Despite having complained for years that studies on the effect of hydrofracking on drinking water supplies are deficient because they don’t include pre-drilling water quality data on wells and water systems, the natural gas industry has been keeping that data away from researchers.
The absence of baseline data was one of the most serious criticisms leveled at a group of Duke researchers last week when they published the first peer-reviewed study linking drilling to methane contamination in water supplies.
That study—which found that methane concentrations in drinking water increased dramatically with proximity to gas wells—contained “no baseline information whatsoever,” wrote Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the industry group Energy in Depth, in a statement debunking the study.
Now it turns out that some of that data does exist. It just wasn’t available to the Duke researchers, or to the public.
Ever since high-profile water contamination cases were linked to drilling in Dimock, Pa. in late 2008, drilling companies themselves have been diligently collecting water samples from private wells before they drill, according to several industry consultants who have been working with the data. While Pennsylvania regulations now suggest pre-testing water wells within 1,000 feet of a planned gas well, companies including Chesapeake Energy, Shell and Atlas have been compiling samples from a much larger radius – up to 4,000 feet from every well. The result is one of the largest collections of pre-drilling water samples in the country.
“The industry is sitting on hundreds of thousands of pre and post drilling data sets,” said Robert Jackson, one of the Duke scientists who authored the study, published May 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jackson relied on 68 samples for his study. “I asked them for the data and they wouldn’t share it.”
If the gas companies really wanted to understand whether hydrofracking does or does not contribute to contamination of drinking water supplies, they would turn that information over to independent scientists.