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Flammable Methane in Drinking Water Near Fracking Wells, Study Finds

A study on the impact of fracking in Pennsylvania and New York shows water within1 kilometer of gas wells has methane levels over 17 times normal

Abrahm Lustgarten,

May 10, 2011
Marcellus Shale

For the first time, a scientific study has linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire.

, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stands to shape the contentious debate over whether drilling is safe and begins to fill an information gap that has made it difficult for lawmakers and the public to understand the risks.

The research was conducted by four scientists at Duke University. They found that levels of flammable methane gas in drinking water wells increased to dangerous levels when those water supplies were close to natural gas wells. They also found that the type of gas detected at high levels in the water was the same type of gas that energy companies were extracting from thousands of feet underground, strongly implying that the gas may be seeping underground through natural or manmade faults and fractures, or coming from cracks in the well structure itself.

"Our results show evidence for methane contamination of shallow drinking water systems in at least three areas of the region and suggest important environmental risks accompanying shale gas exploration worldwide," the article states.

The group tested 68 drinking water wells in the Marcellus and Utica shale drilling areas in northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York State. Sixty of those wells were tested for dissolved gas. While most of the wells had some methane, the water samples taken closest to the gas wells had on average 17 times the levels detected in wells further from active drilling. The group defined an active drilling area as within one kilometer, or about six tenths of a mile, from a gas well.

The average concentration of the methane detected in the water wells near drilling sites fell squarely within a range that the U.S. Department of Interior says is dangerous and requires urgent "hazard mitigation" action, according to the study.

The researchers did not find evidence that the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing had contaminated any of the wells they tested, allaying for the time being some of the greatest fears among environmentalists and drilling opponents.

But they were alarmed by what they described as a clear correlation between drilling activity and the seepage of gas contaminants underground, a danger in itself and evidence that pathways do exist for contaminants to migrate deep within the earth.

"We certainly didn't expect to see such a strong relationship between the concentration of methane in water and the nearest gas wells. That was a real surprise," said Robert Jackson, a biology professor at Duke and one of the report's authors.

Methane contamination of drinking water wells has been a common complaint among people living in gas drilling areas across the country. revealed that methane contamination from drilling was widespread, including in Colorado, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In several cases, homes blew up after gas seeped into their basements or water supplies. In Pennsylvania a 2004 accident killed three people, including a baby.

In Dimock, Pa., where part of the Duke study was performed, some residents' water wells exploded or their water could be lit on fire. In at least a dozen cases in Colorado, methane had infiltrated drinking water supplies that residents said were clean until hydraulic fracturing was performed nearby.

The drilling industry and some state regulators described some of these cases as "anecdotal" and said they were either unconnected to drilling activity or were an isolated problem. But the consistency of the Duke findings raises questions about how unusual and widespread such cases of methane contamination may be.

Here's a how a CSP plant with

Here's a how a CSP plant with 3.5 hours heat storage on typical summer day in Nevada would run. (from the NREL)

The plant would start saving heat at sunrise. A few hours later, it would start generating electricity and continue storing heat in the salt. By 1pm when the sun peaks, it would be at full rated power, say 1250 MW. It would continue to put out at least it's full rated power, while increasing output and peaking at about 3,000 MW at 5pm, exactly when demand in the grid peaks in the southwest. It would continue putting out steady but declining power until midnight. No fluctuation when clouds pass by.
Cloudy periods, which are rare in the southwest can be planned for by the plant manager and utility, from weather forecasts. In the daytime in what the NREL calls Premium Solar Resource areas, there is sunshine all but about 4% of the time. The plant would run basically the same in winter, though at a lower power. In the Southwest, there is much less demand in winter - less air conditioning.

3.5 hours heat storage means enough to provide 3.5 hours at full rated power, without any input from the sun. A plant with 6 hours heat storage is being built in Arizona.

"RDI Consulting performed a similar analysis for Southern California Edison’s (SCE) load for a hypothetical solar power plant with storage located in the Mojave Desert. Again, the results are similar. Only a few hours of storage are needed before the solar plant can dramatically reduce the need for back-up capacity in the market."

With new HVDC distribution lines, power could be provided to other regions.

A company called Shec Energy has developed technology to build solar thermal plants that run at about twice the temperature of existing designs. 800-900C verses about 450 C for current plants.



And/Or we could use the 1000

And/Or we could use the 1000 GW potential for solar thermal power (or CSP) plants in the southwest. An area of premium solar resources 42 miles by 42 miles filled with solar thermal plants with molten salt heat storage would produce as many megawatt hours of electricity as all the coal plants in America. To put that in perspective, my rough estimate makes that about twice the area now evacuated around the Fukishima nuclear plant in Japan. Arizona alone has potential for 285 GW. - The equivalent, adjusting for capacity factors, of about 120 nuclear power plants of 1GW each. Steady but dispatchable power day and night. It's dispatchability makes it useful in integrating more intermittent PV solar and wind into the grid. Solar thermal with heat storage can follow the load, something nuclear does not do. It never ever needs fuel and can be cooled with low water usage closed loop systems.

These plants can have capacity factors 2 to 3 times that of PV solar panels. They are extremely versatile, being capable of combined heat and power, or seawater desalination also.

I'm not ruling out nuclear, but it is not the only answer to large scale base load power.

Note to Greenies

Note to Greenies: this is the source of the methane energy that will be used to back up the inherent intermittency and 20% capacity factor of your beloved windmills and solar plants.Time to get real and support next-generation nuclear power.

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