Methane from fracking sites can flow to abandoned wells, new study shows

October 20, 2015
A fracking operation on the Marcellus Shale Formation in Pennsylvania is shown. New research shows that abandoned oil and gas wells near fracking sites can be conduits for methane emissions not currently being measured. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey/public domain

As debate roils over EPA regulations proposed this month limiting the release of the potent greenhouse gas methane during fracking operations, a new University of Vermont study funded by the National Science Foundation shows that abandoned oil and gas wells near fracking sites can be conduits for methane escape not currently being measured.

The study, to be published in Water Resources Research on October 20, demonstrates that fractures in surrounding rock produced by the hydraulic fracturing process are able to connect to preexisting, abandoned oil and , common in fracking areas, which can provide a pathway to the surface for methane.

A recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science showed that methane release measured at abandoned wells near fracking sites can be significant but did not investigate how the process occurs.

"The debate over the new EPA rules needs to take into account the system that fracking operations are frequently part of, which includes a network of abandoned wells that can effectively pipeline methane to the surface," said the new paper's lead author, James Montague, an environmental engineering doctoral student at the University of Vermont, who co-wrote the paper with George Pinder, professor of environmental engineering at the university.

The study focused on an area in New York State underlain by the Marcellus Shale formation, which had been fracked until a ban went into effect in the state in the summer of 2015.

The formation, composed of layers of shale and hydrocarbons, is beneath land that has been the site of conventional oil and gas drilling since the 1880s, when American oil companies first began operating.

About 40,000 existing wells in New York, 30,000 of them located within the footprint of the Marcellus formation, are documented by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation. But the department estimates that 70,000 wells in all have been drilled.

Because the location of so many wells is not known - a common phenomenon in many regions where fracking takes place - the study uses a mathematical model to predict the likelihood that the hydraulically induced fractures of a randomly placed new well would connect to an existing wellbore.

The model put the probability that new fracking-induced fractures in the Marcellus formation would connect to an existing well bore at between .03 percent and 3 percent.

But industry-sponsored information made public since the paper was published vastly increased assumptions about the area impacted by a set of six to eight fracking wells known as a well pad - to two square miles—increasing the probabilities cited in the paper by a factor of 10 or more.

While all fracking sites are different, most have a similar enough hydrocarbon profile that they attracted conventional oil and gas drilling in the past and most, like the Marcellus, have a large number of abandoned wells, many with unknown locations.

Not all abandoned wells provide a pathway to surface for methane. Only those that are damaged, largely when the concrete that buffers the well from the surrounding earth loses integrity, can act as a conduit.

But even a small percentage of damaged wellbores, given the large number of abandoned , can potentially pose an environmental risk, Pinder said.

Explore further: How much water does US fracking really use?

Related Stories

How much water does US fracking really use?

September 15, 2015

Energy companies used nearly 250 billion gallons of water to extract unconventional shale gas and oil from hydraulically fractured wells in the United States between 2005 and 2014, a new Duke University study finds.

Drought threatens US fracking industry

February 6, 2014

The two years of drought in the central United States is placing strains on the water-intense oil and gas fracking industry, according to a new study Wednesday.

Fracking risks to ground water assessed

May 17, 2013

(Phys.org) —Extraction of "unconventional" gas from sedimentary rocks such as shale could provide a clean energy source and help some regions to become energy independent, but concerns have been raised about risks such ...

Fracking study finds new gas wells leak more

June 30, 2014

In the state of Pennsylvania's gas drilling boom, newer and unconventional wells leak far more often than older and traditional ones, according to a study of state inspection reports for 41,000 wells.

Fracking industry wells associated with premature birth

October 8, 2015

Expectant mothers who live near active natural gas wells operated by the fracking industry in Pennsylvania are at an increased risk of giving birth prematurely and for having high-risk pregnancies, new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg ...

New York state bans fracking

December 17, 2014

Governor Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday he would ban hydraulic fracking in New York State, citing health concerns about the controversial oil and gas drilling technique.

Recommended for you

New Amazon threat? Deforestation from mining

October 18, 2017

Sprawling mining operations in Brazil are destroying much more of the iconic Amazon forest than previously thought, says the first comprehensive study of mining deforestation in the world's largest tropical rainforest.

Scientists determine source of world's largest mud eruption

October 17, 2017

On May 29, 2006, mud started erupting from several sites on the Indonesian island of Java. Boiling mud, water, rocks and gas poured from newly-created vents in the ground, burying entire towns and compelling many Indonesians ...

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

gkam
1 / 5 (4) Oct 20, 2015
Petroleum is a filthy business. When coupled with capitalism, we are in for contamination and trouble.

How many aquifers will be ruined forever by this panicked drive for money?
eachus
5 / 5 (2) Oct 20, 2015

Petroleum is a filthy business. When coupled with capitalism, we are in for contamination and trouble.

How many aquifers will be ruined forever by this panicked drive for money?


If you are asking about modern fracking gas wells, none. If you are asking about old wildcatting wells, hundreds. Why? For fracking to work, you need to pressurize the boreholes. Leaking to an old well open to the air, or just to near the surface? Modern seismic imaging finds those old well bores and allows them to be avoided. Can't avoid them? Choose another (nearby) site, or more commonly plug old holes with concrete.

Why do it safely? Not concern for the environment. A fault like that at a drilling site would mean that several million dollars of investment is wasted. Makes a truckload of concrete pretty darn cheap.
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Oct 20, 2015
Promise?
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.2 / 5 (5) Oct 20, 2015
Petroleum is a filthy business. When coupled with capitalism, we are in for contamination and trouble.

How many aquifers will be ruined forever by this panicked drive for money?
None.
https://scholar.g...Ch2wJQ7H

-Petroleum and natural gas are naturally-occurring materials.

-Youd know these things if you had ever had a formal education rather than just an honorary MS in an unrelated field.

Stpo pretending and making up your own facts.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.