Fracking Wells Tainting Drinking Water in Texas and Pennsylvania, Study Finds

Methane in drinking water
Well water, contaminated by methane, burns at Steve Lipsky's home in Texas. Burning Water / YouTube

In 2012, Steve Lipsky began appearing in photos and videos with a lighter in hand, igniting the water that flowed out of his family's tap. So much methane had built up in the well that supplied his Parker County, Texas home, that the water bubbled like champagne, and, it appeared, could be lit on fire. He and his wife Shyla sued oil and gas company Range Resources for $6.5 million, alleging that the company's nearby hydraulic fracturing well had caused the contamination.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency got involved, issuing an emergency order against Range Resources, but then reversed course and dropped the action after the company protested. Range Resources maintained that the methane came from natural seeps far below the bedrock, and couldn't be connected to their well. By then, the Lipsky's had lost their case in court and Range Resources had launched a defamation suit against the couple to the tune of $4.2 million, in a case that is ongoing. Earlier this year the Railroad Commission of Texas, which is responsible for oil and gas drilling regulation in the state, determined that evidence was "insufficient" to place blame on the nearby drilling site. "Further investigation is not planned at this time," the report concluded.

Now, a paper published Monday found a novel way to distinguish between naturally occurring methane and the gas that could leak from a fracking well, and the researchers say it shows that the Range Resources wells are to blame in the case of the Lipsky's and their neighbors' water, as well as in drinking wells at eight sites in Pennsylvania.

Range Resources could not be reached for comment at press time.

The paper also offers new insights into how, exactly, the methane can escape.The researchers say the source of the methane in homes they surveyed in Pennsylvania and Texas was not the act of hydraulic fracturing itself, but was due rather to cracks in the steel casing or flaws in the cement of the wells that are meant to protect groundwater sources from contamination. In other words, with adequate safety measures, these contaminations could be prevented.

"I think sometimes people are in a hurry. Sometimes drillers encounter a problem when they're drilling and they have to make a decision about whether to stop and address a problem or keep going. Sometimes people can cut corners to keep the drilling moving along," says Robert Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University and one of the authors of the study. "What we need are the strongest well integrity safeguards that we can have, and we need enough inspectors to enforce the regulations we already have."

The researchers, who hailed from Duke, Ohio State, Dartmouth, the University of Rochester and Stanford, traced the presence of noble gases in the methane that emerged in peoples' houses in fracking regions in Pennsylvania and Texas to distinguish between gas from natural seeps and drilling sites. Noble gases like helium, neon, and argon "stick" to natural gas and move with it, unchanged, as it passes through different layers of earth. That means that if the gas originated at the far depths of the earth where natural seeps occur, the ratios of noble gases would be different than if they came from drilling depths around just 1,500 feet underground, allowing researchers to distinguish between the two sources.

The researchers found eight clusters of contaminated drinking water wells—seven in Pennsylvania and one in Texas—where integrity problems at nearby fracking wells were the source of the problem.

The main hazard of methane in drinking water systems is the chance of explosion: The gas readily separates from the water if exposed to air, and can escape through faucets and gaps in household piping. Because methane is odorless, a homeowner may not notice his or her basement or shed filling up with the gas. One spark or strike of a match, and boom goes the room.

There is currently no state or federal drinking water standard for methane, and drinking methane-laden water is not viewed as a health hazard. (That said, there has been little research done on the subject. In a 2011 paper, Duke University scientists wrote they "found essentially no peer-reviewed research on its health effects at lower concentrations in water or air.") But if methane is migrating into their water supply, experts worry other fracking-related chemicals could be migrating too.

"What we don't know right now is whether methane is an early warning of other chemicals to come," Jackson says—that would likely depend on the type of well damage that was causing the methane leak in the first place. "If you have a crack in the steel casing, it is an open pipeline, if you will." Methane would escape first, and then other chemicals would seep out over time, Jackson says. If the flaw is only in the cement casing, however, it would be less likely that other chemicals could escape. In short, methane in water doesn't always mean other more nefarious chemicals will arrive there too. But in some cases, it might.

Either way, comprehensive well tests cost around a thousand dollars a pop, so it's unlikely any homeowner would know if other chemicals showed up, Jackson says.

In its recent report, the Texas Railroad Commission told residents in the Lipsky's neighborhood that methane concentrations in their wells were still going up.

"Based on the evidence of increasing methane concentrations in some water wells in the Silverado neighborhood, RRC staff recommends that neighborhood residents properly ventilate and aerate their water systems," the report concludes.

Jackson says that should raise a red flag.

"If I were a homeowner in that neighborhood... that would be distressing to me. I would want to ask, why aren't you doing follow-up testing?"

Jackson emphasizes that further investigation by the Railroad Commission is required to fully assess the situation. But with the defamation case against the Lipsky's set to be heard soon by the highest court in Texas, the methane-tracing technique published by Jackson and his colleagues may help answer the contentious and murky question of where the methane came from.