Researchers at the University of Buffalo have given Pennsylvanian’s yet another reason to pause over drilling for natural gas in The Marcellus play.
Shale traps metals – most notably, uranium at higher levels than usually found naturally. That comes as no surprise to geologists and the energy industry.
But, Tracy Bank, an assistant professor of geology at UB wanted to take it a step further, “My question was, if they start drilling and pumping millions of gallons of water into these underground rocks, will that force the uranium into the soluble phase and mobilize it? Will uranium then show up in groundwater?
To get to the bottom of it, quite literally, Bank and a small team scanned the surfaces of samples taken from Marcellus in Western New York, and Pennsylvania. Working with an array of chemicals, she developed a chemical map to pinpoint the location of hydrocarbons, the organic compounds that house natural gas.
“We found that the uranium and the hydrocarbons are in the same physical space,” says Bank. “We found that they are not just physically — but also chemically — bound.
“That led me to believe that uranium in solution could be more of an issue because the process of drilling to extract the hydrocarbons could start mobilizing the metals as well, forcing them into the soluble phase and causing them to move around.”
Working with those samples in a lab, Bank, did indeed, discover the uranium was solublized.
Bank says when the millions of gallons of water used for fracturing come back to the the surface, it can contain uranium, potentially polluting streams and other ecosystems.
Matt Pitzarella, a spokesperson with Range Resources told Rock The Capital that higher levels of concentrated uranium can be found in most kitchens.
“Typically there is much higher concentrations of norm in granite countertops than there is in any material that comes out of a Marcellus well, said Pitzarella.”
New York State’s Department of Conservation analyzed more than a dozen samples of waterfrom Marcellus in 2009 and found that it contained Pitzarella is not familiar with Banks’ study but he points to the Department of Environmental Protections extensive studies . The DEP has tested wells for , but the issue has been studied extensively enough
The UB research is the first to map samples using this technique, which identified the precise location of the uranium.
“Even though at these levels, uranium is not a radioactive risk, it is still a toxic, deadly metal,” Bank concludes. “We need a fundamental understanding of how uranium exists in shale. The more we understand about how it exists, the more we can better predict how it will react to ‘fracking.’”
Banks’ will present her research next month at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver on Nov. 2.
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