A new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has highlighted problems with pipes in natural gas wells to be the culprit behind recently tainted groundwater sources. Polluted groundwater was thought to be the result of the drilling procedure known as fracking, which involves the obtainment of oil and gas materials through hydraulic fracturing of shale formations. Current studies find that this often leads to very few contaminations.
The question at hand is one that strongly pertains to the issue of oil drilling integrity. However, Ohio State University geochemist Thomas Darrah has stated that, while still a problem for the industry, pipe issues and faulty wells are usually easier to fix and are far more preventable.
Hydraulic Fracturing and Groundwater Concerns
In fracking, highly pressurized chemicals and water are pumped deep underground in order to break shale and release natural gas to be collected for commercial use. In recent years, the fracking process has witnessed a heavy surge, thus leading to claims of contamination in residential and local water sources. It has been a concern in the public arena that fracturing allowed methane gasses to travel upward and leak into groundwater supplies. While not particularly toxic, methane is known for its explosive contents, thus causing panic among citizens situated close to drilling sites.
In this report, scientists have now reached a different conclusion. Through chemically analyzing methane samples and other pollutants found in specified groundwater sources, they were able to link the various contaminations to certain wells, and thus discover exactly which part of the drilling process was to blame.
Upon further observation, the scientists were able to concur that the toxins released into the water were actually being caused by leaky pipes and seals. The results, according to those in charge of the study, would have been quite different if indeed fracking was responsible.
Of the recent 243 contamination cases, scientists have deduced that only a few dozen could be directly linked to the gas wells. Other cases were completely natural and had no connection to the wells in any way.
A Focus on Drilling Contractors
The issue of leaking and failing pipes has been a major concern for the gas industry over the past several decades. While it’s possible that the high pressure of fracking or the bends in unconventional wells might lead to problems with well piping, researchers claim that there is simply not enough evidence to suggest so.
Rather, a much more plausible cause may be the hurried state of drillers during industry booms. This can often lead to poor-quality wells and weakened pipe structures.
In any case Cindy Dunn, president of the environmental group Penn Future is asking that states regularly update their drilling and piping regulations, hoping for safer environments for nearby residents, and Dave Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition of Drillers is working steadily with officials to strengthen and modernize laws and standards pertaining to shale development.
While both agree that these changes evolve slowly, things do seem to be moving in the right direction.