This article concludes that salty, mineral-rich fluids deep beneath Pennsylvania’s natural gas fields are likely seeping upward thousands of feet into drinking water supplies. The brine’s presence – and the finding that it moved over thousands of vertical feet — contradicts the oft-repeated notion that deeply buried rock layers will always seal in material injected underground through drilling, mining, or underground disposal.

Though the fluids were natural and not the byproduct of drilling or hydraulic fracturing, the finding further stokes the red-hot controversy over fracking in the Marcellus Shale, suggesting that drilling waste and chemicals could migrate in ways previously thought to be impossible.

The maximum reported height of an upward propagating hydraulic fracture from several thousand fracturing operations in the Marcellus, Barnett,Woodford, Eagleford and Niobrara shale (USA) isw588 m.  Professor Richard Davies, Director of Durham Energy Institute, Durham University, said: “Based on our observations, we believe that it may be prudent to adopt a minimum vertical separation distance for stimulated fracturing in shale reservoirs. Such a distance should be set by regulators; our study shows that for new exploration areas where there is no existing data, it should be significantly in excess of 0.6 km.”

Hydraulic fracturing of deep shale beds to develop natural gas has caused concern regarding the potential for various forms of water pollution. Two potential pathways—advective transport through bulk media and preferential flow through fractures—could allow the transport of contaminants from the fractured shale to aquifers. There is substantial geologic evidence that natural vertical flow drives contaminants, mostly brine, to near the surface from deep evaporite sources. Interpretative modeling shows that advective transport could require up to tens of thousands of years to move contaminants to the surface, but also that fracking the shale could reduce that transport time to tens or hundreds of years. Conductive faults or fracture zones, as found throughout the Marcellus shale region, could reduce the travel time further. Injection of up to 15,000,000 L of fluid into the shale generates high pressure at the well, which decreases with distance from the well and with time after injection as the fluid advects through the shale. The advection displaces native fluids, mostly brine, and fractures the bulk media widening existing fractures. Simulated pressure returns to pre-injection levels in about 300 d. The overall system requires from 3 to 6 years to reach a new equilibrium reflecting the significant changes caused by fracking the shale, which could allow advective transport to aquifers in less than 10 years. The rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing requires that monitoring systems be employed to track the movement of contaminants and that gas wells have a reasonable offset from faults.

Extraction of natural gas from hard-to-reach reservoirs has expanded around the world and poses multiple environmental threats to surface waters. Improved drilling and extraction technology used to access low permeability natural gas requires millions of liters of water and a suite of chemicals that may be toxic to aquatic biota. There is growing concern among the scientific community and the general public that rapid and extensive natural gas development in the US could lead to degradation of natural resources. Gas wells are often close to surface waters that could be impacted by elevated sediment runoff from pipelines and roads, alteration of streamflow as a result of water extraction, and contamination from introduced chemicals or the resulting wastewater. However, the data required to fully understand these potential threats are currently lacking. Scientists therefore need to study the changes in ecosystem structure and function caused by natural gas extraction and to use such data to inform sound environmental policy.

Important analysis of data from its Pavillion, Wyoming ground water investigation. At the request of Pavillion residents, EPA began investigating water quality concerns in private drinking water wells three years ago. Since that time, in conjunction with the state of Wyoming, the local community, and the owner of the gas field, Encana, EPA has been working to assess ground water quality and identify potential sources of contamination. EPA press release 12.08.2011.

Directional drilling and hydraulic-fracturing technologies are dramatically increasing natural-gas extraction. In aquifers overlying the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York, we document systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale-gas extraction.


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