Rob Jackson’s team links dissolved methane in drinking water with natural gas development

If your tap water burns like Steve Lipsky’s in this video, and you live within one kilometer from a gas producing well, you just got scientific support for your potential lawsuit to any natural gas company that adulterates your water.

Rob Jackson, professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, during his public lecture at Stanford on September 29, presented a study that had proved a possibility of the leakage from shale gas wells and natural gas infiltration into the water wells nearby. Previously, oil companies that were sued for contamination could argue that the methane came to the water wells from natural seeps far below the bedrock, and couldn’t be connected to their wells. After Rob Jackson’s group established the link between the gas in water sources and the shale gas wells, oil companies’ chances in court decreased.

Rob Jackson’s group conducted a study of 141 drinking water wells across the Appalachian Plateau’s physiographic province of northeastern Pennsylvania and examined the natural gas concentrations and isotopic signatures in the water. Dissolved methane was detected in the 115 drinking water wells, or 82%. The average concentration of the gas was six times higher for homes located less than one kilometer away from natural gas wells, the study asserts.

The most interesting part of the research is that not only methane, but also ethane, propane and some noble gases were found in the samples. While methane can infiltrate water naturally, ethane, propane and the noble gasses found are strongly connected with natural gas extraction, and distance to gas wells proved to be highly significant for stray gas concentrations in water. “Ethane was 23 times higher in these homes; propane was detected in 10 water wells, all within approximately one kilometer distance”, Rob reported.

Professor Jackson’s caustic term for this liquid substance in the water wells - a ‘champagne’ – should not deceive us: methane occurring in your water is not a reason for a party. Stray gases may not only possess an intoxication risk, but also forebode a contamination with the chemicals that the companies employ in hydraulic fracturing. In order to assess these risks we need to figure out where and why a gas well loses its gas.

As the study suggests the higher dissolved gas concentrations may occur due to two main reasons: the first is faulty or inadequate steel casings, which are designed to keep the gas and any water inside the well from leaking into the environment. The second is imperfections in the cement sealing of the annulus or gaps between casings and rock that keep fluids from moving up the outside of the well. If the reason is the first one, those who live closer to the gas development site have a pretty good chance to taste some fracking chemicals with their glass of water one beautiful morning.