WHEELING - As natural gas industry leaders tout a new report stating that fracking is unlikely to contaminate groundwater, biology professors set to speak on the topic Monday at Wheeling Jesuit University question the study's merits.
The report, compiled by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, does not deny there are potential chemical and methane contamination problems related to the entire drilling process. Instead, it states that these hazards - well casing failures, poor cement jobs or surface chemical spills - can occur at drill sites independent from the actual fracking process.
"These problems are not unique to hydraulic fracturing," said Charles "Chip" Groat, a UT Energy Institute associate director who led the project.
"Fracking" is short for hydraulic fracturing, a process in which drillers pump millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth at high pressure in an effort to break shale rock to release the natural gas and/or oil trapped within it.
If even 0.5 percent of the 5 million gallons of water, sand and chemical solution used to frack a typical Marcellus shale well in the local area consists of chemicals, that means 25,000 gallons of chemicals are being pumped into the ground at pressure as high as 10,000 pounds per square inch.
Not every frack job requires the same solution of chemicals, so not all substances will be used for every well. Some common chemicals used in fracking include hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol, isopropanol, glutaraldehyde, petroleum distillate, guar gum, ammonium persulfate, formamide, borate salts, citric acid, potassium chloride and sodium or potassium carbonate.
Such chemicals are used to help prevent corrosion, eliminate bacteria, prevent scale deposits, initiate cracks in the rock and for winterizing a well.
Locally, a few residents have complained of fracking releasing methane into their water wells. However, the Texas study notes that methane found in water wells often can be traced to naturally occurring methane that likely was present prior to fracking.
"What we've tried to do is separate fact from fiction," Groat said.
Kathryn Klaber, president of the Canonsburg, Pa.-based Marcellus Shale Coalition, appreciates the Texas research.
"Entirely too often, the debate surrounding the responsible development of shale gas is clouded by rhetoric that is unsupported by the facts, proven data and substantiated science. This new study, however, aims to objectively separate fact from fiction, and does so effectively," she said.
However, Yuri Gorby, a biology professor at the University of Southern California, disagrees with the Texas findings. He is a graduate of both Bethany College and Brooke High School. He called the UT study a "tremendously biased waste of effort."
"Their 'experts' at UT are engineers, geologists, economists and media personnel. Not a single biologist, geochemist or health professional," he said.
"There are no new data presented, simply a compilation of industry-generated declarations of how there are no scientific data to link fracking to contamination," Gorby added.
Two local public information sessions are set to discuss the impacts of fracking and drilling next week. The meetings are set for 7 p.m. Monday at Wheeling Jesuit University in the National Technology Transfer Center Auditorium and at 7 p.m. March 1 at Bethany Town Hall in Bethany.
Gorby, who expects to speak at both events, said some of those who believe the local area should support gas drilling because of the economic development that may occur, even in the face of possible environmental problems, are not seeing the whole picture.
"You cannot cut your throat for a glass of water," he said, adding he would support a moratorium on fracking until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has had ample time to study the procedure's impact.
The Texas study also conflicts with the work of Duke University professor Robert Jackson, who said drinking water wells near gas drilling activity in northern Pennsylvania registered higher levels of methane than wells farther from the drilling.
"Most problems are caused by companies that are in a hurry. When you are in a hurry, you make a mistake," he said recently.