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University of Texas Fracking Study: No Evidence That It Contaminates Groundwater

The University of Texas released the preliminary results today of that comprehensive study on the controversial natural gas producing process known as hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), drawing no link between it and claims of groundwater contamination.

"While there have been casing/cement issues identified by regulators, we haven't seen evidence in our preliminary review of the data that these have resulted in significant groundwater contamination," UT geologist and lead researcher Chip Groat told The Houston Chronicle.

This finding, which will be formally released later today in Fort Worth, isn't earth-shattering. An MIT study made a similar finding, as did one for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. However, the UT study doesn't let fracking off the hook completely. Spills of fracturing fluid on the surface, along with seepage from wastewater pits, occur more often during the hydraulic fracturing process than with other types of oil and gas production, the report found.

Faulty surface casing -- which separates the product from aquifers -- appears to be a reoccurring problem. The study by the National Academy of Sciences found instances of methane contamination in groundwater supplies near hydraulic fracturing.

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The UT study may put another dent into the perception that the fracturing process itself is responsible for widespread groundwater contamination, but considering the documented air quality impacts, greenhouse-gas effects and the yet-to-be-disclosed makeup of fracturing fluid, it will likely take more than this study to allay the fears opponents harbor for this purported "bridge" source of energy.

Update: UT just sent out a release announcing other preliminary findings and objectives in its evaluation of shale gas production. Those follow.

- Many allegations of groundwater contamination appear to be related to above-ground spills or other mishandling of wastewater produced from shale gas drilling, rather than from hydraulic fracturing itself.

- The lack of baseline studies in areas of shale gas development makes it difficult to evaluate the long-term, cumulative effects and risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. Groat said researchers could recommend additional baseline studies, depending on final evaluation of data yet to be compiled.

- Although some states have been proactive in overseeing shale gas development, most regulations were written before the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing.

- Media coverage of hydraulic fracturing is decidedly negative, and few news reports mention scientific research of the practice.

At Wednesday's briefing, Groat also discussed two other Energy Institute initiatives related to hydraulic fracturing for shale gas development.

The first project would evaluate claims of groundwater contamination within the Barnett Shale in North Texas. As proposed, the research would entail an examination of various aspects of shale gas development, including site preparation, drilling, production, and handling and disposal of flow-back water. Researchers also would identify and document activities unrelated to shale gas development that have resulted in water contamination.

A second project, designed to be an extension of the current study, would involve a detailed field and laboratory investigation of whether hydrological connectivity exists between shallow groundwater aquifers and fractures created by hydraulic fracturing during shale gas development. The project calls for university researchers to conduct field sampling of hydraulic fracturing fluid, flow-back water, produced water, and water from aquifers and other geologic units within the Barnett Shale.

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