A professor in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences is shedding new light on an old debate.
Donald Siegel, an accomplished hydrologist and geochemist who chairs the Department of Earth Sciences, is the author of two articles on hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” One is an invited commentary about doing science in the public arena, published by Hydrological Processes (John Wiley & Sons 2015); the other is a research article about the quality of pre-drilling groundwater in the Appalachian Basin, which has appeared in Applied Geochemistry (Elsevier Ltd., 2015).
Holder of both the Heroy and Meredith professorships, Siegel is an expert on contaminant transport in groundwater systems, peatland hydrogeology, and geochemistry. He is also known for his involvement in the ongoing debate over fracking—a process by which water, sand, and chemicals are injected into underground shale rock, in an attempt to extract oil and natural gas from it.
Capable of producing more than 300,000 barrels of natural gas a day, fracking has all but revolutionized the U.S. energy industry, but not without drawing the ire of environmentalists.
“I have never promoted fracking, but I have promoted sound water science,” Siegel says. “From the beginning of the controversy, I have intuitively felt there would be minimal chance for groundwater contamination caused by modern hydrocarbon drilling. This is based on my long-standing research of how fluids in the subsurface move and of the fate of contaminants, should they get into groundwater supplies.”
Anti-fracking advocates see things differently, having spent much of the past two years denouncing Siegel, personally and professionally. Matters came to a head this past spring, when Siegel was called to testify before the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in Washington, D.C., regarding work he did for the Chesapeake Energy Corporation. At the center of it all was a 2013 paper, which argued that groundwater collected near gas wells in northern Pennsylvania contained high levels of dissolved methane.
“When I read the paper, I noticed that, although the chemical analyses were first-rate, some samples had been collected near gas wells, which were famous for accidentally contaminating groundwater with gas,” Siegel says. “So when Chesapeake Energy asked me to head up a project to explore some 13,000 analyses of dissolved methane and other substances in groundwater, taken from domestic wells [located near gas wells] in Northeastern Pennsylvania, I jumped at the opportunity. How could I, as a scientist, refuse to explore a data-set so unprecedented in size and overall quality?”
Siegel published his findings in Environmental Science & Technology (American Chemical Society, 2015), maintaining there was “no systematic relationship” between dissolved methane in the domestic wells and their proximity to commercial gas wells.
But that didn’t satisfy his opponents. They claimed Siegel’s data was tainted because of his ties to the oil industry. Case in point: Chesapeake Energy paid him the equivalent of a month’s professorial summer salary for his work. Siegel had no choice but to defend his research.
“I provided the largest, most detailed disclosure statement I have ever written,” says Siegel, regarding his hearing in Washington, D.C. “To what I think is their credit, both the University and Environmental Science & Technology found no problems with my initial disclosure statement, let alone the expanded one. They’ve stood by me.”