There are, however, rich shales in the watershed that supplies New York City. That rural watershed remains untapped because the state of New York has a temporary moratorium on fracking as debate continues over the best permanent policy.
Flammable taps resulting from excessive methane are a dramatic display of problems potentially tied to fracking. Methane can make its way into drinking water through a variety of paths apart from fracking, such as from abandoned wells, because it exists throughout various subsurface layers. Saiers says peer-reviewed studies have found methane in drinking water aquifers prior to shale gas development.
A Duke University study of water wells in New York and Pennsylvania released last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
concluded that methane levels were significantly higher in wells closer to fracking operations. As important, the researchers found that, at least in some cases, this methane had a chemical signature closer to that of methane from the deep shale than from shallower subsurface layers.
“Not surprisingly the industry wasn’t overjoyed with our conclusions about methane,” says lead author Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke. But some environmentalists were upset too, he says, because the study also concluded there were no signs of fracking fluids in the wells, and some detractors felt they hadn’t done enough to test for this possibility. Then there were the people that called him up in tears because they were so thankful that someone was even looking closely at the issue.
ome also criticized Jackson’s team for not comparing their methane measurements against baseline measurements taken before fracking began, but that’s because the data simply don’t exist. For a variety of reasons, baseline water-quality measurements
and studies have been sparse, though newer regulations in Pennsylvania do require water quality testing prior to new drilling.
Jackson believes the simplest explanation for his group’s findings is that the methane is coming up through or around abandoned oil or natural gas wells or new wells that were inadequately cased. He says that some of the water wells his group has tested were so saturated with methane that the water bubbled like champagne. So while it’s true that methane can contaminate wells without any help from fracking, he says even without baseline data, if a person begins seeing such an obvious sign of contamination as bubbling after fracking begins, it can be a reliable indicator or a connection. Too much methane in water can cause an explosion, but Jackson says it’s not clear what, if any, health threats that low concentrations of methane pose.
Technological advances have enabled companies to drill horizontally and reach shale miles away from the well head. This reduces the surface footprint of operations, but the thousands upon thousands of these rigs still arrive with consequences.
In Pennsylvania, access roads for fracked wells must often be cut through some of the region’s most pristine remaining forests. Roadways also typically have to cross streams and, depending on how they are constructed, can block water flow needed by plants and animals downstream. But a more widespread concern is the ecological effects of companies tapping waterways
to get the millions of gallons needed for fracking wells.