New Study: Fluids From Marcellus Shale Likely Seeping Into PA Drinking Water

by Abrahm Lustgarten ProPublica, July 9, 2012, 2 p.m.

New research has concluded that salty, mineral-rich fluids deep beneath Pennsylvania’s natural gas fields are likely seeping upward thousands of feet into drinking water supplies.

Though the fluids were natural and not the byproduct of drilling or hydraulic fracturing, the finding further stokes the red-hot controversy over fracking in the Marcellus Shale, suggesting that drilling waste and chemicals could migrate in ways previously thought to be impossible.

The study, conducted by scientists at Duke University and California State Polytechnic University at Pomona and released today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tested drinking water wells and aquifers across Northeastern Pennsylvania. Researchers found that, in some cases, the water had mixed with brine that closely matched brine thought to be from the Marcellus Shale or areas close to it.

No drilling chemicals were detected in the water, and there was no correlation between where the natural brine was detected and where drilling takes place.

Still, the brine’s presence u2013 and the finding that it moved over thousands of vertical feet — contradicts the oft-repeated notion that deeply buried rock layers will always seal in material injected underground through drilling, mining, or underground disposal.

“The biggest implication is the apparent presence of connections from deep underground to the surface,” said Robert Jackson, a biology professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and one of the study’s authors. “It’s a suggestion based on good evidence that there are places that may be more at risk.”

The study is the second in recent months to find that the geology surrounding the Marcellus Shale could allow contaminants to move more freely than expected. A paper published by the journal Ground Water in April used modeling to predict that contaminants could reach the surface within 100 years u2013 or fewer if the ground is fracked.

Last year, some of the same Duke researchers found that methane gas was far more likely to leak into water supplies in places adjacent to drilling.

Today’s research swiftly drew criticism from both the oil and gas industry and a scientist on the National Academy of Science’s peer review panel. They called the science flawed, in part because the researchers do not know how long it may have taken for the brine to leak. The National Academy of Sciences should not have published the article without an accompanying rebuttal, they said.

“What you have here is another case of a paper whose actual findings are pretty benign, but one that, in the current environment, may be vulnerable to distortion among those who oppose this industry,” said Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the gas industry trade group Energy In Depth. “What’s controversial is attempting to argue that these migrations occur as a result of industry activities, and on a time scale that actually matters to humanity.”

Another critic, Penn State University geologist Terry Engelder, took the unusual step of disclosing details of his review of the paper for the National Academy of Sciences, normally a private process.

In a letter written to the researchers and provided to ProPublica, Engelder said the study had the appearance of “science-based advocacy” and said it was “unwittingly written to enflame the anti-drilling crowd.”

In emails, Engelder told ProPublica that he did not dispute the basic premise of the article u2013 that fluids seemed to have migrated thousands of feet upward. But he said that they had likely come from even deeper than the Marcellus u2013 a layer 15,000 feet below the surface u2013 and that there was no research to determine what pathways the fluids travelled or how long they took to migrate. He also said the Marcellus was an unlikely source of the brine because it does not contain much water.

“There is a question of time scale and what length of time matters,” Engelder wrote in his review. In a subsequent letter to the Academy’s editors protesting the study, he wrote that “the implication is that the Marcellus is leaking now, naturally without any human assistance, and that if water-based fluid is injected into these cross-formational pathways, that leakage, which is already u2018contaminating’ the aquifers with salt, could be made much worse.”

Indeed, while the study did not explicitly focus on fracking, the article acknowledged the implications. “The coincidence of elevated salinity in shallow groundwater… suggests that these areas could be at greater risk of contamination from shale gas development because of a preexisting network of cross-formational pathways that has enhanced hydraulic connectivity to deeper geological formations,” the paper states.

For their research, the scientists collected 426 recent and historical water samples — combining their own testing with government records from the 1980s — from shallow water wells and analyzed them for brine, comparing their chemical makeup to that of 83 brine samples unearthed as waste water from drilling sites in the Marcellus Shale.

Nearly one out of six recent water samples contained brine near-identical to Marcellus-layer brine water.

Nevertheless, Jackson, one of the study’s authors, said he still considers it unlikely that frack fluids and injected man-made waste are migrating into drinking water supplies. If that were happening, those contaminants would be more likely to appear in his groundwater samples, he said. His group is continuing its research into how the natural brine might have travelled, and how long it took to rise to the surface.

“There is a real time uncertainty,” he said. “We don’t know if this happens over a couple of years, or over millennia.”

ALEC and ExxonMobil Push Loopholes in Fracking Chemical Disclosure Rules

— By Cora Currier, ProPublica | News Analysis

One of the key controversies about fracking is the chemical makeup of the fluid that is pumped deep into the ground to break apart rock and release natural gas. Some companies have been reluctant to disclose what’s in their fracking fluid. Scientists and environmental advocates argue that, without knowing its precise composition, they can’t thoroughly investigate complaints of contamination.

Disclosure requirements vary considerably from state to state, as ProPublica recently charted. In many cases, the rules have been limited by a “trade secrets” provision under which companies can claim that a proprietary chemical doesn’t have to be disclosed to regulators or the public.

One apparent proponent of the trade secrets caveat? The American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC, a nonprofit group that brings together politicians and corporationsto draft and promote conservative, business-friendly legislation. ALEC has been in the spotlight recently because of its support of controversial laws like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” provision.

This weekend, as part of a story on ALEC’s political activity, The New York Times noted that the group recently adopted “model legislation” on fracking chemical disclosure, based on a bill passed in Texas last year. According to The Times, the model bill was “sponsored within ALEC” by ExxonMobil, which runs a major oil and gas operation through its subsidiary, XTO Energy. The advocacy group Common Cause, which provided the documents on ALEC’s lobbying efforts to The Times, describes model legislation, in many cases identifying by name the company that proposed it to ALEC’s task forces.

ALEC has recently removed its list of model bills from its main website, and did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for XTO Energy confirmed that the company is a member of ALEC, but he did not provide details on the company’s involvement with the disclosure bill.

The spokesman said ExxonMobil supports “full disclosure of the ingredients and additives in hydraulic fracturing fluids,” but added that when vendors request it, ExxonMobil has “respected the trade secret status of their products.” Last year, the company began voluntarily uploading chemical disclosures to FracFocus, a clearinghouse website run by the Groundwater Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.

In a recent blog post, ALEC claimed that legislators in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, New York and Ohio have introduced versions of its model bill, but many of those states vary in the level of disclosure required and how they handle the trade secrets provision. Laws in 11 states require at least partial disclosure, and the Bureau of Land Management recently drafted disclosure guidelines for drilling on federal land.

These laws have been relatively well-received by environmental advocates, though the trade secrets issue remains a concern for some. In Ohio, for example, proprietary chemicals don’t have to be disclosed to regulators or the public. In Pennsylvania, they are disclosed to regulators, and the public can request information on them from the state Department of Environmental Protection on a case-by-case basis.

The Texas law, which ALEC cites in the post as its template, codifies the trade secrets exemption, and who can challenge it:

Otherwise, Texas’ law requires that companies post disclosure forms for each completed well on the FracFocus site. They must disclose all chemicals but only report the concentrations of those that are hazardous. The law also requires that the companies give the total volume of water used in fracking.

The Environmental Protection Agency cannot regulate fracking in order to protect groundwater, because in 2005 Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which controls how industries inject substances underground.

According to ALEC’s blog, the model disclosure legislation is designed to promote “responsible resource production” and “aims to preempt the promulgation of duplicative, burdensome federal regulations” from the EPA, in particular. ALEC has consistently opposed any federal control over fracking. In 2009, the group adopted a “Resolution to Retain State Authority Over Hydraulic Fracturing.”

This work by Truthout is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

PAC Track — Who’s Spending What Where for Whom

For those of you who are disturbed by the extraordinary influence of money being dumped into the election process by special interest groups and other unknown parties, a new tool is now available as a ProPublica project.  ProPublica published a new page under their Tolls & Data tab called PAC Track.  Their new tool has three tabs.  The first tab tracks total PAC spending throughout the Primary Calendar.  The Second tab tracks the latest spending by day to payee.  The final tab tracks top contributors to various PACs by Name, PAC and Amount.

“Two federal court rulings in 2010 paved the way for the ascent of “super PACs,” political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on political races, as long as they don’t coordinate with a specific candidate. And so far, they’re spending heavily on the Republican race. This app, part of our long-term investigation into “dark money,” keeps track of where super PACs are spending their cash to influence the presidential race. — Al Shaw & Kim Barker”

There have actually been three rulings, two by federal courts and one by the Supreme Court:

  • September 2009: EMILY’s List v. Federal Election Commission which struck down FEC regulations and allowed EMILY’s list (and other groups) to spend money on campaign-related activities backing female Democratic candidates.
  • January 2010:  Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in which the Court said corporations, unions could pend unlimited monies to support or criticize specific candidates, essentially equating money as speech.
  • March 2010:  SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission.  The appeals court in this decision drew upon the Citizens United ruling to  make it possible for SuperPACS to “independently” collect and spend unlimited amounts of monies to support or criticize candidates.

Please take the time to look at the obscene amounts of money being donated by single donors in an attempt to buy the candidate of their dreams.  It’s already started in Nevada as Restore Our Future, Inc. and Winning Our Future have begun polluting our air waves with $81,566 worth of propaganda for and against Newt Gingrich.  Seeing how this is progressing throughout the Republican primary process …. it kinda makes you think of turning the main stream media off this fall, dusting off and watching/re-watching some of your favorite selections in your video collection, or better yet, reading a book or two or three.

I’ve included a link in the right hand side panel in the “info & reference” section to make it easy for you to reference contributions and spending as this campaign season progresses.