Minimal Differences in Environmental Impact of Hydrofracking vs. Conventional Gas/Oil Drilling

A new study led by A&S professor Tao Wen used a novel method of machine learning to explore the environmental impact of oil and gas drilling.

A study led by EES professor Tao Wen is one of the first to use machine learning techniques to holistically assess general water quality data.

Crude oil production and natural gas withdrawals in the United States have lessened the country’s dependence on foreign oil and provided financial relief to U.S. consumers, but have also raised longstanding concerns about environmental damage, such as groundwater contamination.

A researcher in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, and a team of scientists from Penn State, have developed a new machine learning technique to holistically assess water quality data in order to detect groundwater samples likely impacted by recent methane leakage during oil and gas production. Using that model, the team concluded that unconventional drilling methods like hydraulic fracturing — or hydrofracking — do not necessarily incur more environmental problems than conventional oil and gas drilling.

The two common ways to extract oil and gas in the U.S. are through conventional and unconventional methods. Conventional oil and gas are pumped from easily accessed sources using natural pressure. Conversely, unconventional oil and gas are acquired from hard-to-reach sources through a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Hydrofracking extracts natural gas, petroleum and brine from bedrock formations by injecting a mixture of sand, chemicals and water. By drilling into the earth and directing the high-pressure mixture into rock, the gas inside releases and flows out to the head of a well.

Tao Wen, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences (EES) at Syracuse, recently led a study comparing data from different states to see which method might result in greater contamination of groundwater. They specifically tested levels of methane, which is the primary component of natural gas.

The team selected four U.S. states located in important shale zones to target for their study: Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and New York. One of those states — New York — banned the practice of hydrofracking in 2015 following a review by the NYS Department of Health which found significant uncertainties about health, including increased water and air pollution.

Wen and his colleagues compiled a large groundwater chemistry dataset from multiple sources including federal agency reports, journal articles, and oil and gas companies. The majority of tested water samples in their study were collected from domestic water wells. Although methane itself is not toxic, Wen says that methane contamination detected in shallow groundwater could be a risk to the relevant homeowner as it could be an explosion hazard, could increase the level of other toxic chemical species like manganese and arsenic, and would contribute to global warming as methane is a greenhouse gas.

Their model used sophisticated algorithms to analyze almost all of the retained geochemistry data in order to predict if a given groundwater sample was negatively impacted by recent oil and gas drilling.

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