William M. Alley, Ph.D., formerly chief of the Office of Groundwater at the U.S. Geological Survey is the director of science and technology for the National Ground Water Association. The following article appeared in My Palm Beach Post on December 24, 2016. Here Dr. Alley points out a very important issue in fracking studies done by the U.S. government.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
POINT OF VIEW Key Groundwater Research Missing from ‘Fracking’ Debates
Posted: 1:40 p.m. Saturday, December 24, 2016
“Does fracking contaminate groundwater?” This is a critical question surrounding the development of oil and gas using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”). On December 13, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a long-awaited final report on the effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources in the United States.
The report identifies risk factors based on a review of available data and studies, but is short on definitive statements.
The EPA has struggled with its messaging, which was summarized in an earlier draft as there is “no evidence for widespread, systemic impacts” and in the final report as “hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances.” Although consistent with one another, these statements convey different overarching messages in media reporting.
The messaging problems arise in large part because the U.S. government has funded little fundamental research to address key unanswered questions. The EPA report notes insufficient pre- and post-fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources and the paucity of long-term systematic studies.
The history of groundwater contamination has demonstrated that properly designed and located monitoring wells are necessary to study contamination processes. Unfortunately, studies to date for hydraulic fracturing have relied almost exclusively on wells of convenience — domestic wells that are sampled to address questions of liability. Such wells are a poor substitute for specially-designed monitoring wells. They also lead to a false sense that the issue of groundwater contamination is being addressed in a comprehensive way. Sampling needs to be conducted closer to well pads, at multiple depths, and over a longer timeframe.
Groundwater moves slowly and contaminant occurrence in aquifers used for drinking water can significantly lag behind oil and gas well installation and hydraulic fracturing. This time lag complicates the true picture of groundwater contamination and supports the need for long-term monitoring.
Groundwater supplies more than 40 percent of U.S. drinking water and virtually all of the drinking water in rural areas where most oil and gas operations are underway. Once contaminated, groundwater is exceedingly difficult and expensive to cleanup.
The United States is endowed with vast oil and gas resources and high-quality groundwater. Both resources are important and should be developed in mutually compatible ways. It is the role of government to develop credible and comprehensive data and information to support sound policies to minimize risks. Federal funding to support such research for hydraulic fracturing has been noticeably lacking.
WILLIAM M. ALLEY, WESTERVILLE, Ohio
Editor’s note: William M. Alley is director of science and technology at the National Ground Water Association.
The history of groundwater contamination has demonstrated that properly designed and located monitoring wells are necessary to study contamination processes.