PITTSBURGH — A new study being done by the Department of Energy may provide some of the first solid answers to a controversial question: Can gas drilling fluids migrate and pose a threat to drinking water?
A drilling company in southwestern Pennsylvania is giving researchers access to a commercial drilling site, said Richard Hammack, a spokesman for the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh.
The firm let scientists conduct baseline tests, allowed tracing elements to be added to hydraulic fracturing fluids and agreed to allow follow-up monitoring. That should let scientists see whether the drilling fluids move upward or sideways from the Marcellus Shale, which is 8,100 feet deep at that spot.
“It's like the perfect laboratory,” Hammack said.
Hammack said he believes this is the first time such research has been done on a commercial gas well.
“Conceptually, it sounds like a really great idea,” said P. Lee Ferguson, a Duke University civil and environmental engineering professor who is not involved with the project. “I have wondered about this since I started thinking about fracking. Which compounds are mobile and which aren't?”
The Marcellus Shale is a gas-rich rock formation thousands of feet under large parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia. Over the past five years, advances in drilling technology made the gas accessible, leading to a boom in production, jobs, and profits — and concerns about pollution.
The gas is pulled from the ground through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which large volumes of water, plus sand and chemicals, are injected deep underground to break shale apart and free the gas.