There is a high risk of contamination of groundwater by methane from the Marcellus Shale in parts of northeastern Pennsylvania, a new study suggests. Methane, which is a key component of natural gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking), could flow through natural pathways that link the Marcellus deep underground to aquifers near the surface. The study by researchers at Duke University finds evidence that such pathways do, in fact, exist.
The study reports that a chemical analysis of 426 shallow groundwater samples found matches with brine found in rock more than one mile deep, suggesting paths that would let gas or water flow up after drilling. While the flows weren’t linked to fracking, the study found natural routes for seepage into wells or streams. The Duke University researchers see “evidence of hydrologic connectivity.”
These findings are stirring more controversy and debate in Pennsylvania, where fracking is saturating the Marcellus gas field. It’s created an economic boon for the state and has been the major reason natural gas prices have dropped dramatically nationwide to decade lows. It’s becoming a pressing issue as natural gas provides more and more fuel for electric utilities and alternative fuel vehicles. There’s more fears being expressed by local residents and environmental groups about water contamination from the chemical mixture used to break apart the shale, or from gas leaking into water wells. Natural gas production companies are debating the study, saying it made clear that the groundwater situation has nothing to do with shale development. So, the outcome is yet to be crystal clear, as other research studies in the past year are showing that fracking is only one element of a rapidly growing energy industry tied into several economic and political issues at the state and federal levels.