Shale-gas drilling and its alleged impacts are very much in the news, particularly linked to water quality. Environmental activist groups claim that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, poses a dangerous risk to drinking-water sources. But pre-existing conditions may be a bigger threat, one that simple home baseline tests may detect.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is undertaking a national study to understand the potential impacts of fracking on drinking water. Environmental best practices are necessary to responsibly manage resources and inspire public and regulatory confidence in the industry's ability to conduct safe and clean life-cycle operations in the shale-gas arena.
However, data from home baseline water testing, thus far, have revealed far more about the pre-existing water-quality conditions of aquifers and poor water-well designs than issues related to unconventional gas operations, including hydraulic fracturing.
In the U.S., unconventional natural-gas development is occurring in areas that have been known for decades to contain naturally occurring methane in well-water supplies. This is borne out by historically elevated methane levels in wells, discolored water, objectionable taste and odor, and the intermittent presence of gas from a well.
Globally, such naturally occurring sources are often manifested in many of the chalybeate mineral springs that contain water high in dissolved iron content and rich in gas. Some of the most famous springs include Recoaro Spa in Italy, Bermondsey Spa in London and the two near the Marcellus shale basin in the U.S.—Bedford Springs in Bedford, Pa., and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., near Albany.
A phenomenon known as "flaming waters" has been recorded throughout history at some of these mineral-spring sites. When the methane content in these water sources is ignited, it causes the water to appear to be engulfed in flames. In some instances, such displays of flaming waters have become a major source of tourism interest, such as the so-called Fire Water pool found in the Windsor Mineral Spring on the island of Jamaica about 80 years ago. So it is not surprising that water sources in certain geographic areas appear to easily catch fire with a handheld lighter, with a powerful dramatic effect.
In the U.S., the occurrence of natural gas in groundwater also is not new; it was chronicled near the border of the Marcellus shale basin more than 165 years ago. In 1846, Scientific American published an article titled "A Remarkable Mineral Spring" that stated, "There is in the town of Riga, N.Y. … a Mineral Spring, the gases from which are sufficiently combustible to burn as clear and brightly as a lamp, at all times of the day and night, and which is never exhausted."
Through the process of baseline testing (setting aside privacy issues), regulators, operators and homeowners have made an unintended, though not necessarily surprising, discovery: There are a significant number of water wells with poor water quality that pre-exist natural-gas development. While there have been rare events of stray gas migration as the result of poor gas-well design or impacts from above-ground, well-site releases related to human error or equipment failures, the industry as a whole has moved rapidly to retire these risks. What remains are homeowners with poor water quality stemming from a variety of causes, principally poor water-well design and naturally occurring sources.
The industry supports emerging best environmental practices related to unconventional natural-gas development. However, we should all question how to aid the homeowner whose poor-quality water was discovered, through baseline testing, to pre-exist natural-gas development. If this problem is more prevalent than issues related to drilling and hydraulic fracturing, wouldn't that be the right battle to fight?
James J. Kohlhaas is vice president of strategic energy programs at Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.