(July 10, 2014) — The most dramatic demonstration of water quality issues associated with fracking activities involves setting tap water on fire to demonstrate high levels of methane in the water. The visual incongruity of water catching on fire makes a stunning and convincing visual for the public, but state regulators aren’t so easily convinced.
A newscaster for ABC affiliate WFAA in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex recently set some well water on fire to make the point that wells in Parker County contained abnormally high levels of methane. The Texas Railroad Commission did some tests on the well in question and reported levels of methane at 8.6 milligrams per liter, just under the federal limit of 10. The source of the methane, according to the commission, was a mystery.
A University of Texas-Arlington study on the same well, however, showed 83 milligrams per liter — more than eight times the federal standard.
The case illustrates how difficult it is to determine if contaminated well water is caused by oil and gas activities in the area or if it’s always been there. Robert Puls, director of the Oklahoma Water Survey and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, made that point in a recent webinar on well testing in connection with oil and gas activities.
Previously, Puls served as the Technical Lead for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ongoing study on hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking," and drinking water resources.
“In the absence of any pre-drilling characterization of your well water, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether oil and gas operations have impacted water quality,” Puls said.
He added that water quality in private wells is not regulated by the federal or most state governments and that most well owners have never tested their water.
There wasn’t always a compelling reason for widespread testing of wells before newly-utilized drilling and fracturing technologies created a new oil boom in Texas and other parts of the country. It never occurred to people that their water might be flammable. Hydraulic fracturing, which uses water, sand and various chemicals to fracture or crack shale rock to release oil and gas, is at the center of controversies that have accompanied the boom.
The shale drilling explosion has been more than good for the U.S. petroleum industry. U.S. oil output grew 18 percent in 2013, the fastest pace on record, raising U.S. crude production to its highest level in a quarter-century, boosting fuel exports and reducing reliance on imports. And in November, the International Energy Agency in France said the fracking boom will make the United States the world’s largest oil producer by 2015 — five years sooner than the IEA predicted in November 2012.
Agriculture and the oil and gas industry continue to exist more or less peacefully in this state, but some national organizations have come out against fracking. Food and Water Watch, a non-profit advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., wrote in an issue brief in 2012, “The expansion of modern drilling and fracking across the country has caused widespread environmental problems and created long-term risks to underground water resources, all of which affect farming and our food.”
The brief cited cases across the country where water from wells, springs and ponds believed to be contaminated by nearby fracking activities have caused illness, reproductive issues and death in cattle. In Louisiana, 17 cows died after an hour’s exposure to spilled fracking fluid.
In Texas, most of the fracking activity occurs in the Barnett Shale near Dallas-Fort Worth, the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas and the Wolfcamp Shale in the Permian Basin. Much of the controversy surrounding fracking centers on the amount of water it uses and the impact on local water supplies, including nearby wells.
Puls said that data from regulatory agencies and studies in Pennsylvania indicate that the majority of domestic well complaints related to oil and gas activities are due to pre-existing conditions or other land use activities. The key to determining whether or not impairments in the well water were caused by oil and gas activities is testing, but that is not as easy as it may sound.
“If samples are not properly collected, they are almost worthless, and [the] analysis is a waste of time and money,” he said. “It is imperative that water sampling be done by a professional who is familiar with up-to-date sampling and laboratory protocols. Otherwise, the results have no value.”
As for that methane and its sometimes fiery arrival, Puls said there are no health standards for methane and no health impact associated with water that has methane in it.
“The problem is the explosion hazard,” he said.
Methane in the water dissolves into the air when the water hits the surface, Puls said, and if concentrations are high enough, it can ignite if there is an ignition source close by.
Most of what is pumped into the shale is water and sand. Typically, Puls said, the mixture consists of about 75 percent water, 11 percent recycled water and 13 percent sand. Chemicals include friction reducers, iron control, corrosive inhibitors, and biocide and scale inhibitors.
The exact chemical composition of any given fracking operation is often hard to find, mainly because the companies don’t always reveal exactly which chemicals they are using, citing proprietary concerns. Puls noted that substantially increased levels of chloride may be an early warning sign of impacts from oil and gas activities because of chloride-based compounds used in the fracturing process.
Puls said most of the cases of well water contamination he has seen come from spills on the surface or from improperly sealed wells that allow leaks into the aquifer. He said increases of methane and chloride are the most common complaints.
A list of groundwater testing professionals is available at the National Ground Water Association website: www.ngwa.org.