Fracking and groundwater contamination: The Data

July 7, 2011

The MIT Energy Initiative’s recently released Future of Natural Gas study is a comprehensive and balanced examination of this essential resource.  It contains much information that I will be digesting and using in future posts.  Today, I want to focus on the report’s analysis of environmental risks associated with natgas fracking.  I want to thank Robert Bryce, whose tweets (@pwrhungry) tipped me to this report.

The authors of the report acknowledge that there are risks associated with natural gas drilling in general, and fracking in particular, just as there are in any resource extraction activity.  These risks need to be accounted for and the industry must take steps to mitigate them going forward, especially as drilling expands into regions of the nation that do not have experience with natural gas drilling and where, therefore, the regulatory and oversight functions will be underdeveloped.  That being noted, it is also important to examine the actual occurrence rate of environmental problems.  Over the past ten years, the authors note, there have been over 20,000 wells drilled and very few incidents of groundwater contamination.  In those cases where contamination has occurred, it has usually been gas contamination not, as most commonly feared, contamination with fracking liquids (p. 39).  The chart below (reproduced without permission) shows the low frequency of incidents over the 5 year period of 2005-2009.

So, in the thousands of wells drilled in that period, there have been just 20 incidents of groundwater contamination.  Thus, while it is a legitimate concern and regulators and drillers alike must be aware of the issue, the fear (sometimes bordering on hysteria) surrounding groundwater contamination is simply not supported by the data.  Can it happen?  Yes.  Is it likely to happen on any given well?  Statistically, no.  Is the reported level of incidence worth ceasing development of this vast resource?  In our opinion, definitely not.



  1. There are so many indicators that lead to ground water contamination. For example, the wastes are carelessly discarded into rivers, ditches, trenches, and others. It can contaminate ground water and reduce the supply of clean water that is polluted as a result.

  2. This is false and misleading and typical of something put out by the gas industry – there are many times more than a mere 20 cases of water well contamination from fracking. The author of this review needs to get serious about this issue and perform some due diligence and not accept the gas industry’s word (or that of an ally like MIT) on the rate of private well contamination, and this anti-fracking web site is a goo place to start: http://www.un-naturalgas.org.

    • sorry, but the data do not support your contention. I suspect you did not even read the linked report.

      If you have an issue with a study, critique the study. To try to discredit it with claims that the authors are “(allied to) the gas industry” is simply anti-intellectual and is a clear signal that you have no stronger argument.

  3. […] This has been posted all over the place, but for those who may have missed it, a Department of Energy panel released a report endorsing hydraulic fracking, with important provisos for oversight and regulation – for the most part, EGP’s position. […]

  4. […] The data on groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing are clear and overwhelming:  over 20,000 wells have been drilled in the past 10 years, and there have been just 20 cases of groundwater contamination.  That is less than a 1/10 of one percent occurrence rate. […]

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