June 21–The newest chapter of industrial-scale fuel extraction from beneath Northeast Pennsylvania is different from previous chapters in that gas drilling has a small surface footprint compared to coal mining. One result is that the environmental impact of drilling is not obvious, as in mining, and therefore is subject to impassioned debate.
As large-scale gas extraction in the region enters its second decade, two new studies by disinterested scientists at major universities offer encouragement that large-scale drilling will not produce large-scale, long-term problems for groundwater supplies.
One study by a Yale University research team, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, concluded that higher methane levels in some water wells is attributable to natural variability rather than nearby well drilling and fracking.
The Yale researchers drilled eight water wells near seven Marcellus Shale gas wells in Pennsylvania and drew water samples every few weeks for two years. They concluded that where methane levels increased, it was not to due to gas drilling. The research could lead to greater knowledge about variability of methane in ground water which, they said, “is potentially a lot greater than previously understood.”
Penn State University researchers conducted the second study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. They used a newly developed data-mining technique to analyze 11,000 groundwater samples from Bradford County that the state Department of Environmental Resources has collected since 2010. Data showed increased methane levels near just seven of 1,385 wells in the study area. And, the researchers found, overall water quality was unchanged or improved slightly over the period.
Such science is crucial in guiding future policy and regulation. For example, it should have a major place in the Delaware River Basin Commission’s decision on whether to authorize deep drilling within the Delaware watershed.
And since the deep-drilling technology and the industry it has spawned still are relatively young, Penn State especially and other institutions continuously should assess the environmental impact to ensure that the debate is guided by science.
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