Landmark fracking study finds no water pollution

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Landmark fracking study finds no water pollution
FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2012 file photo, signs opposing the hydraulic fracturing process of drilling for gas, or "fracking" are posted in Evans City, Pa. The Obama administration said Friday it will for the first time require companies drilling for oil and natural gas on public and Indian lands to publicly disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations. The proposed "fracking" rules also set standards for proper construction of wells and wastewater disposal. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)
In this photo made on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, a pumping truck is seen near the well where pumps move a brine water below the surface in a hydraulic fracturing process to release natural gas from shale deposits in Zelienople, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
FILE - In this Feb. 17, 2012 file photo, the Pittsburgh skyline rises above the waters of the Ohio River, which starts at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers in Pittsburgh. The U.S. Coast Guard wants to allow barges filled with fracking wastewater to ply the nation’s rivers on their way toward disposal, an idea that’s raising alarm among environmentalists but could also provide long-elusive information on what exactly the toxic brews contain. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)
Demonstrators march near the U.S. Capitol against the fracking gas exports in Washington on Sunday, July 13, 2014. Activists from across the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond rallied against the gas industry's controversial push to export fracked and liquefied natural gas (LNG) from U.S. coastlines. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
In this March 25, 2014 photo, perforating tools, used to create fractures in the rock, are lowered into one of six wells during a roughly two-week hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Corp. well pad near Mead, Colo. Proponents of hydraulic fracturing point to the economic benefits from vast amounts of formerly inaccessible hydrocarbons that now can be extracted with hydraulic fracturing. Opponents point to potential environmental impacts, with some critics acknowledging that some fracking operations are far cleaner than others. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
In this March 25, 2014 photo, workers keep an eye on well heads during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Corp. oil well, near Mead, Colo. The first experimental use of hydraulic fracturing was in 1947, and more than 1 million U.S. oil and oil wells have been fracked since, according to the American Petroleum Institute. The National Petroleum Council estimates that up to 80 percent of natural oil wells drilled in the next decade will require hydraulic fracturing. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
In this March 25, 2014 photo, a worker adjusts hoses during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Corp. oil well, near Mead, Colo. The first experimental use of hydraulic fracturing was in 1947, and more than 1 million U.S. oil and oil wells have been fracked since, according to the American Petroleum Institute. The National Petroleum Council estimates that up to 80 percent of natural oil wells drilled in the next decade will require hydraulic fracturing. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
This Thursday March 6, 2014 photo shows the setting sun behind pumpjacks operating at the Inglewood oil fields in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles City Council has taken steps to prohibit hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
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By KEVIN BEGOS

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The final report from a landmark federal study on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, found no evidence that chemicals or brine water from the gas drilling process moved upward to contaminate drinking water at a site in western Pennsylvania.

The Department of Energy report, released Monday, was the first time an energy company allowed independent monitoring of a drilling site during the fracking process and for 18 months afterward. After those months of monitoring, researchers found that the chemical-laced fluids used to free gas stayed about 5,000 feet below drinking water supplies.

Scientists used tracer fluids, seismic monitoring and other tests to look for problems, and created the most detailed public report to date about how fracking affects adjacent rock structures.

The fracking process uses millions of gallons of high-pressure water mixed with sand and chemicals to break apart rocks rich in oil and gas. That has led to a national boom in production, but also to concerns about possible groundwater contamination.

But the Energy Department report is far from the last word on the subject. The department monitored six wells at one site, but oil or gas drilling at other locations around the nation could show different results because of variations in geology or drilling practices. Environmentalists and regulators have also documented cases in which surface spills of chemicals or wastewater damaged drinking water supplies.

"There are a whole wealth of harms associated with shale gas development" separate from fracking, said Maya K. van Rossum, of the Delaware Riverkeeper group. She mentioned methane gas leaks, wasteful use of fresh water and air pollution, and said the Energy Department study confirms a point that the Riverkeeper has been making: that faulty well construction is the root cause of most problems, not fracking chemicals migrating up through rocks.

A separate study published this week by different researchers examined drilling sites in Pennsylvania and Texas using other methods. It found that faulty well construction caused pollution, but not fracking itself.

Avner Vengosh, a Duke University scientist involved with that study, just published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said in an email that it appears the Energy Department report on the Pennsylvania site is consistent with their findings.

The leading industry group in Pennsylvania said the Energy Department study reaffirms that hydraulic fracturing "is a safe and well-regulated technology." Marcellus Shale Coalition president Dave Spigelmyer said in an email that the study reflects "the industry's long and clear record of continuously working to enhance regulations and best practices aimed at protecting our environment."

The Energy Department report did yield some surprises. It found that the fractures created to free oil or gas can extend as far as 1,900 feet from the base of the well. That's much farther than the usual estimates of a few hundred feet. The Energy Department researchers believe that the long fractures may have followed existing fault lines in the Marcellus Shale or other formations above it.

The department study also ran into problems with the manmade markers meant to track possible long-term pollution. The Energy Department said it was able to track the markers for two months after fracking, but then that method had to be abandoned when it stopped working properly.

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