New tracers can identify frack fluids in the environment

Scientists have developed new geochemical tracers that can identify hydraulic fracturing flowback fluids that have been spilled or released into the environment.

The tracers, which were created by a team of U.S. and French researchers, have been field-tested at a spill site in West Virginia and downstream from an oil and gas brine wastewater treatment plant in Pennsylvania.

“This gives us new forensic tools to detect if ‘frac fluids’ are escaping into our water supply and what risks, if any, they might pose,” said Duke University geochemist Avner Vengosh, who co-led the research.

“By characterizing the isotopic and geochemical fingerprints of enriched boron and lithium in flowback water from hydraulic fracturing, we can now track the presence of frac fluids in the environment and distinguish them from wastewater coming from other sources, including conventional oil and gas wells,” Vengosh said.

Using the tracers, scientists can determine where fracturing fluids have or haven’t been released to the environment and, ultimately, help identify ways to improve how shale gas wastewater is treated and disposed of.

Vengosh and his colleagues published their peer-reviewed findings October 20 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Their study, which was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is the first to report on the development of the boron and lithium tracers.

Nathaniel R. Warner, Obering Postdoctoral Fellow at Dartmouth College, was lead author of the study. “This new technology can be combined with other methods to identify specific instances of accidental releases to surface waters in areas of unconventional drilling,” he said. “It could benefit industry as well as federal and state agencies charged with monitoring water quality and protecting the environment.”

Hydraulic fracturing fluids, or frac fluids, typically contain mixes of water, proprietary chemicals and sand. Mixtures can vary from site to site. Drillers inject large volumes of the fluids down gas wells at high pressure to crack open shale formations deep underground and allow natural gas trapped within the shale to flow out and be extracted. After the shale has been fractured, the frac fluids flow back up the well to the surface along with the gas and highly saline brines from the shale formation.

Some people fear that toxic frac fluid chemicals in this flowback could contaminate nearby water supplies if flowback were accidentally spilled or insufficiently treated before being disposed of.

“The flowback fluid that returns to the surface becomes a waste that needs to be managed,” Vengosh explained. “Deep-well injection is the preferable disposal method, but injecting large volumes of wastewater into deep wells can cause earthquakes in sensitive areas and is not geologically available in some states. In Pennsylvania, much of the flowback is now recycled and reused, but a significant amount of it is still discharged into local streams or rivers.”

Vengosh said it’s possible to identify the presence of frac fluid in spilled or discharged flowback by tracing synthetic organic compounds that are added to the fluid before it’s injected down a well. But the proprietary nature of these chemicals, combined with their instability in the environment, limits the usefulness of such tracers.

By contrast, the new boron and lithium tracers remain stable in the environment. “The difference is that we are using tracers based on elements that occur naturally in shale formations,” Vengosh said.

When drillers inject frac fluids into a shale formation, they not only release hydrocarbon but also boron and lithium that are attached to clay minerals within the formation, he explained. As the fluids react and mix at depth, they become enriched in boron and lithium. As they are brought back to the surface, they have distinctive isotopic fingerprints that are different from other types of wastewater, including wastewater from a conventional gas or oil well, as well as from naturally occurring background water.

“This type of forensic research allows us to clearly delineate between the possible sources of wastewater contamination,” Vengosh said.

2015 DOE JGI’s science portfolio delves deeper into the Earth’s data mine

The U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI), a DOE Office of Science user facility, has announced that 32 new projects have been selected for the 2015 Community Science Program (CSP). From sampling Antarctic lakes to Caribbean waters, and from plant root micro-ecosystems, to the subsurface underneath the water table in forested watersheds, the CSP 2015 projects portfolio highlights diverse environments where DOE mission-relevant science can be extracted.

“These projects catalyze JGI’s strategic shift in emphasis from solving an organism’s genome sequence to enabling an understanding of what this information enables organisms to do,” said Jim Bristow, DOE JGI Science Deputy who oversees the CSP. “To accomplish this, the projects selected combine DNA sequencing with large-scale experimental and computational capabilities, and in some cases include JGI’s new capability to write DNA in addition to reading it. These projects will expand research communities, and help to meet the DOE JGI imperative to translate sequence to function and ultimately into solutions for major energy and environmental problems.”

The CSP 2015 projects were selected by an external review panel from 76 full proposals received that resulted from 85 letters of intent submitted. The total allocation for the CSP 2015 portfolio is expected to exceed 60 trillion bases (terabases or Tb)-or the equivalent of 20,000 human genomes of plant, fungal and microbial genome sequences. The full list of projects may be found at http://jgi.doe.gov/our-projects/csp-plans/fy-2015-csp-plans/. The DOE JGI Community Science Program also accepts proposals for smaller-scale microbial, resequencing and DNA synthesis projects and reviews them twice a year. The CSP advances projects that harness DOE JGI’s capability in massive-scale DNA sequencing, analysis and synthesis in support of the DOE missions in alternative energy, global carbon cycling, and biogeochemistry.

Among the CSP 2015 projects selected is one from Regina Lamendella of Juniata College, who will investigate how microbial communities in Marcellus shale, the country’s largest shale gas field, respond to hydraulic fracturing and natural gas extraction. For example, as fracking uses chemicals, researchers are interested in how the microbial communities can break down environmental contaminants, and how they respond to the release of methane during oil extraction operations.

Some 1,500 miles south from those gas extraction sites, Monica Medina-Munoz of Penn State University will study the effect of thermal stress on the Caribbean coral Orbicella faveolata and the metabolic contribution of its coral host Symbiodinium. The calcium carbonate in coral reefs acts as carbon sinks, but reef health depends on microbial communities. If the photosynthetic symbionts are removed from the coral host, for example, the corals can die and calcification rates decrease. Understanding how to maintain stability in the coral-microbiome community can provide information on the coral’s contribution to the global ocean carbon cycle.

Longtime DOE JGI collaborator Jill Banfield of the University of California (UC), Berkeley is profiling the diversity of microbial communities found in the subsurface from the Rifle aquifer adjacent to the Colorado River. The subsurface is a massive, yet poorly understood, repository of organic carbon as well as greenhouse gases. Another research question, based on having the microbial populations close to both the water table and the river, is how they impact carbon, nitrogen and sulfur cycles. Her project is part of the first coordinated attempt to quantify the metabolic potential of an entire subsurface ecosystem under the aegis of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Subsurface Biogeochemistry Scientific Focus Area.

Banfield also successfully competed for a second CSP project to characterize the tree-root microbial interactions that occur below the soil mantle in the unsaturated zone or vadose zone, which extends into unweathered bedrock. The project’s goal is to understand how microbial communities this deep underground influence tree-based carbon fixation in forested watersheds by the Eel River in northwestern California.

Several fungal projects were selected for the 2015 CSP portfolio, including one led by Kabir Peay of Stanford University. He and his colleagues will study how fungal communities in animal feces decompose organic matter. His project has a stated end goal of developing a model system that emulates the ecosystem at Point Reyes National Seashore, where Tule elk are the largest native herbivores.

Another selected fungal project comes from Timothy James of University of Michigan, who will explore the so-called “dark matter fungi” – those not represented in culture collections. By sequencing several dozen species of unculturable zoosporic fungi from freshwater, soils and animal feces, he and his colleagues hope to develop a kingdom-wide fungal phylogenetic framework.

Christian Wurzbacher of Germany’s the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, IGB, will characterize fungi from the deep sea to peatlands to freshwater streams to understand the potentially novel adaptations that are necessary to thrive in their aquatic environments. The genomic information would provide information on their metabolic capabilities for breaking down cellulose, lignin and other plant cell wall components, and animal polymers such as keratin and chitin.

Many of the selected projects focus on DOE JGI Flagship Plant Genomes, with most centered on the poplar (Populus trichocarpa.) For example, longtime DOE JGI collaborator Steve DiFazio of West Virginia University is interested in poplar but will study its reproductive development with the help of a close relative, the willow (Salix purpurea). With its shorter generation time, the plant is a good model system and comparator for understanding sex determination, which can help bioenergy crop breeders by, for example, either accelerating or preventing flowering.

Another project comes from Posy Busby of the University of Washington, who will study the interactions between the poplar tree and its fungal, non-pathogenic symbionts or endophytes. As disease-causing pathogens interact with endophytes in leaves, he noted in his proposal, understanding the roles and functions of endophytes could prove useful to meeting future fuel and food requirements.

Along the lines of poplar endophytes, Carolin Frank at UC Merced will investigate the nitrogen-fixing endophytes in poplar, willow, and pine, with the aim of improving growth in grasses and agricultural crops under nutrient-poor conditions.

Rotem Sorek from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel takes a different approach starting from the hypothesis that poplar trees have an adaptive immunity system rooted in genome-encoded immune memory. Through deep sequencing of tissues from single poplar trees (some over a century old, others younger) his team hopes to gain insights into the tree genome’s short-term evolution and how its gene expression profiles change over time, as well as to predict how trees might respond under various climate change scenarios.

Tackling a different DOE JGI Flagship Plant Genome, Debbie Laudencia-Chingcuangco of the USDA-ARS will develop a genome-wide collection of several thousand mutants of the model grass Brachypodium distachyon to help domesticate the grasses that are being considered as candidate bioenergy feedstocks. This work is being done in collaboration with researchers at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, as the team there considers Brachypodium “critical to achieving its mission of developing productive energy crops that can be easily processed into fuels.”

Continuing the theme of candidate bioenergy grasses, Kankshita Swaminathan from the University of Illinois will study gene expression in polyploidy grasses Miscanthus and sugarcane, comparing them against the closely related diploid grass sorghum to understand how these plants recycle nutrients.

Baohong Zhang of East Carolina University also focused on a bioenergy grass, and his project will look at the microRNAs in switchgrass. These regulatory molecules are each just a couple dozen nucleotides in length and can downregulate (decrease the quantity of) a cellular component. With a library of these small transcripts, he and his team hope to identify the gene expression variation associated with desirable biofuel traits in switchgrass such as increased biomass and responses to drought and salinity stressors.

Nitin Baliga of the Institute of Systems Biology will use DOE JGI genome sequences to build a working model of the networks that regulate lipid accumulation in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, still another DOE JGI Plant Flagship Genome and a model for characterizing biofuel production by algae.

Other accepted projects include:

The study of the genomes of 32 fungi of the Agaricales order, including 16 fungi to be sequenced for the first time, will be carried out by Jose Maria Barrasa of Spain’s University of Alcala. While many of the basidiomycete fungi involved in wood degradation that have been sequenced are from the Polyporales, he noted in his proposal, many of the fungi involved in breaking down leaf litter and buried wood are from the order Agaricales.

Now at the University of Connecticut, Jonathan Klassen conducted postdoctoral studies at GLBRC researcher Cameron Currie’s lab at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His project will study interactions in ant-microbial community fungus gardens in three states to learn more about how the associated bacterial metagenomes contribute to carbon and nitrogen cycling.

Hinsby Cadillo-Quiroz, at Arizona State University, will conduct a study of the microbial communities in the Amazon peatlands to understand their roles in both emitting greenhouse gases and in storing and cycling carbon. The peatlands are hotspots of soil organic carbon accumulation, and in the tropical regions, they are estimated to hold between 11 percent and 14 percent, or nearly 90 gigatons, of the global carbon stored in soils.

Barbara Campbell, Clemson University will study carbon cycling mechanisms of active bacteria and associated viruses in the freshwater to marine transition zone of the Delaware Bay. Understanding the microbes’ metabolism would help researchers understand they capabilities with regard to dealing with contaminants, and their roles in the nitrogen, sulfur and carbon cycles.

Jim Fredrickson of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will characterize functional profiles of microbial mats in California, Washington and Yellowstone National Park to understand various functions such as how they produce hydrogen and methane, and break down cellulose.

Joyce Loper of USDA-ARS will carry out a comparative analysis of all Pseudomonas bacteria getting from DOE JGI the sequences of just over 100 type strains to infer a evolutionary history of the this genus — a phylogeny — to characterize the genomic diversity, and determine the distribution of genes linked to key observable traits in this non-uniform group of bacteria.

Holly Simon of Oregon Health & Science University is studying microbial populations in the Columbia River estuary, in part to learn how they enhance greenhouse gas CO2 methane and nitrous oxide production.

Michael Thon from Spain’s University of Salamanca will explore sequences of strains of the Colletotrichum species complex, which include fungal pathogens that infect many crops. One of the questions he and his team will ask is how these fungal strains have adapted to break down the range of plant cell wall compositions.

Kathleen Treseder of UC Irvine will study genes involved in sensitivity to higher temperatures in fungi from a warming experiment in an Alaskan boreal forest. The team’s plan is to fold the genomic information gained into a trait-based ecosystem model called DEMENT to predict carbon dioxide emissions under global warming.

Mary Wildermuth of UC Berkeley will study nearly a dozen genomes of powdery mildew fungi, including three that infect designated bioenergy crops. The project will identify the mechanisms by which the fungi successfully infect plants, information that could lead to the development of crops with improved resistance to fungal infection and limiting fungicide use to allow more sustainable agricultural practices.

Several researchers who have previously collaborated with the DOE JGI have new projects:

Ludmila Chistoserdova from the University of Washington had a pioneering collaboration with the DOE JGI to study microbial communities in Lake Washington. In her new project, she and her team will look at the microbes in the Lake Washington sediment to understand their role in metabolizing the potent greenhouse gas methane.

Rick Cavicchioli of Australia’s University of New South Wales will track how microbial communities change throughout a complete annual cycle in three millennia-old Antarctic lakes and a near-shore marine site. By establishing what the microbes do in different seasons, he noted in his proposal, he and his colleagues hope to learn which microbial processes change and about the factors that control the evolution and speciation of marine-derived communities in cold environments.

With samples collected from surface waters down to the deep ocean, Steve Hallam from Canada’s University of British Columbia will explore metabolic pathways and compounds involved in marine carbon cycling processes to understand how carbon is regulated in the oceans.

The project of Hans-Peter Klenk, of DSMZ in Germany, will generate sequences of 1,000 strains of Actinobacteria, which represent the third most populated bacterial phylum and look for genes that encode cellulose-degrading enzymes or enzymes involved in synthesizing novel, natural products.

Han Wosten of the Netherlands’ Utrecht University will carry out a functional genomics approach to wood degradation by looking at Agaricomycetes, in particular the model white rot fungus Schizophyllum commune and the more potent wood-degrading white rots Phanaerochaete chrysosporium and Pleurotus ostreatus that the DOE JGI has previously sequenced.

Wen-Tso Liu of the University of Illinois and his colleagues want to understand the microbial ecology in anaerobic digesters, key components of the wastewater treatment process. They will study microbial communities in anaerobic digesters from the United States, East Asia and Europe to understand the composition and function of the microbes as they are harnessed for this low-cost municipal wastewater strategy efficiently removes waster and produces methane as a sustainable energy source.

Another project that involves wastewater, albeit indirectly, comes from Erica Young of the University of Wisconsin. She has been studying algae grown in wastewater to track how they use nitrogen and phosphorus, and how cellulose and lipids are produced. Her CSP project will characterize the relationship between the algae and the bacteria that help stabilize these algal communities, particularly the diversity of the bacterial community and the pathways and interactions involved in nutrient uptake and carbon sequestration.

Previous CSP projects and other DOE JGI collaborations are highlighted in some of the DOE JGI Annual User Meeting talks that can be seen here: http://usermeeting.jgi.doe.gov/past-speakers/. The 10th Annual Genomics of Energy and Environment Meeting will be held March 24-26, 2015 in Walnut Creek, Calif. A preliminary speakers list is posted here (http://usermeeting.jgi.doe.gov/) and registration will be opened in the first week of November.

Fracking’s environmental impacts scrutinized

Greenhouse gas emissions from the production and use of shale gas would be comparable to conventional natural gas, but the controversial energy source actually faired better than renewables on some environmental impacts, according to new research.

The UK holds enough shale gas to supply its entire gas demand for 470 years, promising to solve the country’s energy crisis and end its reliance on fossil-fuel imports from unstable markets. But for many, including climate scientists and environmental groups, shale gas exploitation is viewed as environmentally dangerous and would result in the UK reneging on its greenhouse gas reduction obligations under the Climate Change Act.

University of Manchester scientists have now conducted one of the most thorough examinations of the likely environmental impacts of shale gas exploitation in the UK in a bid to inform the debate. Their research has just been published in the leading academic journal Applied Energy and study lead author, Professor Adisa Azapagic, will outline the findings at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester, England, today (Monday, 22 September).

“While exploration is currently ongoing in the UK, commercial extraction of shale gas has not yet begun, yet its potential has stirred controversy over its environmental impacts, its safety and the difficulty of justifying its use to a nation conscious of climate change,” said Professor Azapagic.

“There are many unknowns in the debate surrounding shale gas, so we have attempted to address some of these unknowns by estimating its life cycle environmental impacts from ‘cradle to grave’. We looked at 11 different impacts from the extraction of shale gas using hydraulic fracturing – known as ‘fracking’- as well as from its processing and use to generate electricity.”

The researchers compared shale gas to other fossil-fuel alternatives, such as conventional natural gas and coal, as well as low-carbon options, including nuclear, offshore wind and solar power (solar photovoltaics).

The results of the research suggest that the average emissions of greenhouse gases from shale gas over its entire life cycle are about 460 grams of carbon dioxide-equivalent per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. This, the authors say, is comparable to the emissions from conventional natural gas. For most of the other life-cycle environmental impacts considered by the team, shale gas was also comparable to conventional natural gas.

But the study also found that shale gas was better than offshore wind and solar for four out of 11 impacts: depletion of natural resources, toxicity to humans, as well as the impact on freshwater and marine organisms. Additionally, shale gas was better than solar (but not wind) for ozone layer depletion and eutrophication (the effect of nutrients such as phosphates, on natural ecosystems).

On the other hand, shale gas was worse than coal for three impacts: ozone layer depletion, summer smog and terrestrial eco-toxicity.

Professor Azapagic said: “Some of the impacts of solar power are actually relatively high, so it is not a complete surprise that shale gas is better in a few cases. This is mainly because manufacturing solar panels is very energy and resource-intensive, while their electrical output is quite low in a country like the UK, as we don’t have as much sunshine. However, our research shows that the environmental impacts of shale gas can vary widely, depending on the assumptions for various parameters, including the composition and volume of the fracking fluid used, disposal routes for the drilling waste and the amount of shale gas that can be recovered from a well.

“Assuming the worst case conditions, several of the environmental impacts from shale gas could be worse than from any other options considered in the research, including coal. But, under the best-case conditions, shale gas may be preferable to imported liquefied natural gas.”

The authors say their results highlight the need for tight regulation of shale gas exploration – weak regulation, they claim, may result in shale gas having higher impacts than coal power, resulting in a failure to meet climate change and sustainability imperatives and undermining the deployment of low-carbon technologies.

Professor Azapagic added: “Whether shale gas is an environmentally sound option depends on the perceived importance of different environmental impacts and the regulatory structure under which shale gas operates.

“From the government policy perspective – focusing mainly on economic growth and energy security – it appears likely that shale gas represents a good option for the UK energy sector, assuming that it can be extracted at reasonable cost.

“However, a wider view must also consider other aspects of widespread use of shale gas, including the impact on climate change, as well as many other environmental considerations addressed in our study. Ultimately, the environmental impacts from shale gas will depend on which options it is displacing and how tight the regulation is.”

Study co-author Dr Laurence Stamford, from Manchester’s School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science, said: “Appropriate regulation should introduce stringent controls on the emissions from shale gas extraction and disposal of drilling waste. It should also discourage extraction from sites where there is little shale gas in order to avoid the high emissions associated with a low-output well.

He continued: “If shale gas is extracted under tight regulations and is reasonably cheap, there is no obvious reason, as yet, why it should not make some contribution to our energy mix. However, regulation should also ensure that investment in sustainable technologies is not reduced at the expense of shale gas.”

Contaminated water in 2 states linked to faulty shale gas wells

Faulty well integrity, not hydraulic fracturing deep underground, is the primary cause of drinking water contamination from shale gas extraction in parts of Pennsylvania and Texas, according to a new study by researchers from five universities.

The scientists from Duke, Ohio State, Stanford, Dartmouth and the University of Rochester
published their peer-reviewed study Sept. 15 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Using noble gas and hydrocarbon tracers, they analyzed the gas content of more than 130 drinking water wells in the two states.

“We found eight clusters of wells — seven in Pennsylvania and one in Texas — with contamination, including increased levels of natural gas from the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and from shallower, intermediate layers in both states,” said Thomas H. Darrah, assistant professor of earth science at Ohio State, who led the study while he was a research scientist at Duke.

“Our data clearly show that the contamination in these clusters stems from well-integrity problems such as poor casing and cementing,” Darrah said.

“These results appear to rule out the possibility that methane has migrated up into drinking water aquifers because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, as some people feared,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke.

In four of the affected clusters, the team’s noble gas analysis shows that methane from drill sites escaped into drinking water wells from shallower depths through faulty or insufficient rings of cement surrounding a gas well’s shaft. In three clusters, the tests suggest the methane leaked through faulty well casings. In one cluster, it was linked to an underground well failure.

“People’s water has been harmed by drilling,” said Robert B. Jackson, professor of environmental and earth sciences at Stanford and Duke. “In Texas, we even saw two homes go from clean to contaminated after our sampling began.”

“The good news is that most of the issues we have identified can potentially be avoided by future improvements in well integrity,” Darrah stressed.

Using both noble gas and hydrocarbon tracers — a novel combination that enabled the researchers to identify and distinguish between the signatures of naturally occurring methane and stray gas contamination from shale gas drill sites — the team analyzed gas content in 113 drinking-water wells and one natural methane seep overlying the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania, and in 20 wells overlying the Barnett shale in Texas. Sampling was conducted in 2012 and 2013. Sampling sites included wells where contamination had been debated previously; wells known to have naturally high level of methane and salts, which tend to co-occur in areas overlying shale gas deposits; and wells located both within and beyond a one-kilometer distance from drill sites.

Noble gases such as helium, neon or argon are useful for tracing fugitive methane because although they mix with natural gas and can be transported with it, they are inert and are not altered by microbial activity or oxidation. By measuring changes in ratios in these tag-along noble gases, researchers can determine the source of fugitive methane and the mechanism by which it was transported into drinking water aquifers — whether it migrated there as a free gas or was dissolved in water.

“This is the first study to provide a comprehensive analysis of noble gases and their isotopes in groundwater near shale gas wells,” said Darrah, who is continuing the analysis in his lab at Ohio State. “Using these tracers, combined with the isotopic and chemical fingerprints of hydrocarbons in the water and its salt content, we can pinpoint the sources and pathways of methane contamination, and determine if it is natural or not.”

Gas leaks from faulty wells linked to contamination in some groundwater

A study has pinpointed the likely source of most natural gas contamination in drinking-water wells associated with hydraulic fracturing, and it’s not the source many people may have feared.

What’s more, the problem may be fixable: improved construction standards for cement well linings and casings at hydraulic fracturing sites.

A team led by a researcher at The Ohio State University and composed of researchers at Duke, Stanford, Dartmouth, and the University of Rochester devised a new method of geochemical forensics to trace how methane migrates under the earth. The study identified eight clusters of contaminated drinking-water wells in Pennsylvania and Texas.

Most important among their findings, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is that neither horizontal drilling nor hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits seems to have caused any of the natural gas contamination.

“There is no question that in many instances elevated levels of natural gas are naturally occurring, but in a subset of cases, there is also clear evidence that there were human causes for the contamination,” said study leader Thomas Darrah, assistant professor of earth sciences at Ohio State. “However our data suggests that where contamination occurs, it was caused by poor casing and cementing in the wells,” Darrah said.

In hydraulic fracturing, water is pumped underground to break up shale at a depth far below the water table, he explained. The long vertical pipes that carry the resulting gas upward are encircled in cement to keep the natural gas from leaking out along the well. The study suggests that natural gas that has leaked into aquifers is the result of failures in the cement used in the well.

“Many of the leaks probably occur when natural gas travels up the outside of the borehole, potentially even thousands of feet, and is released directly into drinking-water aquifers” said Robert Poreda, professor of geochemistry at the University of Rochester.

“These results appear to rule out the migration of methane up into drinking water aquifers from depth because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, as some people feared,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke.

“This is relatively good news because it means that most of the issues we have identified can potentially be avoided by future improvements in well integrity,” Darrah said.

“In some cases homeowner’s water has been harmed by drilling,” said Robert B. Jackson, professor of environmental and earth sciences at Stanford and Duke. “In Texas, we even saw two homes go from clean to contaminated after our sampling began.”

The method that the researchers used to track the source of methane contamination relies on the basic physics of the noble gases (which happen to leak out along with the methane). Noble gases such as helium and neon are so called because they don’t react much with other chemicals, although they mix with natural gas and can be transported with it.

That means that when they are released underground, they can flow long distances without getting waylaid by microbial activity or chemical reactions along the way. The only important variable is the atomic mass, which determines how the ratios of noble gases change as they tag along with migrating natural gas. These properties allow the researchers to determine the source of fugitive methane and the mechanism by which it was transported into drinking water aquifers.

The researchers were able to distinguish between the signatures of naturally occurring methane and stray gas contamination from shale gas drill sites overlying the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and the Barnett shale in Texas.

The researchers sampled water from the sites in 2012 and 2013. Sampling sites included wells where contamination had been debated previously; wells known to have naturally high level of methane and salts, which tend to co-occur in areas overlying shale gas deposits; and wells located both within and beyond a one-kilometer distance from drill sites.

As hydraulic fracturing starts to develop around the globe, including countries South Africa, Argentina, China, Poland, Scotland, and Ireland, Darrah and his colleagues are continuing their work in the United States and internationally. And, since the method that the researchers employed relies on the basic physics of the noble gases, it can be employed anywhere. Their hope is that their findings can help highlight the necessity to improve well integrity.

Scientists warn time to stop drilling in the dark

In areas where shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islands. -  Simon Fraser University PAMR
In areas where shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islands. – Simon Fraser University PAMR

The co-authors of a new study, including two Simon Fraser University research associates, cite new reasons why scientists, industry representatives and policymakers must collaborate closely on minimizing damage to the natural world from shale gas development. Viorel Popescu and Maureen Ryan, David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellows in SFU’s Biological Sciences department, are among eight international co-authors of the newly published research in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Shale gas development is the extraction of natural gas from shale formations via deep injection of high-pressure aqueous chemicals to create fractures (i.e., hydraulic fracturing), which releases trapped gas. With shale gas production projected to increase exponentially internationally during the next 30 years, the scientists say their key findings are cause for significant concern and decisive mitigation measures.

“Our findings are highly relevant to British Columbians given the impetus for developing shale resources in northeastern B.C. and the massive LNG facilities and pipeline infrastructure under development throughout the province,” notes Popescu. The SFU Earth2Ocean Group member is also a research associate in the Centre for Environmental Research at the University of Bucharest in Romania.

Key study findings:

  • One of the greatest threats to animal and plant-life is the cumulative impact of rapid, widespread shale development, with each individual well contributing collectively to air, water, noise and light pollution.

    “Think about the landscape and its habitats as a canvas,” explains Popescu. “At first, the few well pads, roads and pipelines from shale development seem like tiny holes and cuts, and the canvas still holds. But if you look at a heavily developed landscape down the road, you see more holes and cuts than natural habitats. Forests or grasslands that were once continuous are now islands fragmented by a dense web of roads, pipelines and well pads. At what point does the canvas fall apart? And what are the ecological implications for wide-ranging, sensitive species such as caribou or grizzly bears?”

  • Determining the environmental impact of chemical contamination from spills, well-casing failure and other accidents associated with shale gas production must become a top priority.

    Shale-drilling operations for oil and natural gas have increased by more than 700 per cent in the United States since 2007 and Western Canada is undergoing a similar shale gas production boom. But the industry’s effects on nature and wildlife are not well understood. Accurate data on the release of fracturing chemicals into the environment needs to be gathered before understanding can improve.

  • The lack of accessible and reliable information on spills, wastewater disposal and fracturing fluids is greatly impeding improved understanding. This study identifies that only five of 24 American states with active shale gas reservoirs maintain public records of spills and accidents.

The authors reviewed chemical disclosure statements for 150 wells in three top-gas producing American states and found that, on average, two out of three wells were fractured with at least one undisclosed chemical. Some of the wells in the chemical disclosure registry were fractured with fluid containing 20 or more undisclosed chemicals.

The authors call this an arbitrary and inconsistent standard of chemical disclosure. This is particularly worrisome given the chemical makeup of fracturing fluid and wastewater, which can include carcinogens and radioactive substances, is often unknown.

“Past lessons from large scale resource extraction and energy development -large dams, intensive forestry, or biofuel plantations – have shown us that development that outpaces our understanding of ecological impacts can have dire unintended consequences,” notes Ryan. She is a research fellow in the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

“It’s our responsibility to look forward. For example, here in Canada, moving natural gas from northeastern B.C. to the 16 proposed LNG plants would require hundreds of kilometers of new pipeline and road infrastructure, and large port terminals on top of the effects of drilling. We must not just consider the impact of these projects individually, but also try to evaluate the ecological impacts holistically.”

Oklahoma quakes induced by wastewater injection, study finds

The dramatic increase in earthquakes in central Oklahoma since 2009 is likely attributable to subsurface wastewater injection at just a handful of disposal wells, finds a new study to be published in the journal Science on July 3, 2014.

The research team was led by Katie Keranen, professor of geophysics at Cornell University, who says Oklahoma earthquakes constitute nearly half of all central and eastern U.S. seismicity from 2008 to 2013, many occurring in areas of high-rate water disposal.

“Induced seismicity is one of the primary challenges for expanded shale gas and unconventional hydrocarbon development. Our results provide insight into the process by which the earthquakes are induced and suggest that adherence to standard best practices may substantially reduce the risk of inducing seismicity,” said Keranen. “The best practices include avoiding wastewater disposal near major faults and the use of appropriate monitoring and mitigation strategies.”

The study also concluded:

  • Four of the highest-volume disposal wells in Oklahoma (~0.05% of wells) are capable of triggering ~20% of recent central U.S. earthquakes in a swarm covering nearly 2,000 square kilometers, as shown by analysis of modeled pore pressure increase at relocated earthquake hypocenters.

  • Earthquakes are induced at distances over 30 km from the disposal wells. These distances are far beyond existing criteria of 5 km from the well for diagnosis of induced earthquakes.

  • The area of increased pressure related to these wells continually expands, increasing the probability of encountering a larger fault and thus increasing the risk of triggering a higher-magnitude earthquake.

“Earthquake and subsurface pressure monitoring should be routinely conducted in regions of wastewater disposal and all data from those should be publicly accessible. This should also include detailed monitoring and reporting of pumping volumes and pressures,” said Keranen. ‘In many states the data are more difficult to obtain than for Oklahoma; databases should be standardized nationally. Independent quality assurance checks would increase confidence. ”

Monitoring, management, and oversight critical for responsible shale gas development

A new expert panel report, Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction in Canada, concludes that shale gas development must be supported by well-targeted science and management strategies to understand and mitigate potential impacts. The report, released today by the Council of Canadian Academies, addresses environmental and associated health impacts and offers insights regarding public engagement and trust.

Shale gas is leading an energy boom which is having profound economic, environmental, and social impacts across much of North America. Shale gas has been characterized as an energy “game changer” because it is abundant, often close to major markets, and relatively inexpensive to produce. As the world’s third-largest natural gas producer, fourth-largest exporter, and possessing vast shale gas resources of its own, Canada has a major stake in this new source of energy.

“For Canada, regional context matters. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work to address the various potential environmental impacts that may exist across Canada’s diverse regions,” said Elizabeth Dowdeswell, President of the Council of Canadian Academies. “As such, communities and decision-makers will need to consider potential environmental impacts within their own contexts and decision-making processes.”

The Panel’s report sheds light on a variety of potential environmental impacts associated with well integrity; groundwater and surface water; greenhouse gas emissions; land impacts and seismic events; and human health. The report also addresses the importance baseline and ongoing monitoring, and the need for research and data-gathering.

The Expert Panel was not asked to conduct a safety assessment, determine the economic feasibility of shale gas development, or compare energy sources. The report provides a comprehensive examination of potential impacts and insights on how best to mitigate them. Environment Canada’s foresight in requesting this examination provides governments, industry, and other stakeholders with an in-depth resource for considering future Canadian development.

Acid mine drainage reduces radioactivity in fracking waste

Much of the naturally occurring radioactivity in fracking wastewater might be removed by blending it with another wastewater from acid mine drainage, according to a Duke University-led study.

“Fracking wastewater and acid mine drainage each pose well-documented environmental and public health risks. But in laboratory tests, we found that by blending them in the right proportions we can bind some of the fracking contaminants into solids that can be removed before the water is discharged back into streams and rivers,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

“This could be an effective way to treat Marcellus Shale hydraulic fracturing wastewater, while providing a beneficial use for acid mine drainage that currently is contaminating waterways in much of the northeastern United States,” Vengosh said. “It’s a win-win for the industry and the environment.”

Blending fracking wastewater with acid mine drainage also could help reduce the depletion of local freshwater resources by giving drillers a source of usable recycled water for the hydraulic fracturing process, he added.

“Scarcity of fresh water in dry regions or during periods of drought can severely limit shale gas development in many areas of the United States and in other regions of the world where fracking is about to begin,” Vengosh said. “Using acid mine drainage or other sources of recycled or marginal water may help solve this problem and prevent freshwater depletion.”

The peer-reviewed study was published in late December 2013 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

In hydraulic fracturing – or fracking, as it is sometimes called – millions of tons of water are injected at high pressure down wells to crack open shale deposits buried deep underground and extract natural gas trapped within the rock. Some of the water flows back up through the well, along with natural brines and the natural gas. This “flowback fluid” typically contains high levels of salts, naturally occurring radioactive materials such as radium, and metals such as barium and strontium.

A study last year by the Duke team showed that standard treatment processes only partially remove these potentially harmful contaminants from Marcellus Shale wastewater before it is discharged back into streams and waterways, causing radioactivity to accumulate in stream sediments near the disposal site.

Acid mine drainage flows out of abandoned coal mines into many streams in the Appalachian Basin. It can be highly toxic to animals, plants and humans, and affects the quality of hundreds of waterways in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Because much of the current Marcellus shale gas development is taking place in regions where large amounts of historic coal mining occurred, some experts have suggested that acid mine drainage could be used to frack shale gas wells in place of fresh water.

To test that hypothesis, Vengosh and his team blended different mixtures of Marcellus Shale fracking wastewater and acid mine drainage, all of which were collected from sites in western Pennsylvania and provided to the scientists by the industry.

After 48 hours, the scientists examined the chemical and radiological contents of 26 different mixtures. Geochemical modeling was used to simulate the chemical and physical reactions that had occurred after the blending; the results of the modeling were then verified using x-ray diffraction and by measuring the radioactivity of the newly formed solids.

“Our analysis suggested that several ions, including sulfate, iron, barium and strontium, as well as between 60 and 100 percent of the radium, had precipitated within the first 10 hours into newly formed solids composed mainly of strontium barite,” Vengosh said. These radioactive solids could be removed from the mixtures and safely disposed of at licensed hazardous-waste facilities, he said. The overall salinity of the blended fluids was also reduced, making the treated water suitable for re-use at fracking sites.

“The next step is to test this in the field. While our laboratory tests show that is it technically possible to generate recycled, treated water suitable for hydraulic fracturing, field-scale tests are still necessary to confirm its feasibility under operational conditions,” Vengosh said.

Tailored methane measurement services are to be developed for shale gas extraction, municipal waste

Climate-KIC, Europe’s largest public-private innovation partnership working to address the challenge of climate change, has awarded ?1.266 million to FuME (Fugitive Methane Emissions), a new project that will help to identify fugitive methane emissions.

Fugitive methane emissions are of great importance to climate change and governments’ and industry’s response to it, due to its high global warming impact . Capturing fugitive methane emissions can also deliver a profitable return by directly producing saleable gas. Methane abatement options can therefore have a net profit, and even those that do not can be relatively cheap to deploy with large climate change mitigation benefits.

Better detection and quantification of fugitive methane emissions will contribute substantially to climate change mitigation, as methane represents 16% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and, due to the high global warming impact, more than a third of anthropogenic warming. As well as mitigation opportunities, this creates potentially huge opportunities for innovation and economic growth through the provision of new products and services for the sectors in which fugitive methane can be captured.

The project will develop methane measurement services, made up of a number of different products including modelling tools, a laser based open-path methane detection spectrometer and sensor networks in which the services can be adapted to user requirements depending on the sector, the complexity of the site, and the user requirements in each case.

The project will see the Centre for Carbon Measurement at NPL working with ARIA Technologies, CEREA and LSCE to adapt instrumentation, measurement techniques and methodologies for the target sectors. Industry representatives Cuadrilla Resources, Veolia Environnement and National Grid will provide sites and operational expertise to the project.

Publications from the project will include a set of guidelines per industry (municipal waste water treatment, transmission grid, shale gas extraction) for fugitive methane emission measurement best practice, a collection of reports summarizing the project results, scientific papers on different methods for quantifying fugitive methane emissions and the comparative accuracy levels, the learning from the project for emissions factors for municipal waste water treatment, the use of inverse modelling to estimate fugitive emissions when used in conjunction with measurements, as well as a comparison of different dispersion models.

The findings of this work are expected to contribute to standards and guideline documents for industry including for example Best Available Technology guidelines highlighting how to monitor sites and capture fugitive losses.

Jane Burston, head of the Centre for Carbon Measurement at the National Physical Laboratory said:

“Methane plays a big role in global warming. The IPCC recently updated their estimate of methane’s global warming potential from 72 times that of carbon dioxide to 86 times over a 20 year time period. So it’s a critical area to tackle for climate change mitigation. At the same time many opportunities to reduce fugitive losses are profit-making or cost neutral, so it’s a potential business opportunity too.”

Mary Ritter, Chief Executive Officer, Climate-KIC said:

“Methane is a significant driver of climate-change and a valuable resource. Fugitive methane emissions measurement services will help a wide range of operators to better manage their processes and increase their profitability. Climate-KIC is proud to fund the project and collaborate with FuME’s consortium to fight climate change by stimulating clean innovation and growth in Europe. “

“We are delighted to partner with Climate-KIC on this important quest to validate a new generation of measurement technologies,” said Francis Egan, CEO of Cuadrilla Resources.

Neil Dawson, Environmental Engineering Manager, National Grid, said: “We want to make absolutely sure that our gas transmission business plays a part in tackling climate change. That’s why we are bringing our expertise to the table to help develop methane measurement services to reduce fugitive methane emissions.”