In search of facts on fracking
Jack Z. Smith
Publication Date: September 5, 2010 Page: D01 Section: Work and
Money Zone: Tarrant Edition: Main
*Drilling stirs outcry, but no direct link to water pollution found
First in a three-part series
Tarrant County Commissioner J.D. Johnson recalls precisely when the 260-foot-deep
water well at his rural home became polluted in August 2005.
"It occurred when they fractured the wells," he said, referring to two Barnett Shale
natural gas wells drilled on his 15 acres in northwest Tarrant County. "Immediately after
they fracked those wells, the water turned everything in our house that it came into
contact with a dark gold color, like a mineral color."
White clothes that were being washed turned gold. So did the interiors of toilet bowls.
His home's white stone exterior was too, thanks to the sprinkler system. A gritty, fine
sand was in the water, Johnson said. He and his wife, Margie, spent $6,000 on a water
purification system "that cleared the water up to where we could use it in the house and
drink it," Johnson said.
The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, investigated
but did not find any problems that appeared to be related to drilling and hydraulic
fracturing of the gas wells, according to Michael O'Quinn, a commission district director.
By the time the commission reinspected it 40 days later, Johnson told the agency that he
had his water tested and that it was drinkable, O'Quinn said.
The specific cause of Johnson's well problem has not been conclusively determined, but
he said "somehow, something got into our water source, [the Paluxy Aquifer], and I don't
know how it happened." But he suspects that fracturing of the two gas wells triggered the
Such anecdotal accounts, while fairly unusual, are cropping up across the nation in places
with substantial natural gas drilling. Hydraulic fracturing - "fracking," for short - a long-
used but newly controversial technology, is under the gun from environmental
organizations, community groups and politicians who fear that it poses health risks from
groundwater contamination. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is launching a
study of fracking.
However, scientists, academics, state oil and gas regulators, and experts in groundwater
protection are finding little evidence that hydraulic fracturing has been a direct cause of
groundwater contamination. Instead, poor cementing and casing of wells is much more
likely to cause pollution of freshwater aquifers, and even then the problem occurs
relatively infrequently, these experts generally say.
Multiple layers of casing (steel pipe) and cement are installed in wellbores to prevent
contamination of aquifers, which often supply fresh water for municipal and private
Indeed, some oil and gas regulators, as well as some energy producers, say their biggest
concern is surface spills of fracturing fluids that contain potentially toxic chemical
Texas Railroad Commission records "do not indicate a single documented groundwater
contamination case associated with hydraulic fracturing," although the technique has
been used more than 50 years in the state to stimulate production from oil and natural gas
wells, commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said.
Even with the intense activity in the past decade in the Barnett Shale, now home to about
14,000 producing wells, there "have been no documented cases of groundwater
pollution" from fracking, Nye said.
She also said that "poor cementing or casing of wells resulting in groundwater
contamination of fresh water is not a significant problem in Texas." There have been no
cases of such contamination in the last five years, according to the commission's oil and
Fracking involves huge volumes of water and sand, plus a much smaller volume of
chemical additives, pumped down a well under high pressure. That fractures underground
rock formations, creating openings for natural gas and oil to flow to the surface. Fracking
has been routinely employed on Barnett wells ever since the drilling boom began.
Perhaps the most widely publicized case of groundwater contamination occurred in tiny
Dimock, Pa., in the vast Marcellus Shale. The Pennsylvania Department of
Environmental Protection fined Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas $360,000 after
concluding that it allowed shallow deposits of natural gas to migrate into residents'
The cause: a poor job of cementing and casing the upper portion of gas wells, rather than
the hydraulic fracturing that occurred thousands of feet below, the agency found.
It ordered Cabot to provide drinking-water supplies to 14 families and temporarily
suspended the company from drilling around Dimock. Cabot plugged three gas wells
linked to the contamination.
"Basically, the company drilled through a shallow formation and did not case the wells
properly," agency spokesman Tom Rathbun said.
Agency Secretary John Hanger told the Star- Telegram that there have been no confirmed
cases of groundwater contamination in Pennsylvania as a result of deephydraulic
fracturing in the Marcellus Shale.
Hanger said natural gas migration resulting from poor well design and construction, like
what occurred at Dimock, has been "a significant problem." But the agency is addressing
it, he said, by adopting higher standards for casing and cementing of gas wells.
Hanger said Pennsylvania's biggest regulatory problem is "at the surface," with spills,
leaks and overflows of fracturing fluids from temporary impoundments, storage tanks or
trucks. In some cases, these spills have polluted streams and killed small fish.
Hanger is not the only environmental watchdog to note a lack of evidence
blaminghydraulic fracturing for groundwater contamination.
Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel for the Environmental Working Group, an organization
that favors expanded federal regulation of fracking, acknowledged in June that the
organization is "unaware of any publicly cited instances where hydraulic fracturinghas
been proven to be the direct cause of groundwater contamination."
But, he said, that lack of verification is "likely because of the difficulties in pinpointing
the source of natural gas pollution."
"Another reason for the lack of examples may be that you can't find what you don't look
for," Horwitt said, citing what he said was a lack of scientific testing by industry or
government to ascertain whether fracking has contaminated groundwater.
Most likely causes
Still, when tests and investigation have established a cause of contamination, it tends to
be cementing and casing.
In December 2007, a Bainbridge, Ohio, home was seriously damaged in an explosion.
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, entered the basement via an aquifer that
fed an in-house water well. The two people in the home were not injured, but about 20
homes had to be evacuated and 26 home water wells disconnected.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources concluded that the genesis of the problem
was "inadequate primary cementing of the well's production casing," which allowed gas
to migrate into shallow water aquifers and the water wells.
In Garfield County, Colo., where there has been heavy gas drilling, a county
hydrogeological study employing professional consultants showed that as the number of
gas wells escalated, so did methane levels in nearby water wells.
Geoffrey Thyne, a consultant on the ongoing project, told the Star-Telegram that a gas
seep into a creek was "caused by a cement job that went bad" on a well drilled and
fractured in 2004. The creek began bubbling, and benzene, a potentially cancer-causing
chemical, was detected in the water. Encana Oil & Gas was fined $371,200 and took
remedial measures, including recementing the well.
Gas is still seeping into the creek, and some residential water wells have had methane in
them, "but nobody has been able to prove" that the gas in the water wells "is from that
leaking gas well," said Thyne, a geologist who used to work for an oil company in Texas.
The causes in other contamination cases remains unresolved.
Near Pavillion, Wyo., a site of oil and gas drilling for decades, the EPA is investigating
complaints of foul smell and taste in 39 rural water wells. The EPA said Tuesday that its
water sampling "detected several petroleum hydrocarbons, including benzene and
methane, in wells and in groundwater."
The agency said "low levels of petroleum compounds" were found in 17 of 19 drinking-
water wells. Nearby shallow groundwater "is contaminated with high levels of petroleum
compounds," it said, adding that it "has not made any conclusions about the sources of
chemical compounds found in drinking-water wells." The agency urged residents to use
alternate sources of water for drinking and cooking and, for homes "affected by methane
gas in wells," to ventilate rooms while showering to avoid a gas buildup.
In Johnson County, Jim and Linda Scoma filed a lawsuit in June contending that
"drilling-related activities" by Chesapeake Energy, including fracking, caused
contamination of their water well, making the water unfit to drink and giving it a foul
odor and taste. Chesapeake disputes the allegations.
Just outside Dish, in Denton County, Damon and Amber Smith said water from their well
is so loaded with sediment that they stopped drinking it. Damon Smith told the Star-
Telegram that he and his wife have been using water from a garden hose run from his
parents' adjacent home, which is on a separate well. He suspects that the drilling of three
nearby gas wells caused the problem. The railroad commission and EPA are
Fracturing's uncertain role
Based on his role as special projects director for the Ground Water Protection Council,
Mike Nickolaus says he doesn't believe that fracking poses a serious threat to
"Groundwater contamination from other sources is a far greater risk to human health and
the environment," said Nickolaus, a Granbury resident who has a geology degree and was
director of the oil and gas division of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources from
2000 to 2005. Among those other sources, he cites storm water runoff, large septic
systems that don't operate properly and the improper disposal of industrial waste by
injecting it into zones above or within underground sources of drinking water.
The council is a national association of state energy and environmental agencies involved
with water-protection issues. The two Texas members are the Texas Commission on
Environmental Quality and the railroad commission, which considers groundwater
protection in issuing permits for drilling oil and gas wells.
Nickolaus said the risk of groundwater contamination from fracking is exceptionally
remote in areas like the Barnett Shale and the Marcellus Shale, where more than a mile of
dense rock typically separates shallow freshwater aquifers from petroleum deposits.
Terry Engelder, a Penn State University geosciences professor considered an expert
on hydraulic fracturing, agrees with Nickolaus' assessment.
Engelder, speaking at a Houston energy conference in June, said that deep hydraulic
fracturing in the Marcellus Shale - done far below freshwater aquifers and separated from
them by thousands of feet of rock of "low permeability"- is highly unlikely to result in
migration of fracking fluids up into the aquifers that are sources of drinking water.
Permeability refers to how easily liquid or gas can move through rock or other material.
Acoustic mapping, which can track the extent of hydraulic fractures underground, shows
the impact of fracking "is contained within the Marcellus," Engelder said. For the
fracking fluids to migrate into the aquifers, there would have to be "interconnected
fractures," he said. If there were such fractures, salt water and natural gas would have
migrated into the aquifers long ago, he said.
But that obviously hasn't happened, he said, because "nobody has ever reported salt water
in their drinking-water wells" in Pennsylvania and "gas pressure is maintained within the
Marcellus for millions of years" - evidence that the gas remained trapped below, rather
Many Pennsylvania residents associate hydraulic fracturing with whatever they don't like
about the escalation of gas drilling activity in the state, Engelder told the Star-Telegram.
"Now everyone in the state of Pennsylvania thinks they're an expert on hydraulic
fracturing," he said. To many, "hydraulic fracturing is the dust kicked up by the trucks
that drive the water to the wells. It is the noise from these drill rigs. It's just everything
Bob Patterson, executive director of the Upper Trinity River Groundwater Conservation
District, which encompasses Parker, Wise, Hood and Montague counties, said hydraulic
fracturing has never been confirmed as the cause for contamination of any of the 40,000-
plus private water wells within the district.
But he said the district gets "regular reports" from property owners who said that "since a
particular [gas] well had been fracked, they've had problems" with their water wells, such
as sand in them, saltier water or reduced water output. "Their wells might go from seven
to eight gallons a minute to half that," Patterson said.He thinks that fracking could
contribute to these problems but that more study is needed.
The Upper Trinity district is "in the process of doing that with some other water districts
across the state," he said. The districts are "putting in a [water] well monitoring system"
in areas where there has been well contamination and will analyze the water in an effort
to determine the contamination source, he said.
Patterson added that some abandoned oil wells in Montague County that were never
plugged have leaked contaminants, including salty water and "old congealed oil," into
Since 2000, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has required operators
to collect baseline and periodic water quality samples for more than 2,000 water wells in
the heavily drilled San Juan Basin in southwestern Colorado, Commission Director Dave
Neslin said at a July 12 EPA public hearing in Denver on fracking. With baseline testing,
samples are taken from water wells and the content is analyzed before any gas wells
nearby are drilled and fracked. Additional samples are taken after the new well is
producing gas and every three years after that, Neslin told the Star-Telegram.
"Thousands of oil and gas wells in that basin have been hydraulically fractured, and if
fracturing fluids were reaching these water wells then you would expect changes in the
chemical composition of the water," Neslin said at the EPA hearing. "However,
independent analysis of the data has found no statistically significant increase in chemical
The key to preventing groundwater contamination from gas and oil wells is proper
surface casing and well cementing, said Nickolaus, of the Ground Water Protection
Surface casing extends from ground level to well below an underground water source.
Cement is set between the casing and the sides of the wellbore to seal it from the aquifer.
The casing and cementing process is repeated as the well deepens.
The railroad commission dictates the depth of surface casing to protect aquifers.
"It might be 800 feet in one area, or 1,200 feet in another," said Dave Leopold,
Chesapeake Energy's operations manager for the Barnett Shale. Leopold said the
company's wells provide up to "seven layers of protection" to prevent leakage from a
wellbore into a freshwater aquifer. Those include installation of multiple layers of cement
and casing and, ultimately, the inner production tubing through which oil and gas flows.
"We've got over 1,800 wells, and I don't know of any that would have any freshwater
contamination at all," Leopold said.
Tim Beard, a Chesapeake engineering adviser and fracking expert, said there are "rare
instances where we'll have issues with surface casing, but in all those cases we'll go in
and fix those issues" before significant problems occur.
More scrutiny for cementing, casing
More regulatory attention to cementing and casing seems likely, an outcome industry
For example, a recent report about fracturing by Houston-based energy investment firm
Tudor Pickering Holt & Co. predicts that over time, the debate about hydraulic
fracturing will shift from the "hard-to-prove allegation" that deep fracking can result in
groundwater contamination of shallow aquifers to "a broader, more-addressable set of
objections" centered on "credible concerns ... about well design [e.g., cementing and
casing] and waste-handling [of fracturing fluids]." The report forecasts that the EPA
study, expected to take two years, "will most likely identify risks to public health from
sloppy drilling practices."
"We expect the agency to call for better well design and materials handling," the report
said. "States are already stiffening their standards in an effort to head off federal action."
Right now, however, environmental groups and numerous residents advocate stronger
regulation of hydraulic fracturing, and the oil and gas industry in general, to protect
sources of drinking water and prevent potentially harmful surface spills of fracturing
The Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Group, an industry critic affiliated with the
Earthworks environmental group, has brought forth a "Drill-Right Texas" proposal with a
long list of suggested "best oil and gas development practices." Among its
recommendations are fully disclosing chemicals used in fracking, using "non-polluting
options" when available as substitutes for "toxic" fracturing chemicals, and holding oil
and gas operators to the highest standards in cementing and casing of wells.
Higher standards for cementing and casing aren't expected to present a significant
problem for the industry.
Poor cementing of wells is "eminently correctable" by employing better techniques, said
Engelder, the Penn State professor.
However, as the oil industry attempts to convince Congress and the American public
that hydraulic fracturing should continue to be regulated by the states, the difficulty of
that task has been magnified by self-inflicted wounds.
The massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has tainted the entire industry and
increased the outcry for tougher federal regulation. And there have been several
embarrassing oil field incidents this year in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and
West Virginia, in which state regulators have found companies at fault for sloppy and
Prominent environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, Earthworks and the
Environmental Working Group want fracking to be put under federal Safe Drinking
Water Act regulations. They are also clamoring for public disclosure of the contents of
fracturing fluids, as would be required under legislation pending in Congress.
Some oil industry officials say fracturing fluids' formulas should remain proprietary trade
secrets. But others, most notably Range Resources of Fort Worth, have begun voluntarily
disclosing them in the Marcellus Shale, and Chesapeake Energy has said it might require
its contractors to disclose chemicals.
Some states have either approved chemical disclosure rules or are considering them. In
Texas, limited information about chemicals used in fracturing is on required "material
safety data sheets" at well sites to aid emergency personnel responding to an accident.
The EPA has said its examination of fracking, expected to be completed in late 2012, will
be "a scientific study to investigate the possible relationships between hydraulic
fracturing and drinking water." The study will seek to "answer questions about the
potential impact" of fracking "on human health and the environment," said Paul Anastas,
assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Research and Development. A standing-
room-only crowd of 600 packed into a downtown Fort Worth hotel in July for an EPA
meeting on the study, and twice that many attended a similar meeting in Canonsburg, Pa.,
Pluses and minuses
Meanwhile, J.D. Johnson, the Tarrant County commissioner who said fracking
contaminated his water well, expresses ambivalence about hydraulic fracturing and
Barnett Shale drilling. He not only shelled out $6,000 for a water purification system, but
also received no lease bonus or royalties from the two gas wells drilled on his property,
because he didn't own the mineral rights. He said the well operator gave him about
$3,000 to use his land.
As an overseer of county roads, Johnson laments that heavy truck traffic resulting from
drilling operations "really takes a toll on our roads." But the Barnett drilling boom also
has provided "lots of pluses," he said, including jobs, tax revenue and extra income for
many thousands of mineral owners.
"I would like to see stronger regulation as far as the [protection of] drinking water is
concerned," Johnson said. But he would prefer, like Gov. Rick Perry, that the federal
government stay out of it.
"I don't think I need the federal help," he said.
Jack Z. Smith, 817-390-7724
Hydraulic fracturing video on the American Petroleum Institute website:
Environmental Protection Agency's hydraulic fracturing website:
About this series
The Star-Telegram's examination of hydraulic fracturing included interviews with oil
and gas industry executives and managers involved in drilling and fracturing
operations, representatives of environmental groups and community organizations
wanting stronger regulation of fracturing, and other expert sources in oil and gas
production, environmental protection and regulatory fields. A Star-Telegram reporter
observed a "frack job" on two gas wells south of Fort Worth; attended energy
conferences in Houston, Fort Worth and Dallas at which fracturing was discussed;
reviewed professional studies, media reports and websites about fracturing; viewed
oil and gas industry videos explaining the fracturing process; and viewed four
documentaries on natural gas drilling and fracturing.
(C) The Star-Telegram 2010