Protests by environmentalists against hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) have been going on for years now, along with the Hollywood efforts of serial fabulists such as Josh Fox. One of the biggest concerns surrounding the process is the possibility of contamination of groundwater. While a previous study in Pennsylvania by the state Department of Environmental Protection revealed zero instances of this happening (except for surface spills during transport of hydraulic fluids), critics discounted the study and the protests continued.

Now a different study conducted in Ohio on the Utica shale play has been completed and published. They were looking for evidence of natural gas methane (CH4) in the drinking water near fracking sites which might be traced back to the drilling process. In order to identify the origins of any CH4 detected in the ground, they employed radiocarbon dating of the samples to determine if the compounds had come from the drilling sites or were biogenic, naturally occurring methane. Baseline testing was done prior to any drilling and continued during and well after the drilling was done. Once again, they found no evidence of contamination. The study results are posted at the Springer research material repository. (Emphasis added)

Here, we present the results of a free public water testing program in the Utica Shale of Ohio, where we measured CH4 concentration, CH4 stable isotopic composition, and pH and conductivity along temporal and spatial gradients of hydraulic fracturing activity. Dissolved CH4 ranged from 0.2 μg/L to 25 mg/L, and stable isotopic measurements indicated a predominantly biogenic carbonate reduction CH4 source. Radiocarbon dating of CH4 in combination with stable isotopic analysis of CH4 in three samples indicated that fossil C substrates are the source of CH4 in groundwater, with one 14C date indicative of modern biogenic carbonate reduction.

We found no relationship between CH4 concentration or source in groundwater and proximity to active gas well sites. No significant changes in CH4 concentration, CH4 isotopic composition, pH, or conductivity in water wells were observed during the study period. These data indicate that high levels of biogenic CH4 can be present in groundwater wells independent of hydraulic fracturing activity and affirm the need for isotopic or other fingerprinting techniques for CH4 source identification.

Another attack frequently launched by the “keep it in the ground” crowd consists of questioning the bias of the study participants or the source of funding. This testing was done on a completely independent basis and the funding came from two sources. One was the David & Sara Weston Foundation, a group whose mission is to, “enrich and strengthen underserved communities in… the arts, environmental conservation and social services.” Additional funding was provided by a grant from the Deer Creek Foundation, which seeks to “enrich the cultural and artistic quality of life in the St. Louis metropolitan area.”

In other words, we’re not talking about flunkies for ExxonMobil here.

Do you suppose this study will surface on the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post with the same level of coverage they give to protesters opposed to drilling? Or will this simply go down the memory hole along with the rest of the science showing that the energy industry has delivered on its promises to make this technology as environmentally friendly as possible? It’s just so hard to predict, so I won’t hazard a guess here.