Duke University Releases Study Reporting Methane Contamination in Areas of Natural Gas Extraction

May 11, 2011 Authors: Stephen C. Dillard, Barclay Richard Nicholson

On Monday, Duke University researchers released a study reporting higher levels of methane in well water collected near shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing sites. The Duke scientists collected and analyzed water samples from 68 private groundwater wells across five counties overlying the Marcellus Shale formation. Notably, the study found no evidence of contamination from the chemicals contained in hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water.

Although the Duke study found measurable amounts of methane in 85 percent of the groundwater well samples, methane levels were reportedly 17 times higher in wells located within a kilometer of active hydraulic fracturing sites. "At least some of the homeowners who claim that their wells were contaminated by shale-gas extraction appear to be right," says Robert B. Jackson, Nicholas Professor of Global Environmental Change and director of Duke's Center on Global Change. Stephen Osborn, postdoctoral research associate at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, says that additional tests would expand the size of the sample and help further allay any unfounded concerns.

The Duke study appears this week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. All funding for the study came from the Duke University Nicholas School and Center on Global Change.

Accelerated gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale region have fueled claims about groundwater contamination by methane, hydraulic fracturing fluids, and produced water. This week's release by the Duke University team is just one of many investigations into the process of hydraulic fracturing and the environment. The University of Texas at Austin recently announced a $300,000, nine-month study by UT's Energy Institute to explore accusations that hydraulic fracturing has led to water contamination and other environmental damage. The Energy Institute is a UT research initiative to address challenges within the energy sector through research and instruction.

The results of an ongoing EPA study to examine the impact, if any, of the hydraulic fracturing process on drinking water quality are expected by the end of 2012, with a final report issuing in 2014. The practice of hydraulic fracturing has also received scrutiny from at least one Congressional committee. On January 31, 2011, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce released the results of its investigation into the use of diesel fuel in hydraulic fracturing fluids, as well as the potential impact, if any, of diesel fuel on underground sources of drinking water.

For more information about hydraulic fracturing, please contact Stephen C. Dillard (sdillard@fulbright.com or 713 651 5507) and Barclay R. Nicholson (bnicholson@fulbright.com or 713 651 3662) from Fulbright's Shale and Hydraulic Fracturing Task Force. Steve serves as Chair of Fulbright's Global Litigation Department, and Barclay is a partner in the firm's Energy Litigation Practice Group.

Learn more about Fulbright's Shale and Hydraulic Fracturing Task Force at www.fulbright.com/fracking.

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[] Methane Levels 17 Times Higher in Water Wells Near Hydrofracking Sites, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, May 9, 2011.
[ Stephen G. Osborn, Avner Vengosh, Nathaniel R. Warner & Robert B. Jackson, Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 9, 2011.
[] University of Texas to study gas drilling impacts, Business Week, May 9, 2011.
[] Environmental Consequences of Fossil Fuel Exploration, The Energy Institute, The University of Texas at Austin, May 9, 2011. 
[] See EPA Submits Draft Hydraulic Fracturing Study Plan to Independent Scientists for Review, EPA Press Release, Feb. 8, 2011. 
[] See Letter to the Honorable Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, from Henry A. Waxman, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Edward J. Markey, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and Diana DeGette, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Jan. 31, 2011.