A recent study by Duke University demonstrates a link between methane contamination of drinking water wells and their proximity to natural gas drilling sites, according to the New York Times.
"The study would suggest potential for widespread contamination of rural drinking water from drilling in the Marcellus Shale under Pennsylvania, New York and other states," the Times wrote. "It could also provide substantial backing for drilling opponents and drill-site neighbors who blame drilling for fouled drinking water."
The Duke environmental chemist who authored the study, Robert Jackson, discussed the results with the Times. "Some of these landowners have a legitimate complaint. It looks like there's a real problem," he said. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found average methane was 17 times higher within 3,000 feet of drilling than water farther away.
According to the Times, the researchers found that 85 percent of the 68 wells they tested in Pennsylvania and upstate New York had some amount of methane. That is consistent with industry contentions that lots of wells in drilling areas had methane before exploration began. But they found that within about 3,000 feet, the concentration spikes upward sharply, and the chemical makeup more closely resembles the deep shale gas the companies are producing.
The study noted the average level found within a kilometer of drilling — 17 times higher than non-drilling areas — is higher than the level at which federal coal mine regulators recommend immediate action, such as ventilating the area, and possible changes to the water supply.
The peer-reviewed study injects some scientific rigor into a debate long characterized by shouting matches and partisan counterclaims, according to the Times. Researchers plan to go back into the field to test wells where gas was drilled since the samples were taken last year. Some of the wells they sampled far from drilling sites last year now have active production nearby.
The Duke research team, which also includes Stephen Osborn, Nathaniel Warner and Avner Vengosh, has recommended more research into the medical effects of methane exposure and more study of the disposal of fracturing fluid and the brine waste that comes back up with it, the Times reported.
Fracturing, also called "fracking," or "hydrofracking," is a part of the gas production process in which chemical-laced water is injected underground at high pressure. Advances in fracturing technology are what made production of shale gas possible in Pennsylvania, New York and other states.
The researchers offered two policy suggestions relating to hydraulic fracturing, according to the Times. Governments, they said, should require disclosure of the chemicals in fracturing fluid, and Congress should order federal regulation of fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). That has been proposed by congressional Democrats for several years, with legislation called the "FRAC Act." But it has never passed.