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Gas Drilling Companies Hold Data Needed by Researchers to Assess Risk to Water Quality

Drilling companies themselves have been diligently collecting water samples from private wells before they drill -- but they're not sharing the information.

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“This fact substantially explains why many of these pre-existing issues have not been previously identified or resolved by landowners,” he wrote.

It is also unclear whether Pennsylvania state environment officials – who declined to answer questions for this story – have been allowed to review the industry data or are using it when they investigate drilling accidents in the state.

That leaves open questions about who will see the water data, whether it has been verified by independent labs, and how it might be useful in the public debate. The Environmental Protection Agency’s study of hydraulic fracturing is due to be completed next year, and the Department of Energy recently appointed a review panel to assess the risks of drilling.

Energy in Depth’s Tucker and others expect the industry will eventually make its data public.

“There has been talk about releasing it and putting it in the public domain,” said Fred Baldassare, a former Pennsylvania environment official and expert on underground gas migration who now consults for the industry. Baldassare said the drilling companies were concerned that releasing water test results could affect property values for residents and amounted to a violation of their privacy. “How do you identify these points while maintaining some confidentiality?”

Jackson said the data should be made available now to independent researchers and to agencies investigating the hydraulic fracturing process. But even without the data, he stands behind his study. The Duke report said that the link between drilling activity and water degradation was clear, and said the contaminants could be migrating through manmade underground fractures, or, more likely, were coming from cracks in the well structure itself. The researchers said the wells they analyzed had been hydraulically fractured, but that more study of that process was needed to understand whether fracturing might be causing the contamination. No indicators of fracturing fluids were found in the samples.

Jackson likened the questions about drilling risk to those about the link between smoking and lung cancer.

“In an ideal study you follow people through their lives. You take measurements on them in their lungs as they start smoking and as you grow old. That’s what you need to prove cause and effect,” he said. “But instead they asked: ‘If you smoke, did you get lung cancer?’ That doesn’t prove that smoking is the cause, but it’s a pretty good step.

“That’s all we did here. If you live near a gas well are you more likely to have methane contamination? That answer is yes. It’s not proof, but it’s a good first step.”

Abrahm Lustgarten is a former staff writer and contributor for Fortune, and has written for Salon, Esquire, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

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