TeeJaw Blog

Denver Post Gets It Wrong On Methane Gas In Water Wells

Posted in Culture, Government and Politics by TeeJaw on Tuesday, May 10, 2011, 11: 30 AM

This story in today’s Denver Post got my attention: Tainted Wells Linked to Gas Drilling. The tainted wells to which they refer are water wells in the Eastern United States. This is apparently a Denver Post originated story through Denver Post wire services by a Denver Post reporter. There is no indication that the story was from AP or Reuters. It’s home grown by the Denver Post.

The Post reports that methane gas has been found in some water wells in the Eastern U.S., specifically where they don’t say, and that a study by Duke University found that the source of the methane in the water wells was some nearby natural gas wells. As with most gas well drilling, fracking fluid has been introduced into the gas wells to stimulate production of natural gas. No fracking fluids were found in any of the water wells. This is a key fact, although the Denver Post reporter gives no indication of that.

The methane in the water wells is attributed to faulty casing in the gas wells by the Duke study. Another key fact: They reached this conclusion on the basis of no evidence other than the proximity of the gas wells to the water wells. The story does not tell us, nor does a companion story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the depth of the water wells or the gas wells.

According to the story in the Inquirer no testing of the water wells was done before the gas wells were drilled. Thus, we do not know whether the water wells contained methane before there were any gas wells nearby.

At best, the Duke study establishes a correlation but offers insufficient information to establish causation. The conclusion that the gas wells are introducing methane into the water wells is pure conjecture. Even so, one might find some support for it if it could be said to be reasonable based on other information. That no fracking fluids were found in the water wells testifies to the structural integrity of the gas wells. Methane is a naturally occurring substance which could have come from natural sources.

We find other information in general knowledge of natural gas drilling and water well drilling, together with a smattering of some principles of the local geology. (From the Inquirer story we learn that the wells in question are mostly in the northeastern Pennsylvania counties of Susquehanna and Bradford, but also in Wayne and Lackawanna).

First thing to note is that natural gas wells are generally drilled to much deeper depths than water wells. Water may be necessary to life but it is not as valuable as natural gas, especially in NE Pennsylvania where there is abundant annual rain fall, and no one would pay a million dollars or more to drill a water well. Water wells are generally drilled to hundreds of feet while gas wells are drilled to thousands of feet. Such deep wells are very expensive to drill.

Northeastern Pennsylvania has one of the world’s largest deposits of anthracite coal at a depth of between 600 and 700 feet beneath the surface. Coal seam methane gas is common in these deposits. If the surrounding rock is porous and permeable, methane gas can migrate through the rock.

From the very beginning of oil and gas production in Pennsylvania, a state agency devoted exclusively to the regulation of gas and oil drilling has existed. It’s mission was originally to protect what is called “correlative rights” in production but one of its other main functions is the prevention of contamination of groundwater sources from oil and gas drilling. It carries out this function in the same manner as most oil and gas commissions in other states, by requiring special well casing called surface casing from the top of the well to a depth below known groundwater sources. Surface casing is stronger than down hole casing and is cemented to prevent osmosis of groundwater with any substance that may be inside the well bore. As a result, contamination of groundwater is an often made claim that is seldom established.

An oil or gas well may represent an investment of several millions of dollars. That sort of investment tends to concentrate the mind and causes the owner to take all precaution to protect it from losses that could result from a successful challenge on the basis of groundwater contamination.

Drilling of water wells is mostly not a commercial endeavor by the owner. It is to provide a domestic water supply. It is mostly done in rural areas where city water is not available. Often these are rural areas of moderate to low income households who are unable to commit large sums to the drilling of a water well. They will seek the best price they can find for getting their well drilled. This price sensitivity results in a certain number of shady operators offering to drill water wells on the cheap. There is not as much government regulation of drilling practices simply because there is not nearly as much potential for public harm in the drilling of shallow water wells as there is in deep oil and gas wells.

So, in light of the facts, why were the Duke researchers so quick to attribute methane in water wells to faulty casing in heavily-regulated wells costing millions of dollars to drill and maintain? Why did they not fault the casing in the lightly-regulated water wells that might represent an investment of between $500 and $2000?


The Marcellus Shale has recently been discovered in the Northeastern United States. This discovery is a natural gas bonanza that will, if allowed to be properly exploited, create thousands of high-paying jobs and provide abundant clean-burning natural gas for the entire area for decades to come. It will mean that thousands of homes in the Northeast can be converted from smelly and dirty fuel oil to natural gas. That will improve the lives of millions of people.

But the environmental wackos don’t operate on facts. They operate on their ideology, which is really a form of religion, and they hate the idea of cheap and abundant clean-burning fossil fuel energy for millions. They hate oil and gas drilling and seek to stop it wherever they can. Duke University in Durham, North Carolina is home to a cornucopia of such radical leftist ideologues. That’s what the Duke study is really about. The reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Denver Post are either too politicized themselves or too boneheaded to have figured that out. We should never attribute to conspiracy what can be adequately explained by incompetence.

UPDATE: I don’t know this but I’d bet dollars to donut holes that the methane found in water wells is in trace amounts that is tasteless and harmless and quickly dissipates out of the water. If so, until the Duke researchers came along the homeowners probably would never have known about it.


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