Study opposes assumption frack fluid can’t migrate to surface - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Study opposes assumption frack fluid can’t migrate to surface

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A new study based on computer modeling of underground faults and fractures of the Marcellus shale concludes, contrary to popular belief, that chemicals from hydraulic fracturing could travel to the surface in just a few years.

The report comes from hydrogeologist Tom Myers, who writes in "Potential Contaminant Pathways from Hydraulically Fractured Shale to Aquifers" that hydraulic fracturing could allow contaminants from deep shale to travel to the surface in less than 10 years. Myers' study was published in Ground Water, the  journal of the National Groundwater Association in April.

"Fracking can release fluids and contaminants from the shale either by changing the shale and overburden hydrogeology or simply by the injected fluid forcing other fluids out of the shale," Myers concluded. "The complexities of contaminant transport from hydraulically fractured shale to near surface aquifers render estimates uncertain, but a range of interpretative simulations suggest that transport times could be decreased from geologic time scales to as few as tens of years."

The prevailing assumption among many in the industry has been that impermeable rock sits atop the Marcellus shale formation. The rock, the industry argues, makes it impossible for anything to migrate to the surface or groundwater supplies.

Simon Lomax, research director at the industry-backed Energy in Depth, said among experts in the field, the concept is "settled science."

"There are thousands of feet of rock between deep shale formations and shallow aquifers, and it's precisely the barrier that keeps these fluids miles away from shallow drinking water sources," Lomax said. "It's the same impermeable barrier that has kept oil, gas, brine and other fluids trapped in these deep formations for millions of years, and it's why companies have to drill miles deep to reach those resources in the first place."

Lomax was also critical of the financiers of Myers' study. The research was paid for by Catskill Mountainkeeper and the Park Foundation, both of which have been outspoken opponents of hydraulic fracturing operations.

Myers also recently released an analysis of EPA results of a Wyoming water contamination case related to natural gas drilling commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Sierra Club and the Oil and Gas Accountability Project. 

"This is a paper written by oil and gas critics, for oil and gas critics, thanks to financing from oil and gas critics," Lomax said. "It's another example of them having to make up a scary story about hydraulic fracturing because the facts show it's safe."      

Without faulty well casings or other technical failures, many believe, there is no viable pathway to the surface for contaminants. Myers' study notes two potential pathways for the contaminant travel from fractured shale to aquifers.

According to Myers' computer models, fracturing could speed up a process that would normally take tens of thousands of years to a process that takes only tens or hundreds of years. When the models account for natural faults and fractures in deep shale resources, the model predicts that same process can occur in less than a decade.

Myers based his study on computer modeling of what effects could happen, not observable effects of the hydraulic fracturing of the shale. He wrote that the complexities of various contaminant pathways makes it difficult to get exact numbers from the models.

"The complexities of contaminant transport from hydraulically fractured shale to near surface aquifers render estimates uncertain, but a range of interpretative simulations suggest that transport times could be decreased from geologic time scales to as few as tens of years," the report states. "Preferential flow through natural fractures (and) fracking-induced fractures could further decrease the travel times to as little as just a few years.

In the conclusion to his study, Myers recommends mapping and measuring of the subsurface, reasonable setback of subsurface faults and fracturing operations, post-fracturing assessment of shale properties and deep and shallow monitoring wells in areas expecting significant development.

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