A new study out of Duke claims that the methane content of groundwater within 3000 feet of shale gas wells in Appalachia is 17 times higher than wells farther away. At the very least, methane contamination makes water dangerously flammable, though more thorough studies of the health effects of ingesting it still need to be conducted. Who would like to drink methane contaminated water in the interim before those studies are completed? (For disturbing documentation of what flammable tap water looks like, watch the excellent documentary Gasland.)
Despite being peer-reviewed and appearing in a reputable journal (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), the Duke study has come under severe criticism from the petrochemical industry and affiliated scientists:
Industry groups are criticizing the study, noting that there is no “baseline” before-and-after data and no proof drilling wells caused the methane contamination.
“What you have here is a paper that draws pretty firm conclusions without much data at all to back any of them up,” said Chris Tucker, spokesman for Energy In Depth, a drilling industry group…
…John Conrad, a groundwater geologist from upstate New York, says the researchers may have “jumped the gun” to blame drilling when they have not compared the same water wells before and after drilling.
“This is possibly an interesting trend,” said Conrad, who has worked with the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York. “But with this small number of data points and no baseline data, it doesn’t prove it. It might reflect the amount of gas that’s always been there.”
While these criticisms appear rational, they are actually unreasonable. Their entire aim is to prevent a moratorium on drilling. Firstly, there is no baseline data because the drilling industry does not care to collect it precisely to avoid strengthening the conclusions of environmental impact assessments. Secondly, historian Naomi Oreskes’ book Merchants of Doubt meticulously documents industrial front organizations attacking scientific conclusions that threaten their bottom line long after the scientific consensus has solidified, such as in the case of tobacco smoke causing lung cancer. As this methane study is the first of its kind the arguments cited above seem stronger than they actually are. They become less convincing to discerning minds as they are repeated ad nauseum.
For more on the risk of water pollution from hydraulic fracturing, check out these articles: