Feb. 16, 2012 at 3:02 PM ET
A university study asserts that the problems caused by the gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," arise because drilling operations aren't doing it right. The process itself isn't to blame, according to the study, released today by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.
The report is likely to add new fuel to a blazing controversy over fracking. Researchers reviewed the evidence contained in the reports of groundwater contamination from three prominent shale-rock formations where the process is employed: the Barnett Shale in North Texas, the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, New York and other areas of Appalachia; and the Haynesville Shale in western Louisiana and northeast Texas.
The groundwater contamination is graphically portrayed in the documentary "Gasland," which showed residents near shale-gas operations setting their drinking water on fire as it came out of the tap. Worries about such contamination have sparked political resistance to fracking, leading some states and countries to hold up new drilling operations.
At the same time, shale gas is seen as an increasingly important domestic energy source. About a quarter of U.S.-produced natural gas currently comes from shale, and that proportion is projected to rise to nearly half by 2035. Last month, President Barack Obama suggested that the natural gas industry could support 600,000 jobs in America by the end of the decade, in large part due to the rise of hydraulic fracturing. In its latest budget request, the White House proposed new studies by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that fracking is done safely.
"It's a game-changer in terms of the energy balance," study leader Chip Groat, associate director of the Energy Institute, told journalists today. He and other scientists discussed the report in Vancouver, Canada, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Where does fracking go wrong?
Hydraulic fracturing involves drilling deep into shale beds, then injecting water, sand and chemicals under high pressure to shatter layers of rock — liberating trapped pockets of natural gas. The gas is captured for energy use, but the water and other byproducts have to be cleaned up. The procedure has been used since the 1950s, but it's become far more widely applied in recent years due to advances in horizontal-drilling technologies.
The researchers concluded that many of the reports of contamination can be traced to above-ground spills or other mishandling of the wastewater, Groat said. Other causes of the contamination include underground casing failures or poor cement jobs. "These problems are not unique to hydraulic fracturing," Groat said in a news release.
In the reports reviewed by the researchers, "we found no direct evidence that hydraulic fracturing itself ... was a cause for concern," he told journalists at the AAAS meeting. He acknowledged, however, that shale gas development "can be bungled" due to problems with drilling and extraction techniques used closer to the surface.
Such problems are most likely behind the water-on-fire phenomena documented in "Gasland." But it's difficult to identify precisely what the problem was or what the long-term effect will be without before-and-after data, Groat said.
"We really feel hobbled in a lot of these [cases] by the lack of baseline information," he observed.
Today's release of the final report follows up on a preliminary version that was issued last fall. In addition to discussing the causes of contamination, the report evaluated the ability of states to enforce existing regulations, and analyzed the public perceptions surrounding fracking.
Among the other findings:
The Energy Institute said its report was conducted using general university funds, but received assistance from the Environmental Defense Fund in developing the scope of work and the methodology for the study. The EDF said it reviewed drafts of the report during the course of the project but did not contribute to its conclusions.
Not the final word
Scott Anderson, senior policy adviser for the Environmental Defense Fund's energy program, discussed the report in a blog posting published after the report's release. "If the problem isn't hydraulic fracturing, then what is?" the headline asks. Here's some of what Anderson said:
"As has been the case in other inquiries, the University of Texas study did not find any confirmed cases of drinking water contamination due to pathways created by hydraulic fracturing. But this does not mean such contamination is impossible or that hydraulic fracturing chemicals can’t get loose in the environment in other ways (such as through spills of produced water). In fact, the study shines a light on the fact that there are a number of aspects of natural gas development that can pose significant environmental risk. And it highlights the fact that there are a number of ways in which current regulatory oversight is inadequate."
Anderson said the report deserved widespread attention, but was "by no means the final word on these topics."
Groat said the report was based on a review of previously published data rather than fresh field observations. "We did not go out and measure things," he acknowledged.
He said further studies will be conducted into the atmospheric and seismic impact of hydraulic fracturing — two much-debated environmental issues that were not addressed in detail in the newly issued report. The Energy Institute also plans to conduct a detailed case study on groundwater contamination in Texas' Barnett Shale, as well as a field investigation into the effects of shale gas drilling on the water above and below fracturing sites in the Barnett Shale.
"Certainly more work needs to be done," Groat said.
Update for 11:15 p.m. ET Feb. 16: One of my correspondents on Twitter, Pamela Oldham, notes that ConocoPhillips committed itself in 2010 to contribute $1.5 million to the University of Texas at Austin for energy research. The petroleum company said at the time that the Energy Institute would administer the grants, with the money going to UT-Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering and the McCombs School of Business. I'll check on how that squares with the institute's claim that the study was funded from general university accounts.
Oldham also notes that ConocoPhillips was recently named in a civil lawsuit alleging fracking-related water contamination in Texas' Panola County.
Update for 10:20 a.m. ET Feb. 17: Chip Groat, associate director of the Energy Institute and the leader of the study released this week, responded to my inquiry about the ConocoPhillips grant last night with this email:
"Three or four of the large energy companies give money to UT for student support (a recruitment investment) and for research that is spread among various departments. ConocoPhillips has done this, and part of the funding they provided was to the Energy Institute to support the Barnett Shale Case Study which will be a follow-on to the study we reported on today. None of the ConocoPhillips money went into this study [the one released this week]. For the [follow-up] case study, we will use Energy Institute money plus funds from energy companies and governments in the Barnett Shale development area. This is a matter of financial necessity, but we want to spread the funding among organizations with different interests in Barnett Shale development."
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.