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Universities Study Effects of Fracking

WHEELING – Corky DeMarco contends that methane found in drinking water wells close to Marcellus Shale operations may have nothing to do with nearby fracking, despite the findings of a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Penn State University professors and other researchers analyzed water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania allegedly contaminated with methane and chemicals associated with fracking. Among the materials identified in the water wells was 2-n-Butoxyethanol, which can be used as part of the fracking process.

Researchers also reportedly found methane – the most common substance in natural gas streams that is often known simply as “natural gas” when burned for energy – in some rural Pennsylvania drinking water wells.

“Part of the problem may have been wastewaters from a pit leak reported at the nearest gas well pad-the only nearby pad where wells were hydraulically fractured before the contamination incident,” the study’s abstract states.

However, DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said fracking near the water wells does not mean the procedure caused the contamination. He said some Mountain State water wells have historically had methane in them.

“There are formations that have methane in them that are close to the surface that can communicate with a water well,” he said. “Gas doesn’t stay still – gas migrates.”

“If you want to say there is methane in the water there, there is methane in the water there,” DeMarco acknowledged. “The fact is that it is a historical phenomenon.”

As these researchers studied water quality, engineers at Drexel University evaluated air pollution from fracking sites and processing infrastructure in the same region of Pennsylvania. They compared levels of carbon monoxide, methane, ethane, nitrogen oxides and other volatile organic compounds to those found in other shale formations across the country from which natural gas is drawn.

“In looking at a cross-section of sites, we identified compressor stations as one of the larger long-term emission sources,” said Peter DeCarlo, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering and College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel.

In 2012, Chesapeake Energy noted the “potential to discharge” these pollutants on an annual basis from the now operational Battle Run compressor station in Ohio County: carbon dioxide, 93,800 tons; nitrogen oxides, 82.96 tons; carbon monoxide, 16.87 tons; methane, 86.63 tons; carbon dioxide equivalent, 95,667 tons; and formaldehyde, 3.22 tons.

“In terms of persistent impacts to local air quality, compressor stations and other post-extraction processing are major sources of pollutants that have the potential to affect downwind air quality,” DeCarlo said.

Officials estimate it takes as much as 10 million gallons of water to frack a single well, along with about 2 million pounds of sand. Frackers inject the water and sand, along with a cocktail of chemicals, deep into the earth at a pressure as high as 10,000 pounds per square inch to shatter the rock and release the gas.

Not every frack job requires the same solution of chemicals, so not all substances will be used for every well.

Some commonly used fracking chemicals include hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol, isopropanol, glutaraldehyde, petroleum distillate, guar gum, ammonium persulfate, formamide, borate salts, citric acid, potassium chloride and sodium carbonate.

“I am not going to say they didn’t find some chemicals in there,” DeMarco said of the water wells in the northeastern Pennsylvania study zone. “I just don’t know of a frack job in West Virginia that has caused this kind of contamination.”

DeMarco emphasized drillers install multiple layers of steel and cement when building natural gas wells. He said this should prevent most problems, though he admits industrial accidents are always possible.

“There are other things that can get in a water well besides frack chemicals,” DeMarco said. “If you go to Doddridge County or Gilmer County, and you don’t have city water, the water will smell like sulfur.”

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