Fracking: Has the USGS Been Co-opted by the Oil and Gas Industry?

11/07/2012 08:23 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013
A drilling rig is near a barn and bales of hay Friday, Oct. 14, 2011 in Springville, Pa. State regulators blame faulty gas we
A drilling rig is near a barn and bales of hay Friday, Oct. 14, 2011 in Springville, Pa. State regulators blame faulty gas wells drilled by Cabot Oil & Gas Corp for leaking methane into the groundwater in nearby Dimock, Pa. It was the first serious case of methane migration related to the Pennsylvania 3-year-old drilling boom, raising fears of potential environmental harm throughout the giant Marcellus Shale gas field. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Known for its objective and scientifically rigorous research, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has been pulled into the battle between environmentalists and the oil and gas industry. One skirmish in the larger battle involves the radioactive gas radon in natural gas, and the potential of radon entering consumers' homes through kitchen stoves. When stove burners are turned on, radon, a gas that does not burn, enters a home or apartment. This potential hazard has appeared in the New York City press and energized battles against the Spectra pipeline from Jersey City into New York City under the Hudson River. The pipeline would bring natural gas from the Marcellus shale formation in Pennsylvania and New York into New York City.

In response to a scientific article I authored calculating the possible radon concentrations at the wellhead that has been picked up by the anti-fracking movement, the USGS sought to measure the actual radon concentrations at the wellhead. Preliminary data for two wells allegedly down to the Marcellus shale formation and other wells in Pennsylvania were published by the USGS in September 2012. The measured radon concentrations, from 1 to 79 picoCuries per liter (pCi/L), were on the low side of my calculations. Depending on the assumptions made, the paper I authored showed that the radon concentrations could range from 37 to 2576 pCi/L, leading to an increase in lung cancer. The calculations were not too much higher than radon wellhead concentrations measured by the EPA in pre-fracking days, 5 to 1450 pCi/L. The recent USGS radon measurements were also inconsistent with the concentrations of uranium and radium in Marcellus shale measured by the USGS in 1980.

Why were the USGS measurements so low and at variance with other EPA and USGS studies? Here the story takes an interesting turn. A call to one of the USGS researchers revealed the following:

In response to a request for the well logs, to examine whether the wells reached the Marcellus shale formation, the USGS researcher said they had none.

"Then can you give us the location of the Pennsylvania wells? With the location, we could find the well logs in Pennsylvania state files."

"Well, no, that would break the trust with the gas companies that allowed us access."

"OK, then how do you know you reached the Marcellus shale formation?"

"Because we were told so."

"Who selected the wells?"

"The U.S. Department of Energy, in collaboration with the gas companies."

"Did you feel comfortable publishing what are essentially screening results?"

"No, but pressure from higher-ups at USGS forced our hand."

To summarize: The oil and gas industry chose specific wells, in which USGS researchers unsurprisingly measured low radon concentrations and were then pressured by the oil and gas industry to publish these preliminary findings, under the USGS imprimatur. It appears that the USGS has been corrupted by the oil and gas industry.