Natural Gas Development: Latest Study by Federal and PA Experts Shows No Impact on Streams and Water

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the news over the last few months. As a result, a recent study that found that natural gas development is not polluting our waterways, has largely flown under the radar of most journalists across the region.

The study concluded that there were no signs that chemicals or wastewater from fracking wells had entered more than two dozen streams running through the gas fields of the Marcellus Shale formation. In addition, there was no evidence that fracking had significantly altered the volume and makeup of the microscopic creatures in the water or had changed the chemical composition of the water itself.

That news may qualify as a major surprise, especially since a majority of consumer news about fracking often includes alarming but unsubstantiated references to the risks of natural gas development to our water supplies, groundwater, or rivers and streams.

Given the dire warnings and even calls for banning fracking, one couldn’t be blamed for wondering why this wasn’t reported as significant and important news. If the region is truly committed to having an open dialogue about if and how to harvest its prodigious energy resources – weighing the risks and benefits of a clear path to economic and community development – this is one highly critical data point for judging whether or not natural gas development should be supported and even expanded.

There is further support for giving this study the attention it deserves: 

  1. It was led by leading scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey and partially funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
  2. Its authors included experts from the Bureau of Forestry within the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Division of Water Quality at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
  3. The report on the study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals.

Pennsylvania Business Report published a story on the study’s release, and quoted Rebecca Oyler, the Pennsylvania Legislative Director for the National Federation of Independent Business. She said that the study shows that fracking can provide affordable energy for the state’s economy without significant environmental risk. “The study just released by PNAS confirms what we’ve known all along,” she said, “that the responsible development of Pennsylvania’s natural gas resources is not incompatible with protecting our environment.”

From the report:

The study tested the hypothesis that a quantifiable, significant relationship exists between the density of oil and gas (OG) development and increasing stream water concentrations of known geochemical tracers of OG extraction. Twenty-five headwater streams that drain lands across a gradient of shale gas development intensity were sampled and included comprehensive measurements across multiple seasons. No significant relationships were found between the intensity of OG development, shale OG geochemical tracers, or benthic macroinvertebrate or microbial community composition.

That’s just a small piece of the full report. Click here to access the rest.

These results corroborate findings from a 2015 research report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  That five-year, $29 million study’s conclusion stated: “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms [in fracking] have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

However, many organizations that oppose fracking cited earlier versions of the EPA’s report highlighting contaminated drinking water and vulnerabilities from fracking in about two dozen cases from more than 100,000 unconventional natural gas wells in the U.S. Two years later, that report was revised to say that fracking can have impact on our water in certain circumstances, which today translates into vague threats about the dangers of fracking to our water supplies. It doesn’t take much online searching to find the history of this fracking flip-flop between the original report in 2015 and the “final” one in 2016.

Journalists should give this latest PNAS report on natural gas development another look — and consider giving it the attention it warrants. People deserve to have access to all the facts so that they can make informed judgments about natural gas and related economic development for our Commonwealth, its residents and its prospects for future economic prosperity. It’s even more important now, as we begin contemplating how to get beyond the economic consequences of the pandemic lockdown and get our state’s economy and population growing again.

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