Use Objective Science in Fracking Debate

A recent scientific study exploring possible water contamination in a group of Pennsylvania water wells resulting from shale gas development has generated plenty of scary headlines for opponents of fracking.

But the study is not the smoking gun that activists have made it out to be, since the report clearly states that hydraulic fracturing was not the cause of chemical detections, nor is shale development in general identified as unsafe. Meanwhile, new revelations have caused the objectivity of the report itself to be called into question.

The story at the center of the study starts in 2009 during the early days of the shale gas boom. Chesapeake Energy drilled some shale wells in Bradford County and some nearby homes raised an alarm that their water had been impacted. The homeowners filed suit in 2011, the state of Pennsylvania agreed and fined Chesapeake $1.1 million. Chesapeake purchased the homes and settled the lawsuit in 2012.

The problem identified in the Chesapeake case was not hydraulic fracturing, or even shale development generally, but that these early wells were not constructed to stringent enough standards. In response, Pennsylvania updated its well construction standards, ensuring that the steel casing in new gas wells would reach far further underground and that the cementing of the wells would be improved. Today, Pennsylvania is considered to have some of the best and most -comprehensive gas well construction standards in the country.

In this latest study, researchers from Penn State University used advanced technology to pinpoint what chemicals may have seeped into the nearby homes’ water wells. The researchers found trace quantities of a chemical compound called 2-BE (2-butoxyethanol) that is sometimes used in drilling fluids, but is also commonly used in household products and even in the cement used to construct the water wells themselves. The quantities of 2-BE detected were in the parts-per-trillion — far below safe water drinking standards.

In their report, the researchers speculate that the chemicals likely resulted from either the initial drilling phase of a nearby shale gas well — not the actual hydraulic fracturing — or from a documented wastewater spill. They cannot definitively link the 2-BE found in the water to the gas wells. Nor do the researchers explore alternative scenarios for how the 2-BE may have entered the water, as it is a very common chemical. At worst, the study revealed what was already known — the gas wells in question may not have been constructed properly, a problem new well standards have already addressed.

What was not revealed in the first wave of articles about the study was that the lead author, Garth Llewellyn, had an undisclosed conflict of interest which has led to New York Times, the Associated Press and USA Today issuing corrections or clarifications. Llywellyn had previously worked as an environmental consultant to the homeowners who sued Chesapeake Energy. This raises obvious questions about the objectivity of the report and the manner in which the findings were presented.

Too often, people opposed to shale development sensationalize stories to sow seeds of fear or doubt. While shale development and natural gas production come with challenges and disruptions, these issues are well understood and can be addressed by operators and smart regulation.

Natural gas is an incredibly important resource and the shale revolution is one of the remarkable success stories of the past decade. It’s critically important that science be used objectively to determine how, when and where to drill, but stories that twist science to generate misleading headlines should have no role in the conversation about shale development.

Scranton Times-Tribune, May 31, 2015