Fracking Findings

November 30, 2011
 
July/August 2011 Cover
 

I am a Duke grad and the cofounder and CEO of Chesapeake Energy Corporation in Oklahoma City. I helped start Chesapeake in 1989 with an investment of $50,000, and today the company's value exceeds $35 billion. We are the nation's second-largest natural-gas producer and the world's most active driller of new wells. In addition, we have hydraulically fracture-treated (fracked) more than 99 percent of the 16,000 wells we have drilled since 1989, more than anyone in the world. I give you this information to establish my credentials for what I say below.

Chesapeake disputes the findings of Duke's Nicholas School's study, Methane Contamination of Drinking Water Accompanying Gas-Well Drilling and Hydraulic Fracturing [Q&A, July-August 2011]. In April 2011, the authors of the study met with Chesapeake geologists, petrophysicists, environmental scientists, and engineers and were shown summaries of more than 7,000 data sets we have collected over the last few years in Pennsylvania that showed measureable methane (i.e., natural gas) in 22 percent of the water sources sampled prior to any of our drilling operations, directly refuting the contents of the study. The existence of methane in the freshwater column in northeastern Pennsylvania has been known for decades and has been dealt with by state agencies and residents with the use of treatment systems to vent the methane. Please visit Energy in Depth for a complete refutation of the study.

Despite clear evidence of a flawed protocol and results, one of the coauthors, professor Avner Vengosh, continued to promote the challenged findings in the Q&A and added more unsupportable claims. Direct quotes by professor Vengosh include: "…and nobody knows exactly what is the chemistry of these fracking fluids…"

In fact, in Pennsylvania the material[s] used to hydraulically fracture the shale formation are reported directly to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and also voluntarily by Chesapeake and other operators to a publicly available chemical disclosure registry at www.fracfocus.org. Of course, 99.5 percent of these materials are sand and water.

I am also concerned about the kind of "science" being pursued here. According to the study: "Compared to other forms of fossil-fuel extraction, hydraulic fracturing is relatively poorly regulated at the federal level. Fracturing wastes are not regulated as a hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, fracturing wells are not covered under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and only recently has the Environmental Protection Agency asked fracturing firms to voluntarily report a list of the constituents in the fracturing fluids based on the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act." It concludes, "Greater stewardship, knowledge, and—possibly— regulation are needed to ensure the sustainable future of shale-gas extraction."

This allegation is more political science than physical science. I find it curious that, having ventured so far afield from their areas of academic expertise, professor Vengosh and his colleagues failed to note that neither the federal government nor the State of Pennsylvania places any regulations or quality standards for the drilling and design of drinking- water wells—a fact that would be far more relevant to the findings of their sampling than proximity to natural- gas drilling locations.

It was clear to us from the onset of our meeting with the Nicholas School team that their real goal was to attack all forms of natural-gas drilling, presumably so that the supply of natural gas would decline and therefore the price of natural gas would rise and their beloved "green fuels" could become somewhat less uneconomic than they are today. The reality is that the U.S. is now the world's largest naturalgas producer and greater use of America's clean, affordable, and abundant natural gas is the best solution to wean our nation from its addiction to dirty coal and dangerous foreign oil.

The relentless and ongoing politicization of education, teaching, and research at Duke is sad and lessens the institution's relevance and value for all Duke alumni— past, present, and future.

Aubrey K. McClendon '81
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma


The Nicholas School research team responds:
In May this year, we were part of a research team that published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) showing that some shallow drinkingwater wells near shale gas wells in Pennsylvania and New York were contaminated with methane gas. Prior to its publication, our study underwent rigorous scrutiny by independent scientific reviewers, who found that the work met PNAS's high standards for accuracy and objectivity. After our study was published, The Department of Energy's subcommittee on shale gas safety commissioned by Secretary Steven Chu called our paper "credible." We stand by our findings.

As scientists, we neither support nor oppose shale gas development. That is why we traveled to Chesapeake headquarters a month before our study's publication to share our findings with them. At the meeting, Chesapeake presented a slide that stated "measureable methane was found in 22 percent of the water sources sampled prior to any of our drilling operation." Our study found similar patterns. Water samples from 24 percent of our background samples (wells located away from active shale gas wells) were found to have methane concentration consistent with Chesapeake's data.

However, we also found that wells located less than a kilometer from active shale gas wells typically have a much higher methane concentration and different geochemical and isotopic fingerprints. That is the heart of our science, and it is not refuted by the Chesapeake analysis or by the data provided on the website Mr. McClendon refers to.

We welcome the opportunity to work with all stakeholders in this issue. Sharing data would be a good place to start. Having access to the details of the 7,000 data sets Chesapeake has for Pennsylvania, along with access to their samplings from thousands of wells, would fill in existing data gaps and help scientists, industry, policymakers, and local communities work together to make informed decisions.

Shale gas development may bring prosperity and provide unique opportunities in the U.S.; our goal is to make it as safe and clean as possible. That is our only agenda.

Avner Vengosh
Professor of Geochemistry and Water Quality

Robert B. Jackson
Nicholas Professor of Global
Environmental Change
Nicholas School of the Environment