Despite its relative benefits as a fuel source, obtaining natural gas through "fracking," is increasingly the object of public and environmental concern and academic studies, a trend that I'm convinced will only increase in the months and years ahead.
Scientists at Duke University have completed a Marcellus shale study that they maintain demonstrates that natural gas drilling can permit methane to migrate into a portion of the nearby water wells. Companies drilling in various parts of the formation, which lies largely beneath the surface of New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, include Anadarko (NYSE: APC ) , EOG Resources (NYSE: EOG ) , Cabot Oil & Gas (NYSE: COG ) , and EQT (NYSE: EQT ) .
According to the study, 60 wells were tested in two states -- a statistically small number, it would seem. The results indicated that wells that were located in close proximity to gas drilling had methane levels 17 times higher than those that were not near drilling sites.
Of the wells tested, 26 were within one kilometer of gas wells, while the rest were farther from the active drilling. According to the researchers, while methane, which can be highly explosive, showed up in most of the water wells tested, the 26 close-in wells demonstrated far higher levels of the hydrocarbon. However, there was no evidence that chemicals used in fracking had leeched into the water supplies.
The Duke results come hard on the heels of a Cornell University contamination study from last month. According to the leader of that study, "[I]f you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil." I'm willing to wager that the coming months and years will bring about a plethora of research into the environmental effects of obtaining oil and gas from shale formations.
Coincidentally, the data from the Cornell study were released as the attention of the Pennsylvania citizenry was riveted by an April well-control incident at a Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) drilling site in Bradford County. The company apparently lost control of a well that was being drilled in the northeastern part of the state, causing a spill into a small pond and nearby stream.
The proximate cause of the mishap apparently was a faulty flange connection at the wellhead, which the company said had not occurred in the 15,000 wells it has completed. While the company's fracking operations in Pennsylvania were suspended during an investigation of the spill, they were resumed late last week.
So while Chesapeake is back to normal, the environmental studies likely are only beginning to proliferate in the U.S. and overseas. Nevertheless, given my positive feeling abut Chesapeake, I'm suggesting that Fools monitor the active and compelling company by placing it on My Watchlist, our free stock tracking service.