Study Finds Methane in Water Associated with Gas Production

Commentary, Energy, Les Routledge

A peer-reviewed study conducted by researchers at Duke University has observed an increase of methane content in ground water near gas wells in Pennsylvania and New York.

The study, published on Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), said the methane sampled near the fracking sites had an isotopic fingerprint that pointed to its source.

Water from wells farther from the gas sites had lower levels of methane and a different isotopic signature.

While this is an observation that should cause concern, the researchers did not find any evidence of contamination of ground water by chemicals that could be associated with the hydraulic fracturing process.

In the past, industry representatives have suggested that methane contamination in ground water could be caused by natural processes that are not associated with natural gas production.  While this study does not refute that opinion, the finding appear to suggest that:

  1. the data suggests that methane associated with natural gas production production zones may be migrating to ground water aquifers; and
  2. the concentration of methane in the ground water appears to increase as one gets closer to active natural gas wells.

The authors of the study conclude that more systematic research is required to understand and study why increased concentrations of methane that is associated with producing formations is appearing in ground water aquifers in the area.  Specifically, they call for baseline profiles to be conducted before and after gas well development so effective comparisons can be performed.

While it is premature to speculate in the extend of this measured phenomena or its potential cause, it is somewhat comforting to read that their research did not find evidence of a migration of hydraulic fracturing fluids in ground water.  Overall, the research observations raise numerous questions that need to be answered in a transparent and methodological manner.

Until that research is completed, I repeat my previously stated opinion that people living near natural gas well developments should be covered by a no-fault insurance policy that pays for potential economic loses and harm in the event that water contamination occurs.  Indeed, the very  act of requiring drillers to secure coverage by insurance companies could stimulate research and baseline studies in order to come up with accurate estimates of the actuarial risk associated with offering no-fault insurance to neighboring residents.  Until that type of assurance is provided to neighbouring residents that they will be compensated for potential losses, opposition to shale gas development production will continue to grow.