As North Carolina readies for fracking, 2014 could be a productive year for Duke University researchers whose studies have become a regular nuisance for the oil and gas industry.
Robert Jackson, professor of earth and ocean sciences, and Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality, have continued pumping out new research in an attempt to seal the case that shale gas extraction is the culprit behind drinking water quality problems in other states.
Just as North Carolina gets set to lift its fracking moratorium and clear the way for drilling next year, Duke scientists are developing a method for determining whether methane in drinking water is coming from natural gas extraction or natural sources.
Jackson and Vengosh are among the few academics issuing high-profile challenges to energy industry claims that drilling is environmentally safe, yet they have had a low profile in fracking deliberations in Raleigh. But as state officials prepare for a last round of public hearings that will start later this month, the professors will be finalizing research that could show that methane in Pennsylvania’s drinking water was caused by fracking.
That research is part of their emerging work that could pinpoint the cause of contamination. “We can find out not only do you have a dead body,” Vengosh said, “but who killed it.”
Their detractors, primarily in the energy industry, say their conclusions could be explained by natural processes.
One of them is James Womack, who recently stepped down as chairman of the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission. Womack said he saw no reason to invite either professor to testify or offer expertise before the full commission, which has spent two years writing dozens of rules to govern shale gas exploration in North Carolina.
“With all due respect to Avner Vengosh, he’s not interested in drilling,” Womack said. “His studies are all aimed at the downside of oil and gas development.”
Vengosh says his aim is legitimate science, not to serve any particular perspective. He is studying, for example, a safe way to deal with radioactive wastewater from fracking, which could be valuable to the industry.
“When we make a statement there is something behind it, and it is not my personal opinion,” he said. “We have no agenda.”
Jackson and Vengosh are both professors in Duke’s Nicholas School, an academic powerhouse aimed at research on current environmental issues. In 2011, they caused a major stir when said they had found a link between shale gas extraction and contamination of drinking water in Pennsylvania.
Methane gas concentrations were so high in some private water wells that gas-laced water could explode or catch fire in the faucet, they reported. In response to criticism that their data was insufficient, Jackson and Vengosh conducted a follow-up study and confirmed their results.
Now, Jackson says, the researchers want to test for methane before drilling starts in North Carolina. Researchers and students have collected data from 51 private water wells in Lee County, where drilling is expected to occur as early as next year.
Because water here is naturally low in methane and there is no history of drilling, any rise in the methane count could be attributed to new energy exploration, Jackson said.
So far Jackson and Vengosh haven’t weighed in on the potential outcome that fracking foes fear most: whether chemicals injected underground during fracking find a way into the water supply.
That’s not simple research, Vengosh says, because of the way the chemical compounds interact with the surrounding environment. But making the case for such an impact could just be a matter of time: Jackson said he and his colleagues are working on the data, but it is not ready for publication.
However, Jackson, who is moving to a new job at Stanford University, said the presence of methane gas in wells could be a warning sign of deeper problems and shouldn’t be dismissed as the end of the story. He said it could take many years for chemicals to work their way through thousands of feet of rocky barrier and seep into drinking wells near the surface.
“What we still don’t know is whether the methane is the only thing that we’ll see, or just the first thing that we see,” Jackson said. “The gas is more buoyant, more mobile. The other stuff potentially could be wastewater, chemicals, or anything else that’s moving through the well.”
Sensational, or scientific?
North Carolina is about to begin public hearings on 100-plus proposed safety standards for shale gas exploration. After four statewide hearings in August and September, the commissioners will consider changes and forward the rules to the state legislature, which is eager to lift the fracking moratorium.
Those rules will deal with ways to ensure against methane migration by requiring better-designed gas wells. The rules also will address ways to treat and dispose of wastewater from fracking.
Research published by Jackson and Vengosh has had some impact in North Carolina. Jackson made a presentation before the commission’s environmental committee in January 2013 about the need for buffers between gas wells and drinking wells.
North Carolina’s “baseline” testing proposal partially resulted from the Duke research, said Vikram Rao, the new chairman of the Mining and Energy Commission. Drinking water would be tested in all private wells within a half-mile of the gas drilling site, and then retested five times after drilling and fracking take place, under the state’s proposed rules.
The proposed safety rules would also prohibit drilling for natural gas within 650 feet of a water well, a distance Jackson and Vengosh said should be extended to at least 1,000 feet to safeguard residents from methane seeping into water.
Rao said Duke scientists have been “seminal” in bringing attention to potential methane problems, but also highly suspect for blaming shale gas extraction rather than considering unrelated causes.
“It was more sensational than scientific,” said Rao, a former chief technology officer for the Halliburton energy services firm and now director of the Research Triangle Energy Consortium.
Critics of the study have said the methane Jackson and Vengosh found could have migrated naturally in the Northeast, or could have been dislodged by decades of mining.
Ensuring safe wells
In their current research, Duke scientists are developing chemical fingerprinting tools to differentiate between methane leaking from well shafts and methane that naturally floats through rock formations into aquifers.
The most likely pathway for shale gas in drinking water would be shoddy well shafts that leak gas flowing out of the well head, Jackson said. Rao agrees.
As another precaution against leaky wells, North Carolina’s proposed rules would require up to three layers of steel casing and three cement layers in sections where well shafts bore through aquifers and water sources.
“You can solve any industry-related leakage problems with strong well construction standards,” said Womack, the outgoing commission chairman and a former U.S. Army intelligence officer. “That’s where you really nip this in the bud.”
When the professors conducted a methane study in Arkansas similar to their Pennsylvania work, they found no methane in drinking water. Jackson said that likely means the wells were properly constructed and the state’s geology impeded natural gas from migrating on its own.
North Carolina presents special risks, Jackson noted, because shale rock formations here are at some points less than a mile underground, half the distance of some other shale gas basins, and fluids can seep upward through faults and other pathways.
The threats to water resources extend beyond methane contamination. The substantial volume of contaminated wastewater is one of the biggest safety hazards of natural gas extraction.
Between 4 and 6 million gallons of water mixed with a cocktail of chemicals are injected into shale formations to stimulate a well. The returning wastewater is a hazardous mixture of injected fluid and shale waters, which can contain high salinity, radiation and toxic metals.
Vengosh recommends the state study the characteristics of North Carolina wastewater and test treatment methods before building treatment facilities. Disposal into rivers should be totally avoided, he says, because inadequate treatment and disposal can have long-lasting environmental impacts.
Vengosh’s team investigated contamination from a Pennsylvania wastewater treatment facility that disposed effluent into streams. They found high levels of radioactivity, salinity and halogens downstream, signs of insufficient treatment. The radioactivity could persist for well over a thousand years, according to the study.
Drinking water treatment would have to be tailored to avoid producing trihalomethane, a carcinogenic compound, Vengosh said.
“There is no technological barrier to treatment,” he said. “It’s only a matter of cost, management and willingness to do that. And who is paying for that? That is always the question.”
North Carolina’s proposed rules would allow wastewater to be temporarily stored in ponds, treated on site, transported to off-site treatment facilities or injected underground out of state, all which can lead to spills.
Even as Jackson heads to California and Vengosh continues several research projects, their latest work will likely be widely discussed in the coming months as it reaches publication. At the same time, North Carolina officials will be working out the details of the state’s regulatory program for shale gas exploration.
Even though some dismiss them as crusaders, Jackson and Vengosh say their role is gathering scientific information the oil and gas industry can use to avoid recurring environmental problems.
“It’s a matter of acknowledgment,” Vengosh said. “Addressing there is a problem and fixing it.”