February 18, 2015 Articles

Fracking Debate: The Importance of Pre-Drill Water-Quality Testing

Baseline data are invaluable for oil and gas operators, the public, and regulatory officials.

By Teodoro Bosquez IV, Daniel Carmeli, Jeremy Esterkin, Mae Kieng Hau, Kenneth Komoroski, Camarin Madigan, and Matthew Sepp – February 18, 2015

Pre-drill water-quality testing has emerged as a critical topic related to the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in oil and gas operations in the United States. The oil and natural gas industry appropriately points out that there are no documented cases of groundwater contamination anywhere in the United States from hydraulic fracturing since the practice began several decades ago. Environmentalists allege concerns with the practice, nonetheless, in response to the increase of development of unconventional shale resources in the United States and elsewhere.  

Pre-drill testing involves the collection of water (typically shallow groundwater, but sometimes from springs or surface water) data near an oil and natural gas well pad prior to commencing drilling activities. This practice enables oil and gas operators to establish baseline water-quality conditions prior to drilling, well completion, and production activities. Further, pre-drill surveys can be used to document other important information such as the condition of on-site water sources, including water-well integrity or construction. 

Despite the fierce public debate on the merits of hydraulic fracturing, the availability of water-quality baseline data is invaluable for oil and gas operators, the public, and regulatory officials. The data can play a crucial role in responding to environmental challenges by the public or claims that an operator affected water supplies brought by regulatory agencies.

The data can also prevent potential litigation altogether and otherwise help establish good community and public relations by providing important facts and information. In fact, one of the most common benefits of pre-drill testing is to inform the landowner, often for the first time, as to the quality of the private water supply. The data can often identify issues unrelated to drilling, such as septic system leaks or natural contaminants that may have been present in untested water supplies for years.

That said, pre-drill testing regulations vary considerably from state to state. Some states have elaborate notification and sampling requirements, distance specifications, testing methods, and legal ramifications for noncompliance or inaction. Others have no regulations, forcing operators to independently weigh the merits of undertaking pre-drill testing or determine the appropriate procedures.

No matter the nature of regulation, pre-drill testing can mean the difference between a successful operation and one resulting in expensive, onerous litigation that could have been avoided. Pre-drill testing is not just an administrative checkbox; rather, it potentially can provide an operator with a shield from liability or leave it vulnerable and exposed.

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