Preliminary findings from a study being conducted by The University of Texas at Austin’s (UT) Energy Institute suggest no direct link between hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and groundwater contamination, researchers said Wednesday.

But drilling operations may still be related to some groundwater contamination, according to Charles Groat, Energy Institute associate director.

“From what we’ve seen so far, many of the problems appear to be related to other aspects of drilling operations, such as poor casing or cement jobs, rather than to hydraulic fracturing per se,” Groat said.

Many allegations of groundwater contamination appear to be related to above-ground spills or other mishandling of wastewater produced from shale gas drilling, Groat said.

The study has also found that a lack of baseline studies in areas of shale gas development make it difficult to evaluate the long-term, cumulative effects and risks associated with fracking, and most regulations for shale gas development were written before the widespread use of fracking. In addition, media coverage of fracking “is decidedly negative, and few news reports mention scientific research of the practice,” according to the researchers.

The preliminary findings were outlined six months after the Energy Institute said it would review fracking practices in natural gas wells in the Marcellus, Barnett and Haynesville shales to independently assess alleged groundwater contamination and seismic events (see Shale Daily, May 12). A final report, which is expected to be issued early next year, will identify existing regulations related to shale gas development and evaluate individual states’ capacity to enforce regulations, provide an analysis of public perceptions of fracking, and will likely also include an evaluation of allegations of “fugitive” air emissions attributed to equipment leaks, evaporative losses from surface impoundments and spills, Groat said.

“Our goal is to inject science into what has become an emotional debate and provide policymakers a foundation to develop sound rules and regulations,” he said.

The Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) is considering enacting by the end of the year a rule for fracking fluid disclosure (see Shale Daily, Oct. 6). The rule to implement HB 3328, which was passed during the state’s last regular legislative session and signed by the governor, was published in the Texas Register Sept. 9 (see Shale Daily, Aug. 30).

Earlier this year Range Resources Corp. was cleared of fouling North Texas water wells with natural gas by a unanimous vote of the RRC (see Shale Daily, March 23). The decision was seen by some as vindication for the Fort Worth, TX-based producer and an informal indictment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Range has said it wants to be compensated for millions of dollars in damages caused by false allegations in the North Texas case (see Shale Daily, July 20).

Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency outlined a 190-page plan for its study of the potential impacts of fracking and the U.S. Interior Department said it was close to completion of a proposed rule on the same subject to apply to federal lands (see Shale Daily, Nov. 4). Separately, a Department of Energy advisory subcommittee is expected to issue its own best fracking practices analysis by Nov. 18.

The National Regulatory Research Institute has said that curtailing fracking without further facts on its risks would be a rush to judgment — and said there is little evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between fracking and contaminated groundwater (see Shale Daily, Oct. 19).

The Energy Institute has proposed two other research projects related to fracking. One would evaluate claims of groundwater contamination within the Barnett Shale in North Texas and would identify and document activities unrelated to shale gas development that have resulted in water contamination. A second project, which is designed to be an extension of the current study, would involve a detailed field and laboratory investigation of whether hydrological connectivity exists between shallow groundwater aquifers and fractures created by fracking during shale gas development.