Study Shows Fracking Can Affect the Integrity of Groundwater

Stanford professor finds that fracking doesn't always, but can affect drinking water. 

By: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Nothing says romance quite like fracking. Amirite? Well, at least on this Valentine’s Day, the potentially dangerous well-stimulation technique was the focus of a discussion at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, addressed his colleagues with the symposium, “Does Hydraulic Fracturing Allow Gas to Reach Drinking Water?” This expert on how fossil fuels impact health explored whether or not it’s safe to drink water if you live near an oil or natural gas well where someone’s been fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing has been the subject of some serious controversy, most notably thanks to films like Gasland. In that real-life horror film, a man lights his own tap water on fire — something Jackson says is rare, but that he’s actually witnessed. In order to get access to natural gases, companies drill deep wells, and with a high-pressure water mixture of sand and chemicals, blast into the rocks which release primarily methane through the head of the well. Not only has science shown that this poisons water in the area but it also increases seismic activity (earthquake, anyone?).

Nationwide, Jackson has been studying the groundwater quality at oil and gas fields and found that fracking doesn’t always affect drinking water, but it can.

“We have found a number of homes near active wells with very high levels of natural gas in the tap water,” Jackson said in a press release. Poorly constructed wells are often to blame. “Where the chemistry suggests contamination, the problem usually lies with the integrity of the well, either the cementing used to isolate it from the surrounding rock and water or the steel casing that allows gas and oil to flow upwards.” There is a particularly notable case of this in Parker County, Texas, where a man reported his family’s water was “bubbling like champagne.”

Drilling is supposed to be done at least a mile below the surface and away from drinking water sources. But that doesn’t often happen. This study shows that at least 2,600 wells are fracking at less than 3,000 feet and some are fracking directly into shallow freshwater aquifers. Doesn’t take a scientist to see why this might be an issue. Jackson noted that in California, hundreds of wells were drilled into aquifers less than 2,000 feet deep.

“At Pavillion, they were fracking less than 1,000 feet deep, while people were getting drinking water at 750 feet,” Jackson said of a 2010 case in Wyoming where the Environmental Protection Agency started studying the effects of fracking in the area but then oddly handed their study over to the company likely responsible. “Contamination is more likely to occur when there isn’t enough separation between the hydraulic fracturing activity and the drinking-water sources,” Jackson assures.

Fracking is regulated state-by-state. “In no other industry would you be allowed to inject chemicals into a source of drinking-quality water,” notes the professor.

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