sounds of science

February 19, 2014


My neighbor said he slept in for the first time in ages. That morning, our 15 inches of snow muffled the highway 500 feet behind his house, just beyond the stream and leafless stretch of woods. No cars drove in or out of our neighborhood. Venturing outside, we heard our shovels scraping, children sledding, birds chirping. That evening, with many side streets yet to be plowed, silence still reigned, broken only by footsteps, low voices of neighbors discussing inches fallen and inches to come.

If only we could muffle the industry spin to hear the voices of scientists on fracking. Science is quiet, methodical, cautious. So far, it has been no match for loud, overbearing, rash industry. Scientists collect water samples in drilling areas and find chemicals that disrupt hormone levels; they count birth defects in babies born in fracking areas; they note a decline in black-throated blue warblers and ovenbirds near drill pads; they tabulate the loss of core forests from well pad incursions. They are scrambling to measure and document the great unraveling around us and sound the alarm with PowerPoint presentations, laser pointers and conferences. It’s a tough slog.

Two scientists — Anthony Ingraffea from Cornell University and Zacariah Hildenbrand from the University of Texas at Arlington — explained their research, via webinar presentations, to Maryland’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission last week. Ingraffea’s message: Gas wells are leaky. Fracked gas wells leak more than the old-fashioned wells. And as gas wells age, the likelihood increases that they will leak. In fact, he says, 13 percent of fracked wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale will leak in about two years. Hildenbrand found elevated levels of arsenic and other disturbing surprises in drinking-water wells near drilling areas.

Ingraffea has a PhD in rock fracture mechanics and was previously a consultant to and researcher for the oil and gas industry. Now he spends much of his time (when he’s not teaching classes) aggravating his former clients by talking about his research on “loss of structural integrity” in wells or “loss of zonal isolation” or “sustained casing pressure” or “bubbling in the cellar” or any of the other euphemisms the industry uses to hide one of its big problems: leaking wells.

He’s also president of Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, but the folks at industry’s Marcellus Drilling News call him a “fictional report writer” and “Tony the Entertainer.”

These wells, Ingraffea says, are leaking methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more powerful over 20 years than CO2. This leaking methane also can contaminate water wells, sometimes leaving homeowners with flammable tap water. Or contaminate rivers and streams far from the well site.

His recommendation for Garrett and western Allegany counties, which overlie the Marcellus Shale: “If you are really concerned about well-water contamination, impose the largest setback that industry will tolerate.” Also, limit the number of wells — by keeping drilling far from residential and commercial areas and parks. Also require frequent inspections and more thorough inspection techniques: “You will have to enforce and inspect for the life of the well — forever,” Ingraffea said. Regulations are like the Ten Commandments, he said. They are “suggestions that don’t preclude things from going wrong.” Also, keep in mind that the ability to inspect a structure that bores underground for two or three miles “is very limited” and expensive — and the “ability to repair is limited.”

If Garrett and Allegany counties allowed drilling on 90 percent of land (with the rest off-limits because of restrictions, such as setbacks), they could see as many as 7,800 wells (assuming eight wells per acre on 977 acres) — and in five years, at least 780 could be expected to be leaking, he told the commission.

Ingraffea’s latest research was an effort to predict how often wells would leak. Industry research, webinars and conferences indicate a constant struggle with leaks. As he said on a TEDx talk similar to his presentation to the commission: “Industry continuously sponsors conferences and workshops on leaking wells while proclaiming to the public and especially to regulators that very few wells leak.” Ingraffea and his team read through 75,505 inspection reports on 27,455 gas wells in Pennsylvania since 2000. Those before 2009 are mostly conventional wells, drilled vertically; those after 2009 are mostly unconventional or “deviated” wells, which drill down and then horizontally for fracking. Marcellus wells are exclusively those unconventional wells. Ingraffea used a Cox proportional hazard model, for those who understand statistics, to make predictions about well leakiness. Some of his conclusions:

  • 13 percent of all Marcellus wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 2009 will leak after only two years.
  • 45 percent of Marcellus wells drilled in northeast Pennsylvania since 2009 can be expected to fail after about six years.
  • Unconventional (Marcellus) wells are 58 percent more likely to leak than conventional wells.

Implicit in fracking is that industry will put multiple wells on each frack pad in order to drill in many directions — as many as 19 at one site in Pennsylvania, he said. But “having many wells drilled close together on a pad … puts additional stress on a well that’s been cased and cemented,” he said. And more drilling means more demand placed on crews and equipment. And much of the drilling, he said, is being done by people who come from areas where snow and hills are rare. “If I were in charge, I’d be very careful who I give a permit to,” he said. (Although, he said, he found no correlation between size of the operator and number of leaks.)

Marylanders will have to decide “what leak rate you are willing to tolerate. Multiply [that] by the number of wells you want. … And figure how many people you’ll allow to lose water,” he said.

He said he didn’t know yet whether wells drilled after 2011, when Pennsylvania increased some requirements, were faring better. But he said strengthening well casings, which separate the drill from the aquifer, “is not the first place I would have gone” — because a casing is also supposed to be pliable and not shrink or crack.

“My opinion is that most of the contamination in Pennsylvania is a direct result of drilling through the aquifer.” While puncturing that aquifer, “there is no casing.” That would explain the quick contamination, he said.

Next up, Hildenbrand presented his study of arsenic levels in well water in 100 homes in the Barnett Shale in Texas. He and two other researchers chipped in $5,000 each to do the peer-reviewed study, which was published in 2013 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. They went door-to-door asking for water samples, getting doors slammed in their face and even a gun pointed at them, Hildenbrand said. Of the 91 water samples from wells in active drilling area (within 5 kilometers of a drill site), 29 had levels of arsenic above the level deemed safe by federal regulators; none of the samples beyond 3 kilometers had elevated levels. They also found elevated levels of barium, selenium and strontium in active drilling areas.

Critics dismiss these cases as “outliers,” Hildenbrand said. “But every single data point matters … because people drink that water. It’s our … moral obligation to tell them they have high levels of arsenic.”

The larger the setback, the greater the protection for people and groundwater, he said. In the area of his research, the setback was 250 feet and people were fighting for 1,000 feet. “I could throw a golf ball into a drilling site from people’s back porch.”

This project was the researchers’ “weekend job,” he said, explaining the decision to use their own money. “Taking funding from environmentalists or industry wouldn’t change our science but would change the perception of our science.”

Hoping to drown out these scientists at the meeting was the merchant of doubt, namely Mike Parker of the American Petroleum Institute and retired from ExxonMobil’s fracturing group. Setbacks are “a touchy subject,” he said. The concern — for industry, that is — is that setbacks “unreasonably limit development.” He said, “2,000 [feet] with a lousy company is no better than 500 with a stellar one.”

The Hildenbrand study? “Not quite the slam dunk” and “this needs to be looked at with a skeptical eye. They seem to pose more questions than conclusions.”

Of Ingraffea’s study of failing wells? “Not all ‘failures’ are necessarily failures.” They are “merely operators reporting something they have to report.” Some reports of “integrity issues” he termed “quite misleading.”

Reports of groundwater contamination? “To a scenario, most of these seem very unlikely.” He also repeated the industry claim that reports of methane in water are not industry’s fault because “methane in groundwater occurs naturally.”

He clearly hadn’t gotten the word about the research David Bolton presented to the commission last month showing that methane levels in Garrett and Allegany counties are very low — for now.

The unwilling bystanders, should fracking be permitted in Maryland, are hearing the scientists, as well as the warnings from residents in fracked states. Paul Roberts, the citizen representative on the state’s shale advisory panel, met with some of those bystanders in December. He told his fellow commissioners, “What I heard unequivocally is that right now, we all feel we ‘could lose the lottery’ and end up near one of these things. Farm families who have owned properties and mineral rights for generations might end up one mailbox down from a 40-acre fracking compound run by a Colorado-based contractor working for Chinese leaseholders drilling for gas to be shipped to Asia via Cove Point. Far-fetched? Well, it’s happening 50 miles away, in Greene County, Pennsylvania, and if Cove Point gets built, that’s the closest exit point.” He said he will push for a state “superfund” law that would cover fracking and “require the industry responsible to fully fund” a remediation program.

Scientists count and measure to show the changes, large and small, that industry dismisses as anecdotal and unimportant. Study by painstaking study, they outline the harm and the risks that industry would silence, even as every few days of late another pipeline ruptures or explodes, or a frack pad fire rages. And Chevron makes amends with pizza coupons. Or Halliburton pays a fine that will not undo the damage of, say, hydrochloric acid in the river. And then the Pennsylvania State Police labels as terrorists those who would protect our life-support system. The words of Pete Seeger are coming to mind: When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”

Too risky:  CitizenShale and Chesapeake Climate Action Network released results from an independent risk analysis they commissioned by Ricardo-AEA. The European firm, which also led a fracking risk review for the European Commission, found a “high risk” of groundwater and surface water contamination; damage to water resources from excessive withdrawals; air pollution from gas flaring, pipeline leaks, compressors; noise; loss of biodiversity; damage to tourism from the industrial landscape; road hazards from traffic, accidents and spills. It also found a “very high risk” of loss of land to development.

–elisabeth hoffman


2 Responses to “sounds of science”

  1. Thank you for shining more light on Maryland’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission! Why is this information not on the evening news in Annapolis, DC and Baltimore?

    The local leaders who are members of this Commission, including Sen. George Edwards, Garrett County Commissioner Jim Raley, Allegany County Commissioner Bill Valentine, and Oakland Mayor Peggy Jamison are now aware of this troubling information about the danger industrial gas drilling poses for their constituents.

    Once you know this is possible, “leaders.” you can’t NOT know it. The senator, commissioners and mayor owe it to the people in their districts to explain why they still support industrial gas development, even though it will foist certain impacts on the people of mountain Maryland.

    More from Pete Seeger: “Which side are you on?”

  2. Excellent post, Elisabeth. I was hoping to learn what information was presented to the Commission by Ingraffea, who is a highly credible source of information on the dangers of fracking. Thanks for filling me in. The question is whether it fell on deaf ears. We shall see…

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