Cement Casing: The Weak Link of Fracking

By Bernhard Debatin

Recently, the EPA confirmed that “a pair of environmental monitoring wells drilled deep into an aquifer in Pavillion, Wyo., contain high levels of cancer-causing compounds and at least one chemical commonly used in hydraulic fracturing.” Although the EPA Groundwater Investigation of Nov. 9, 2011, only provided the raw data without interpretation, one can conclude that “the chemical compounds the EPA detected are consistent with those produced from drilling processes, including one — a solvent called 2-Butoxyethanol (2-BE) — widely used in the process of hydraulic fracturing.” (ProPublica, NOv. 10, 2011).

Moreover, another decisive result of this investigation is that the methane found in the aquifers was “at near-saturation levels (up to 19 mg/L)” and has a “similar isotopic signature to production gas” (EPA Presentation). This defeats the industry’s claim that methane in the groundwater is merely a natural occurrence and not caused by fracking, since methane from shallower layers has a different chemical makeup.

The importance of this EPA investigation cannot be overestimated. It officially confirms, for the first time, what local citizens and critical voices have said for years: That fracking chemicals can and will seep into the groundwater and result in severe contamination of our water resources.

The question remains why and how exactly the contamination is happening. The industry claims it is impossible because fracking is done at such a deep level that it is impossible for contaminated water to travel to shallow aquifers. However, in his article “The truth about Fracking” (in the American ScientistNov. 11, Vol. 305, Issue 5, p. 80-85), author Chris Mooney states: “Faulty cementing is the leading suspect in possible sources of contamination, and by industry’s definition it is not part of fracking.” Which means the industry’s claim that fracking causes no contamination whatsoever is based on the arbitrary and in fact faulty definition that “fracking” is limited to the event some thousand feet below the ground, but does not include the process of pumping pressurized chemicals, water, and gas up and down the well.

There is, in fact, growing concern among scientists about the lack of reliability of cement casings. The above quoted article in the American Scientists calls cementing the “weak link” of fracking:

Cementing is the obvious “weak link,” according to Anthony Gorody, a hydrogeologist and consultant to gas companies who has been a defender of fracking. Other scientists emphatically agree. “If you do a poor job of installing the well casing, you potentially open a pathway for the stuff to flow out,” explains ecologist and water resource expert Robert B. Jackson of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Although many regulations govern well cementing and although industry has strived to improve its practices, the problem may not be fully fixable. “A significant percentage of cement jobs will fail,” Ingraffea says. “It will always be that way. It just goes with the territory.”

Dr. Anthony Ingraffea holds the Dwight C. Baum Professorship of Engineering at Cornell University’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He got his doctorate in rock fracturing and directs the Cornell Fracture Group, which specializes in computational simulations fracturing. He contends that while cement failure has been a chronic and known problem, the industry is not willing to share any data about cement failures with regulatory agencies.

It is obvious that the integrity of the casing and piping of fracking wells is crucial. Imposing strict controls and regulatory oversight of this particular aspect of fracking should not even be an issue of debate. It should be a basic precondition that anybody, including the industry, subscribes to in the name of the safety and well-being of everybody.

Update, Dec. 14, 2011: While the overall problem with cement casing remains the leading suspect for most cases of undergroundwater contamination, the  case of Pavillion, WY, is different: The EPA report clearly excludes cement failure (due to the lack of cement traces in the water samples) and concluded that the contamination came directly from the fracking area through vertical fissures and cracks into the aquifer (see e.g. p. 20, 34, and 38f. of the report). This, in itself is a frightening finding because the industry has continuously insisted that such occurrences are impossible.


Here, you can sign on to the Ohio Environmental Council’s letter to the Ohio General Assembly asking for a moratorium on fracking

5 responses to “Cement Casing: The Weak Link of Fracking

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