STEUBENVILLE - While critics blame hydraulic fracturing for a myriad of environmental and health issues, researchers at the Penn State Center for Marcellus Outreach & Research say so far the scientific community hasn't found a link.
Hydraulic fracturing, a process developed in the late 1940s, uses a mixture of sand, water and some chemical additives to free the oil and gas from shale formations miles beneath the surface. Opponents are fearful the fracking fluids will work their way into groundwater supplies.
Tom Murphy, co-director of MCOR, said it's important "to keep things in perspective."
"First, we need to recognize where we get our energy in this country," said Murphy, who specializes in natural resource development, particularly natural gas exploration, and has 25 years of field experience. "There is no one source that is environmentally without risk. Every place that gets energy has risk attached to it.
"Second, there are concerns dealing with water and water-related issues. We do have a recent research survey done that's actually showing impact pre- and post-drilling and hydraulic fracturing. It's not showing much impact associated with gas drilling. We are seeing impact from methane in about 20 percent to 25 percent of wells, but some of that is naturally occurring. From testing, we also are seeing through the sheer number of tests being done that people are finding out things about their water that they didn't know. And third, looking at the number of wells impacted vs the number of gas wells drilled, we're seeing an increasing number of gas wells but not necessarily an increasing number of water wells that are impacted."
A study done by the bipartisan Center for Rural Pennsylvania, released in October, had found that roughly 40 percent of some 48 wells located within 1,500 feet of a Marcellus gas well pad in the Commonwealth failed at least one Safe Drinking Water Act quality standard - most often for coliform bacteria, turbidity and manganese - before any drilling even occurred.
He said there was little evidence of any byproduct related to drilling in those same 48 wells or 185 others located within 5,000 feet of a well pad that were tested after the drilling process. Bromide was found in one well, he'd said, "but other things you would expect to find we did not see an uptick in, so the baseline testing is encouraging."
And Murphy reiterated that science does not support the possibility of fracking fluids migrating upwards into groundwater supplies.
"That doesn't mean you couldn't have fluids of some kind showing up in ground water," he said. "There are situations where that has occurred - where there's been a leak or a spill on the surface, or a wellbore integrity issue. But we are seeing changes in regulations and best practice management to upgrade the process, it's lessened the number of cases where that's occurred. The engineering keeps improving all the time, and we'll likely see the improvement continue as the industry moves forward."
Murphy, for instance, said drillers now mostly use poly-lined pads, which make it quick and easy to collect surface spills. In terms of additives, he said the industry is switching to a dry material that can be reformulated with water on site.
"Safety is always improving, the technology is always improving," he said.
Murphy said there's also ongoing debate "about development of fossil fuels vs development of renewables."
"What we're seeing, though, in the national energy picture is that the development of renewables is moving forward at the same time as natural gas is being developed. Often, you see a synergy between them - when renewable use is not viable due to environmental conditions if there's no sun or wind natural gas can fill the void."