Methane Occurs Naturally in Well Water

A USGS survey has found huge methane concentrations in well water in New York State. New York State has not yet approved any fracking operations. Some well water just naturally has natural gas in it.

Methane occurs locally in the groundwater of New York; as a result, it may be present in drinking-water wells, in the water produced from those wells, and in the associated water-supply systems (Eltschlager and others, 2001).

The use of hydraulic fracturing to release natural gas from these shale formations has raised concerns with water-well owners and water-resource managers across the Marcellus and Utica Shale region (West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and parts of several other adjoining States). Molofsky and others (2011) documented the widespread natural occurrence of methane in drinking-water wells in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. In the same county, Osborn and others (2011) identified elevated methane concentrations in selected drinking-water wells in the vicinity of Marcellus gas-development activities, although pre-development samples were not available for comparison.

The iconic scene in Gasland where enough methane emerged from a faucet to light a flame proves nothing about fracking. The industry is vehement that this is a misrepresentation. Perhaps so. The point is that the case against them remains unproven.

This doesn’t mean that natural gas exploitation is a good idea in the absence of a global carbon emissions policy. (In my opinion it likely isn’t a good idea as of now, but on the other hand, given such a policy, shale gas could well help in the transition.)

h/t Andy Revkin


  1. Benzene occurs naturally in hydrocarbon formations and drilling releases harmful amounts. Must we ignore those effects? If so, the molecule lacks only a slogan. After a line of salad dressings I suggest:

    Benzene - Nature's Own Carcinogen.

  2. What do you mean by "harmful amounts", and how does this compare with other activities at comparable scale?

    I am not suggesting ignoring anything.

    What the fracking people say is that the environmental effects and risks are comparable to conventional oil wells. Water usage is not trivial but not remotely comparable to agricultural consumption and in a league with other industrial uses.

    That isn't ignorable. (See the BP Macondo well which is in the news this week for proof.) But it is manageable. The BP operation was shockingly shoddy and if it hadn't been, the spill would not have happened.

    On the grand scale, shale gas is a greenhouse risk first and foremost. If it replaces coal that otherwise would have been used it would be a net environmental gain. The people arguing it as a "bridge" need to tell us where the bridge goes to. The people arguing against it as a bridge need to make a case not that it has harms and risks, but that its harms and risks are comparable to coal's.

  3. The presence of naturally-occuring methane within aquifers is actually well known. The problem with claiming this proves nothing, however, is that this has what is called a "biogenic" source. Meaning methane within the aquifer is a waste product of the microorganisms living within that aquifer (literally their farts). Biogenic methane can, and is distinguished from "thermogenic" methane, or that which is a product of heat at depth (formed in the same process that results in petroleum). By comparing the isotopic signatures of each, you can easily determine whether the methane is actually native to the aquifer, or if it matches the signature of the target methane within the "fracked" unit below. The EPA used this distinction in their Pavilion, WY study (still ongoing). Just thought I'd share!

  4. Hi, Michael. The last full report I read on this specific study was a draft report in December of last year. That report showed traces of both biogenic and thermogenic methane in water wells. There are ongoing investigations in this study. You can find the draft report, supplemental info, and any new info on the EPA website for the study:

  5. IIRC, in the Gasland film there was at least the anecdotal evidence offered by the home owner(s) that this ignitable drinking water and other foul contamination was a new thing.

    I know you want to be properly sceptical about the pollution claims of the anti-frackers, but the thrust of this article reminds me very strongly of your scepticism of the initial estimates of oil flow from the Deepwater Horizon calamity...estimates which proved largely correct and even understated. Some things really are as bad as they seem!

    I want the fracking industry to prove they will not frack us over and I will be very sceptical of their assurances until they have a lot of solid evidence on their side. I am similarly sceptical of a study such as the one you mention that is so timely (and according to Nate is NOT a new result). "Oh, look! That pollution was there all along (try to prove otherwise)"

    Even if the result is sound, why is it news now?

  6. Sometimes it helps to have something to point to. Until today I had merely hearsay that there could be significant natural methane in well water and specifically that the faucet lighting trick predates fracking.

    I am guessing that Revkin's pointing this study out is for similar reasons.

    Also, as Revkin points out, in the New York case we will have before/after data to settle it once and for all, assuming New York goes ahead.

    The crucial issue, though, is not whether environmental damage can occur because of fracking operations. It would be implausible to make a claim that it's impossible.

    The industry seems to be claiming that the risks and impacts are not substantially different from conventional surface drilling. I think the surface pools of frack water are the main innovation and the main new risk.

    The question is whether shale is arguably as bad as coal or worse. And that requires a whole system view, not case studies. A single case isn't dispositive regarding the technology. On this I have chosen no side as yet. If it's not worse than coal, leaving aside the greenhouse gases, there is a case to be made for it because of the greenhouse win and the small infrastructure changes. This pits gas interests against coal interests, and possibly could pull gas interests into the sustainability camp. It would be no surprise if the culture gap prevented this from happening, but anything that splits part of the energy sector into the pro-regulation camp is a big win in my book.

  7. Most of the problem wells in NY seem to be get their water from Devonian shales, as far as I can tell from the report. The methane in the water could easily be thermogenic and there may not be an easy diagnostic in such cases to distinguish it from future industrial gas contamination.

    Incidentally, at least where I live, it is common to frack domestic water wells, especially where the aquifer is a low-permeability rock like shale. If this takes place in NY as well, then in some cases, water-well drillers are using a similar process in similar rocks to the gas drillers (of course, on a much smaller scale). This could make the attribution of pollution more difficult.

  8. Revkin is pro fracking and likes to sugarcoat the hard facts about the multiple difficulties of extreme fossil fuels.

    Focusing money and attention on continuing fossil fuels is indeed a recipe for the death spiral you deplore. We have been doing this for decades, making excuses for a serious lack of proportion in the controversy. In the end, more more we invest in extreme fuels with their poor EROEI, the more we will continue to fail to invest in other alternatives that might save the day.

    The time for this kind of temporizing has passed, though some might argue there's still a window of a year or two.

    As to whether there is even a large element of natural cause to the toxic problems does not excuse the rest. And to me it is inexcusable.

  9. Susan, please remember that I work at perhaps the world's leading center for fossil fuel research. Not just the same campus, but the same school and one of the same departments.

    I think of fossil fuel people as not just human beings but particularly smart and dedicated ones. I'm not sympathetic to the corporations, which are simply machines for maximizing shareholder returns. (They are legal structures, not people!) But I am respectful of the real human beings who work hard within the corporations and the academy to keep the lights on.

    So I am very much interested in finding a way to keep fossil fuels in the mix, while respecting a specified peak net emission level. This is partly, as I said before, to neutralize the corporations. If some fossil energy corporations see profit in defecting from denialism, they will, corporations being amoral machines. Therefore it makes political sense to offer them a way out.

    I always talk about net emissions because there are possibly ways to put carbon back into the ground.

    It's interesting to compare your reaction to my position to Keith Kloor's and his followers, who think I am so stubbornly opposed to shale gas as to be considered an unreachable radical.

    The idea that we can get through the bottleneck years without risks or damage whatsoever is not plausible to me. As with nukes, I am not firmly convinced either way on shale gas. But I am firmly convinced that we have to make compromises.

    Our path to perfect sustainability is lengthy and unclear. Some of my best friends are radical low-impact permaculture types, though living in Texas, they still drive around a lot.

    A zero tolerance policy for toxic emissions as of instant zero is pretty unrealistic. The first question is whether shale gas is better than coal, for which it can be easily substituted in many applications. This could cut us some badly needed slack. The second question is how to be sure that the gas is actually substituting for coal, rather than for renewables. And the biggest one, as always, is how to limit the net emissions peak to a reasonable value. I don't know if the shale gas people can resolve these questions, but I hope they can and will.

  10. As you know, I am ill informed when it comes to the higher reaches of all this stuff, and I do get that if we just imbibed radical chic it would be game over, for example, to my efforts to care for my family (long commute) and this computer that allows me to speak at all. You may remember decades ago (was it Carter - a misunderestimated guy, and as long as I'm distracting, Nixon formed the EPA) when Texas had bumper stickers about New England: "Let them freeze in the dark."

    One important point I am trying to make is that this temporizing has been going on for many decades and usually ends up in funding going to fossil fuels, which are human-ending (not world-ending) in the not so long run, and less input into safer alternatives.

    The hoo-ha over Solyndra, for example,
    has been exploited and there has been a witch hunt in Obama's energy department. Rather than comparing the scale of fossil fuel failures, it has been used to support eliminate subsidies for the most necessary improvements.

    We will end up paying for putting off acknowledging reality minute by minute, day by day.

  11. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, September 9, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  12. MT -
    MSDS sheets for Houston based companies give benzene levels of 1-2 & 2-4% in NG Condensate. Firms have deliberately sought such formations for added value.
    Harmful quantities are on the order of EPA/ OSHA limits - low ppb levels.
    TCEQ measured levels of benzene in ppm (and higher) at numerous Barnett wells in '10.

    I think the RailRoad Commission (aptly named) has ignored the contamination of water wells by noting that the methane came from upper level formations. They assumed fracking couldn't have caused it to move into the water supply because lower formations were the ones pressurized. That is a convenient and naive assumption.

    And when I suggest benzene will be ignored, I meant I believe the same shell game could play out with that chemical. 'We didn't add it' 'It's not ours', when in fact the drillers actions are what released it into the water supply. And if they don't denying it that way, they use the "fracker's proprietary oath" that they can't reveal their ingredients. Some of those injections have apparently included gasoline, (with it's own benzene content, < 1%)

    I haven't compared this with other activities. People have been wronged, their property damaged and their health likely jeopardized. But if you can only acknowledge peer reviewed results, recall that Myrvold and Caldeira found that building out NG turbines instead of wind turbines does very little to reduce AGW.

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