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Methane in the Well: Naturally occurring, but not with wanderlust

About a year ago a local family began getting flammable water. The fact that their house’s recorded methane levels (along with their sink) shot up shortly after fracking began nearby was considered maybe not coincidental, so the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) looked into it. Before the agency did, though, it let the public know which way it was leaning: “Methane is naturally occurring in this portion of the state, and the water well in question was found to be drilled into shale, which may have led to these increased levels.”

Isn’t the point of an investigation to try and understand the cause, not to confirm one’s hunches? It doesn’t inspire a lot of faith in the impartiality of the investigation to start by declaring the expected outcome. (I noticed the same thing when North Dakota State Environmental Health Chief Dave Glatt said he didn’t expect to find groundwater contamination at their recent oil spill. Oil and gas regulators seem a little eager to pre-exonerate the industry they are supposed to be keeping an eye on.)

ODNR concluded its investigation a few weeks ago, and the result was no surprise to anyone who had seen the agency tip its hand at the outset:

An investigation by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources recently concluded that the gas in the Kline’s’ water well was chemically different from the gas produced by a Mountaineer Keystone oil and gas well 1,500 feet southeast of the house.

An Oct. 18 agency report said methane in the Kline’s’ well matched the methane found in natural gas that leaks from shallow underground sources into groundwater.

“Up to 40 percent of the water wells within the area of the (shale) drilling have some concentration of methane in them,” said Mark Bruce, a Department of Natural Resources spokesman. “Methane is naturally occurring.”

The verbatim use of “methane is naturally occurring,” in addition to being a favored pro-fracking talking point, is not especially relevant when discussing the impact of fracking. No one disputes that methane occurs naturally, or that some water supplies have high levels of it that long pre-date fracking. The relevant question (or one of them) is: what happens to that naturally occurring methane when heavy industrial activity begins nearby?

Setting off explosions below the earth and repeatedly forcing millions of gallons of chemical cocktails into the ground makes it more permeable. We already know that fluids in shale fields migrate much farther and much faster than previously thought, because busting up the earth makes it more porous. Saying that these fluids and gases are naturally occurring is trivial; stupid even. What matters is not whether they are naturally occurring but whether they are naturally migratory:

“It challenges the view that natural gas, and the suite of hydrocarbons that exist around it, is isolated from water supplies by its extreme depth,” said Judith Jordan, the oil and gas liaison for Garfield County, who has worked as a hydrogeologist with DuPont and as a lawyer with Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. “It is highly unlikely that methane would have migrated through natural faults and fractures and coincidentally arrived in domestic wells at the same time oil and gas development started, after having been down there … for over 65 million years.”

It’s entirely possible the Kline’s well was drilled into shale, and also that the methane is chemically different from that at the frack operation. That (possibly) shale-drilled well was working just fine until a year ago. Then the drilling began, and whoopsie their water began catching fire. Determining that the methane did not come directly from the drilling operation is only part of the answer. The other part, still unanswered, is whether a – naturally occurring! – pocket of methane was loosened up in newly permeable ground and migrated to the family’s property.

(A gas migration would be more like a tornado than an earthquake – going in a line and only affecting land in its path. Saying “it couldn’t be the drilling because other nearby houses were unaffected!” makes as much sense as saying a tornado didn’t level a house because neighboring houses were undamaged.)

It’s too late to know if that is in fact what happened, because there is no mapping of what the ground looked like prior to drilling. The fact that this entire area of hazard is unaccounted for doesn’t reflect very well on ODNR, though. If all they do is make sure contamination doesn’t come directly from operators, declare that it’s naturally occurring, and then wash their hands of it, Ohioans will have to bear the rest of the risk on their own. Given how easy it is to shuttle between the agency and the industry, that might bode well for regulators’ employment prospects once they leave. But it sure doesn’t do much for citizens.

NOTE: As of this writing, the report is not available on the ODNR web site.

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