Examining the Facts in Portage Co. Methane Case
This week, a local NBC affiliate out of Cleveland did a story on a Portage County family (the Klines) concerned about the levels of methane in their water well, and pretty convinced that a natural gas well drilled more than 1,800 feet away from their property is the sole reason why it’s there.
To their credit, the producers in Cleveland did a pretty good job of laying out the situation in a pretty balanced way, noting several important facts (we’ll get to those in just a bit) that, taken together, render the notion of oil and gas development having anything to do with this event a virtual impossibility. Unfortunately, producers with the Today show in New York didn’t quite apply the same standard of accuracy in running with the story on its broadcast this morning, airing a piece that carefully avoids mention of the facts, even in the face of a mountain of evidence that directly contradicts its thesis.
Since the focus of NBC’s “investigative” report was on the presence of two substances (methane and chloride) in the Kline water well, let’s examine each of those with the kind of attention to detail to which we hope news outlets – and, separately, the Today show — will adhere in the future.
It’s important to note right up top that the operator of the nearby natural gas well in question conducted extensive baseline water testing before any development activities ever proceeded – sampling the Kline well even though it technically resides outside the “presumptive liability” zone of 1,500-feet from the well. A copy of those test results can be found here.
As you’ll see, methane was found in the Klines’ water well before the natural gas well was even drilled. Other baseline water tests focused on the area in question confirm that methane is commonly found in water wells throughout the region. Again, these findings come from samples taken before drilling began, meaning the methane detected is naturally occurring, and sometimes present in fairly high concentrations.
But perhaps the most important detail concerning the Klines’ water well is this: According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), the Kline water well was actually drilled through the existing water aquifer and into a rock formation below called the “hard blue shale.” According to the statement that ODNR submitted to Today: “The water well in question was found to be drilled into shale, which is known to contain methane and is naturally occurring.”
In other words: natural gas was found in a water well that was drilled into a shale formation that contains natural gas.
Here’s why that’s relevant: According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the relatively shallow shale rocks that underlie Portage Co. have long been known to house some pretty low-quality drinking water. In a report filed by USGS in 1966 – 56 years ago, mind you – the agency found that:
“the shale units in Portage County generally have not been used as a source of water because of either the poor quality of the water or its insufficient quantity.”
The fact that the Klines’ water well was drilled into one of those shales explains a lot about the composition and quality of their water.
One of the other points the reporter made sure to highlight in the Today show piece was that methane levels discovered in water sampling tests from December 2012 (based on tests conducted by ODNR) were higher than what was detected in the baseline samples collected in August 2012. So even if there were methane in the water beforehand – and lots of it – what could explain the increase in concentration?
Here, a 2008 report that appeared in a prominent scientific journal examining how and why levels of methane can change in groundwater might prove useful. That report, entitled “Spike-Like Concentration Change of Methane,” observed that it’s common for methane levels in groundwater to increase or decrease over time, as methane concentrations are “controlled by the hydrostatic pressure gradient in the aquifer.” According to the study, the pressure gradient can change for a number of reasons — not only due to withdrawals from the well, but also from atmospheric conditions, such as changes in barometric pressure. Because of this, changes in temperature can cause methane concentrations in groundwater to fluctuate.
The baseline tests were taken in the summer, whereas ODNR’s tests were taken in the late fall/winter.
Another substance that came up in samples of the Kline water well was chloride. Once again, baseline water tests provide much-needed information in this case, including before and after measurements of chloride itself.
In those baseline tests, chloride was detected in the Klines’ water at a concentration of 414.8 mg/L. The U.S. EPA’s standard, however, is 250 mg/L, meaning the chloride concentration significantly exceeded the acceptable limit set by the EPA before drilling even began.
With all of these facts spread out on the table, NBC News chose only to say that, according to ODNR’s investigation, “the well water’s chloride levels were nearly twice the safe limit.” No mention of the baseline data, and certainly no mention of the fact that chloride levels far exceeded safe limits before the company ever drilled its natural gas well.
But chloride levels were slightly higher in ODNR’s tests (taken in December) than the baseline samples from August. How to explain that?
For one, a 2004 report on Ohio groundwater from USGS found elevated levels of chloride in Portage Co., specifically in the winter months. The reason, according to USGS, was the “direct application of deicing chemicals” to roadways. USGS added that “downgradient dissolved chloride concentrations (mean 124-345 mg/L) rarely returned to background concentrations (mean 7-37 mg/L) throughout the study period.” In Portage Co. specifically, two of the three wells sampled registered average chloride concentrations of between 406 mg/L and 534 mg/L, with some readings over 1,900 mg/L.
In other words, during the winter months, water aquifers in Portage Co. often experience spikes in chloride levels, and significant ones at that – a phenomenon that was observed, recorded and lamented in the area long before any shale development came to town.
There’s another element that may have contributed to the rise in chlorides, as detailed in a Nov. 2011 story in the Columbus Dispatch. The headline of that piece? “Stored road salt might have tainted well water.” Elsewhere, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has recognized road salts and other de-icers as significant hazards to groundwater quality, identifying the threat of chloride leaking into water supplies as a key reason. The Washington Post put it more bluntly: “Road salt melts snow, but it contaminates groundwater and damages habitats.”
Notably, Portage Co. experienced a large snowstorm last month – the same month as ODNR’s tests.
Also worth noting: Another report from ODNR, this one issued in 1990, identified Portage County specifically as having a high risk for naturally induced water contamination: “The diversity of hydrogeologic conditions in Portage County,” ODNR observed, “produces settings with a wide range of vulnerability to ground water contamination.”
With all of these facts available, the Today show nonetheless chose to ignore each and every one of them, opting instead to focus on sensationalism and “expert analysis” from well-known anti-shale activist groups – even shoehorning in a quick interview with a Washington, D.C.-based staffer from the NRDC. The segment then officially jumped the shark by trying its level best to compare the Klines’ situation with the infamous “flaming faucet” scene in Josh Fox’s thoroughly discredited movie Gasland.
But actually, linking the Portage Co. case with Gasland’s flaming faucet may be entirely fitting. As we remember, the initial reaction to that scene was to connect it to shale development, specifically the process of hydraulic fracturing. But according to an investigation by Colorado’s oil and gas regulators – whom Fox refused to allow in his documentary to explain the facts – the flaming faucet was “not related to oil and gas activity.”
Sounds familiar, huh?