot of you are missing a major fundamental problem here. In order to Hydrofrack, you have to use MILLIONS OF GALLONS OF DRINKING WATER! That’s per well! Water that, in the long run, can’t be spared and doesn’t get replaced. Never mind the hundreds of thousands of polluting chemicals that accompany the water. Again, per well! This method is unsustainable., period. Forest for the trees, people. This is a loser, any way you cut it!


May 13, 2011, 5:45 p.m.

We should stop using gasoline to fuel our cars. Lobby Congress to stop gas now!  We must prevent groundwater contamination resulting from leaky underground storage tanks.  Even if only 5% of tanks leak before being removed, the resulting plumes can extend hundreds of feet from the leaky tanks and degrade water quality in many domestic wells and decrease property values as well.  This is a very serious issue because benzene is carcinogenic and gas stations are all over the place right in our cities and towns!!!  We also should stop heating our homes, cooking, drying our clothes, and generating electricity with natural gas and stop all domestic natural gas exploration.  It’s fracking up our environment.  Although methane is not carcinogenic, it can explode…happens every day!.  After the BP release of crude in the Gulf, we also should ban all domestic drilling for oil too. Of course we could continue to use gasoline, natural gas, and oil, as long as it comes from somewhere else because it is OK to fowl the environment of some other country….right?  Just not in our back yard!  Is the pervasive use of gasoline, natural gas, and oil in our society worth the risks and incidents of contamination that have been attributed to their development and use?  Maybe we are better off going back to the ‘dark’ ages.

Chris Salmon

May 13, 2011, 6:25 p.m.

@Brian - actually much of the water is recycled now, and it’s going to get better in the future.  The DOE is doing some really good studies on that right now.  They’ve got stuff running that recycles a very high percentage, I believe it’s 90% and the really great thing is that it comes out as distilled water, pure as a mountain snow.  Here are some links

Randall Hunt

May 16, 2011, 8:12 p.m.

People, use your brains & think before assigning blame.  The spin doctor who wrote and titled this article obviously believes that a correlation of two factors equals causation.  Not true, and any scientist knows it.  I am a geologist.  I have seen multiple natural gas seeps, up natural faults, all over the world.  People’s water wells in central Brazil light up, just like in Pennslyvania—and there is not one damn oil or gas well within a hundred miles.  Gas seeps out the bottom of the seafloor all over the world, again, NATURALLY.    I challenge any Duke or other scientist to debate that—-they will lose.  What is the cause, then, if not fracking?  THINK ABOUT IT…..where do energy companies drill for gas?  In areas that are rich in gas, that’s where.  Those areas are also often rich in natural faulting, which helps traps the gas.  Abundant gas + natural faults= gas seepage into the shallow subsurface.  This process does not require a well, fracking, nothing.  The faults are there already, and so is the gas.  Gas migrates to areas of lower pressure, i.e. upward.  I know it is more fun to scapegoat the energy companies, but that is bullshit….and all of you are buying it.  Never mind the hundreds of thousands of jobs that are and will be created by the natural gas industry…..or that our trade deficit is reduced by using our own energy supplies….or that our air will be cleaner, with 25% fewer CO2 emissions.    We have become a nation of idiots.


May 17, 2011, 6:58 p.m.

This is not a perfect study, but the researchers were limited by the resources available to them.  They make a strong case that shale gas is contaminating water wells close to drilling/fracing.  It is worth noting that horizontal drilling combined with multi-stage slick-water fracing has been practiced for a decade, but in that time the industry has never even begun a study of how often wells are contaminated with gas and howit happened—and they certainly had the resources and opportunity.  I suspect that they have not because they know that they would not like the results.
This nit-picking of the Duke study reminds me of what the tobacco industry did for decades to cancer research on smoking.  No study was ever good enough to establish a causal relationship.

Great Slav

May 19, 2011, 12:18 p.m.

This whole fracking thing is disgusting.  For instance after all the horrendous oil spills that happened in our oceans, we are still doing the same and spilling oil into the blood of the planet.  These fucking corporation never learn, they don’t care and will not care until this entire planet is a dried up desert that is no longer inhabitable, kind of like Mars.  Fuck people with this type of mindset, they should do themselves and all of us a favor and just kill themselves.

Great Slav

May 19, 2011, 12:24 p.m.

This whole fracking thing is disgusting.  For instance, after numerous oil spills in our oceans, we are still doing the same thing and contaminating the blood of this planet.  These corporations will never learn, they do not care and will not care until this planet is a dried up desert which is un-inhabitable, similar to Mars.  This entire time, we have been letting these corporations get away with destroying the planet for our future generations.  I have no problem with people and companies wanting to make money, but not like this.  Look to clean energy you fools.

Great Slav

May 19, 2011, 12:25 p.m.

This whole fracking thing is disgusting.  For instance, after numerous oil spills in our oceans, we are still doing the same thing and contaminating the blood of this planet.  These corporations will never learn, they do not care and will not care until this planet is a dried up desert which is un-inhabitable, similar to Mars.  This entire time, we have been letting these corporations get away with destroying the planet for our future generations.  I have no problem with people and companies wanting to make money, but not like this.  Look to clean energy

A Geologist

May 19, 2011, 8:41 p.m.

As a geologist and isotope geochemist I read this PNAS article with interest.  They undoubtedly found a correlation between gas wells and deeply sourced, thermogenic methane.  Their evidence on this count is very strong and I think will stand the test of time.  As a geologist I wondered whether there is a non-random association between where wells are sited and the underlying geology.  Specifically, are wells more likely to be drilled in regions where the rock formations are more highly fractured and thus provide a natural conduit for the thermogenic methane.  Such an association could be from preferential drilling in valleys of the fold and thrust belt where fold hingelines are more fractured.  Pure speculation on my part but something that a follow-up study should look at.  If this is not the case then the wells (in the broadest sense) are the cause of the higher methane concentrations.  I say in the broadest sense because it is not clear from this study how the methane reaches the groundwater table.

Overall a very interesting study with high quality analytical work and interpretation.

Chris Salmon

May 20, 2011, 6:30 a.m.

Hi “A Geologist” it’s funny, I (another rock-head!) been thinking along the same lines.  Actually originally I was getting all imaginative and specific like you’re doing, but as I thought about it more, I began to think of it in a more generic way.  They didn’t say in the paper that they took any steps to control for *any* other variables as having an influence on their sample values other than proximity to a gas well. 

As you pointed out here, I too wondered if the reason this correlated in their samples to higher and more thermogenic concentrations of methane was that both were in fact being controlled by a third variable, perhaps the presence of joints or faults as you say, or proximity to commercial quantities of thermogenic natural gas, for instance.  I really wanted to dig in and get my hands on their data and get a full understanding of this and other issues, mainly just for fun, but they have not published either their data, or their statistical methodology, for instance in choosing sample locations so as to assure they didn’t see a biased result.  In the meantime I’ve been playing around with publicly available data about the study area from 4-5 states away,  I did map the locations of water wells and gas wells there and I’ve been playing around with other data, looking for a way to see what the heck is going on over there in northeasterner land hahaha :-) such a ruckus is being raised.  One thing I saw very quickly was that Pennsylvania, at least, is a pincushion, with over 7,000 water wells just in Susquehanna County (where Dimock is) alone.  It has a bucolic look to it, no doubt, but population density is actually very high compared to the West and Southwest and it helped me understand sort of why people inexperienced with energy production and all bunched up might kind of freak out.  The gas drillling (which is the worst part of it) is right in there mixed up with ‘em, right in their backyard and their own water wells are practically sitting on top of these operations, that’s what the maps show.  I mean, you can’t walk a mile without tripping over someone’s water well.  And - they’re ALL uncased, which is kinda crazy in coal country but that’s how they do it up there.  Anyway, you might find this model I worked up tonight informative regarding your point/question -

The red markers are gas wells around Dimock, one of the areas in the study which was already known to suffer from methane contamination due, apparently, to some poor completions and cement jobs by Cabot.  The countour overlay is a map of the “organic thickness” of the Marcellus - in other words, the thickness of rock rich in organics that is most likely to produce abundant gas.  As you can see, These wells are nicely positioned right in the bull’s-eye there, right where you would expect the absolute most thermogenic methane to be produced by this formation.  It’s natural to think that probably other gas shales in the area would also have a sweet spot in this area.  So now, the study covered, what 5 counties in PA and one in NY if I remember right.  It would be interesting to do some correlation mapping there to see if samples found higher in methane were from wells drilled above a generally thicker column of gas producing strata.  It wouldn’t mean anything with just 68 samples but it would be fun to scope it out.

Angel Strong

May 23, 2011, 9:05 a.m.

Have you seen the Documentary
“Tapped”. About how our Drinking water is being privatised and hiJacked this article ties in nicely with the bigger picture. Thank you

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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.

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