Science Again Shows Fracking Is Not a Threat to Groundwater

“Keep It In the Ground” activists have insisted for years that oil and natural gas development poses an inherent threat to groundwater. That fear-driven claim has had real consequences in the Appalachian region in particular, including the enactment of fracking bans in New York and Maryland, and similar efforts to prohibit development in places like Ohio’s Wayne National Forest and Pennsylvania’s Delaware River Basin.

Yet, despite anti-fracking activists’ fondness for calling supporters of shale development science deniers, peer-reviewed science continues to show fracking is not a major threat to groundwater quality in America’s most heavily developed oil and natural gas basins.

Recently, three separate peer-reviewed studies have been published that analyzed groundwater in the Appalachian Basin. And all three concluded that fracking is not having the detrimental groundwater impacts activists have long claimed.

Most recently, Yale University released a peer-reviewed study analyzing monitoring wells in Susquehanna County — the highest-producing natural gas county in Pennsylvania in 2017 — before, during and after wells were drilled, hydraulically fractured and placed into production. The Yale study found that shale gas development “was an unlikely source of methane in our valley wells.”

Similarly, Penn State University recently released a peer-reviewed study that found no statistically significant deleterious impact related to shale development in Bradford County — Pennsylvania’s most heavily drilled Marcellus Shale county. The evaluation of 11,000 groundwater samples taken from locations near 1,400 unconventional natural gas wells also found “an overall trend of improving water quality despite heavy Marcellus Shale development.”

And in Ohio, the University of Cincinnati released a peer-reviewed study that “found no relationship between methane concentrations in groundwater and proximity to natural gas wells.” The UC study analyzed water samples in Ohio’s five most heavily developed Utica Shale counties before, during and after shale development during a time when drilling increased dramatically.

Importantly, these studies are far from outliers — more than two dozen other scientific reports have been published since 2010 finding fracking is not a major threat to groundwater, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s landmark six-year study on hydraulic fracturing and groundwater. Eleven peer-reviewed reports evaluating more than 3,000 water wells across virtually every major U.S. shale play have been published in the past five years alone.

Which begs the question: Why do opponents of oil and natural gas development continue to deny the science when it comes to fracking and groundwater?

The reaction by some of the funders of the UC study may shed some light on this. As one of the researchers noted when the study’s findings were announced, some of the funders “were a little disappointed in our results. They feel that fracking is scary, and so they were hoping our data could point to a reason to ban it.”

This groundwater data isn’t the only science fracking opponents choose to ignore. The most recent EPA data show U.S. carbon dioxide emissions declined from 2005 to 2017, while overall greenhouse gas emissions are at their lowest levels since 1992, and sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and fine particulate matter emissions have declined dramatically since 2005.

All of these emission reductions have incredible health and climate benefits — and they are occurring along with record-breaking oil and natural gas production thanks in large part to increased natural gas-fired electricity generation. In fact, a recent study from Carnegie Mellon University found that carbon intensity from the U.S. power sector is down 30 percent since 2001, thanks primarily to “increased generation from natural gas and wind.”

As the scientific research continues to show, the shale revolution across the country — including in the prolific Marcellus and Utica shales that are spearheading America’s record natural gas production — is occurring without posing a major threat to water or air quality.

This demonstrates yet again that we don’t have to choose between the economy and the environment — and that’s something for everyone to celebrate.


Nicole Jacobs is a field director for Energy In Depth, a research, education and outreach program sponsored by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

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