New study reveals dangerous levels of flammable methane in drinking water wells

A video segment leading off a "Colorado State of Mind" PBS show on gas fracking shows this controversial flaming faucet scene from "Gasland."

A new scientific study conducted by researchers at Duke University for the first time shows drinking water wells closer to natural gas drilling activity contain higher levels of flammable methane gas that the federal government says could require “hazard mitigation” action.

Published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the peer-reviewed study tested 68 drinking water wells in the Marcellus and Utica shale drilling areas in Pennsylvania and New York. On Monday, the award-winning ProPublica website first reported the results of the study, which did not include data on wells in Colorado.

However, owners of drinking water wells on both the Western Slope and Front Range have reported contamination resulting from nearby natural gas wells. In some cases, those property owners have been able to light their tap water on fire.

“Our results show evidence for methane contamination of shallow drinking water systems in at least three areas of the region and suggest important environmental risks accompanying shale gas exploration worldwide,” Monday’s study reads.

Debate around gas-drilling impacts on drinking water supplies has raged in Colorado in recent years, with a creek near Silt contaminated by a bad cement job on a natural gas well, a drinking water well contaminated in Wyoming and cases of flammable tap water near Fort Lupton on Colorado’s Front Range famously demonstrated in the documentary “Gasland.”

But Monday’s study, according to ProPublica, for the first time scientifically demonstrates “that the type of gas detected at high levels in the water was the same type of gas that energy companies were extracting from thousands of feet underground, strongly implying that the gas may be seeping underground through natural or manmade faults and fractures, or coming from cracks in the well structure itself.”

However, the study did not find the presence of chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process, which involves the high pressure injection of water, sand and undisclosed chemicals deep into natural gas wells to fracture tight geological formations and free up more gas. That process has been the subject of congressional probes and pending federal regulatory legislation proposed by Colorado Congress members Diana DeGette and Jared Polis.

While not directly addressing Monday’s study, Colorado top oil and gas drilling regulator in a recent interview told the Colorado Independent that the state Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has been conducting extensive testing of drinking water wells near natural gas drilling activity.

“We do a great deal of groundwater sampling,” said COGCC executive director David Neslin. “We collected groundwater samples from I think about 5,000 water wells in the state. Some of that is large programmatic efforts that we undertake to try and ensure that we have baseline water quality samples before wells are drilled in particular areas or before development proceeds in particular areas.”

So far, so good, Neslin said, especially as it relates to hydraulic fracturing.

“So we’re doing a lot of water well sampling and the data that we’ve collected to date, including data we’ve collected down in La Plata County dating back more than a decade, we’ve had that independently analyzed and that analysis is not reflecting any kind of physically significant change in water chemistry that might suggest there has been an impact from fracking,” Neslin said.

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