Stories abound about fracking causing tap water to become flammable. Here's a video of one such case. I first remember these videos becoming prominent when the movie Gasland came out. Like that documentary, these videos seem to be put out mostly by organizations that have an agenda, so I'm skeptical.

Have independent researchers ever confirmed fracking as the likely cause that someone has flammable tap water?

The sort of evidence I'm looking for is ideally a peer reviewed paper in a major journal but if that doesn't exist then a statement from an independent authority on the matter would have to do.

  • Closely related: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/2456/…
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 10:25
  • Major confusion is methane in drinking water from other (biological) sources in the same area. IIRC there are documented cases where this has been misused for propaganda (Quick search turns up exactly this about Gasland)
    – user22865
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 11:11

2 Answers 2


Summary: It's not water itself that is burning. Methane dissolves in the water, and the methane burns. However, there's no indication that this methane is caused by fracking (as opposed to other causes)

See Tap Water Torches: How Faulty Gas Drilling Can Lead To Methane Migration where Pennsylvania State University geologist Dave Yox­theimer explains the process:

the gas can escape, and migrate up to the sur­face through faults and water wells

the article further explains:

Tracing the source of stray gas appearing at the surface, can be complicated and mysterious. Investigators often use isotope identification to get a “fingerprint” of the gas. But just like in law enforcement, fingerprints can be tricky. In the case of Dimock, Pennsylvania, the vertical wells drilled by Cabot Oil and Gas were fracked. But the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection did not connect the flaming water taps to fracking, they blamed poor well construction and over-pressurization. When a wellbore is drilled, a steel casing is sent down the hole. Then cement is poured down, and pushed upward to seal the open space between the steel casing, and the rock. That cement seal is supposed to prevent any gas, or fluid, from migrating into or out of the wellbore, and from using that space between the rock and the newly drilled well as a conduit. But that cement job doesn’t always work. And in the case of Dimock, it failed miserably.

Fred Baldassare worked as an inspector for DEP [Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection], where he spent six years investigating methane migration and helped out on the Dimock case. He was the guy who looked at the geochemistry of those flaming taps. In other words, he looked at the gas fingerprint. Baldassare says the evidence linking the flaming tap water to gas drilling by Cabot is overwhelming. But where that gas actually came from, whether it was from deep in the Marcellus formation, or whether it was from a more shallow formation, is unclear.

“The gas was nearly an exact match to the gas coming from the Marcellus wells,” said Baldassare. But we couldn’t say it came from there because there are gas deposits above the Marcellus that have the same fingerprint.”

Baldassare says drilling, along with a bad cement job, can cause any gas pocket that has been stable for thousands of years, to start moving. That’s because methane, under high pressure, wants to go to an area of lower pressure. And drilling, whether it’s a vertical well, horizontal well, deep well, or shallow well, can provide that opportunity. But other things can too, such as coal mining. It can also happen naturally. And that’s where that fingerprint comes in. Baldassare says he spent a lot of time tracking methane migration before the first Marcellus Shale gas well was even drilled.

“There are examples of [methane migration] throughout the northeast that have nothing to do with gas activity,” says Baldassare. “And there are others that do happen because of drilling or mining activity.”

So in conclusion:

  1. Methane coming out of solution from tap water burns (tap water meaning well water)

  2. In some (but not all) cases this is due to gas drilling, but not fracking

For peer reviewed articles see Natural gas: Should fracking stop? Nature 477, 271–275:

Another peer-reviewed study looked at private water wells near fracking sites [reference 4]. It found that about 75% of wells sampled within 1 kilometre of gas drilling in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania were contaminated with methane from the deep shale formations. Isotopic fingerprinting of the methane indicated that deep shale was the source of contamination, rather than biologically derived methane, which was present at much lower concentrations in water wells at greater distances from gas wells. The study found no fracking fluids in any of the drinking-water wells examined. This is good news, because these fluids contain hazardous materials, and methane itself is not toxic. However, methane poses a high risk of explosion at the levels found, and it suggests a potential for other gaseous substances in the shale to migrate with the methane and contaminate water wells over time.

Where reference 4 is Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 8172–8176 (2011)

average and maximum methane concentrations in drinking-water wells increased with proximity to the nearest gas well and were 19.2 and 64 mg CH4 L-1 (n = 26), a potential explosion hazard

  • Could you clarify exactly what you mean by #2? Do you mean "due to gas drilling in general, and not fracking uniquely"? Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 12:11
  • @Praxeolitic I read it as: it is never due to fracking, sometimes it is due to gas drilling and other times due to natural events/bad well construction.
    – Bakuriu
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 12:20
  • @Praxeolitic "Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection did not connect the flaming water taps to fracking, they blamed poor well construction and over-pressurization" basically I mean that the natural gas well (if not sealed ) can allow the methane to enter the water table.
    – DavePhD
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 12:21
  • I added a summary, please roll back if you have an issue with it. I also posted an answer with a USGS study confirming that it isn't fracking causing the gas.
    – user5341
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 19:48

In addition to PA data in DavePhD's excellent answer, later studies by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and National Energy Technology Laboratory confirmed that the the gases in drinking water are NOT from fracking.

  • The USGS study published a 2017 was "Methane and Benzene in Drinking-Water Wells Overlying the Eagle Ford, Fayetteville, and Haynesville Shale Hydrocarbon Production Areas"

    A new U.S. Geological Survey study shows that unconventional oil and gas production in some areas of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas is not currently a significant source of methane or benzene to drinking water wells. These production areas include the Eagle Ford, Fayetteville, and Haynesville shale formations, which are some of the largest sources of natural gas in the country and have trillions of cubic feet of gas.
    This is the first study of these areas to systematically determine the presence of benzene and methane in drinking water wells near unconventional oil and gas production areas in relation to the age of the groundwater.
    (Study announcement from USGS)

    Methane isotopes and hydrocarbon gas compositions indicate most of the methane in the wells was biogenic and produced by the CO2 reduction pathway, not from thermogenic shale gas (Study abstract)

  • A 2014 report by National Energy Technology Laboratory, which is run by the Energy Department, said:

    Conclusions of this study are: 1) the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the rock mass did not extend to the Upper Devonian/Lower Mississippian gas field; and 2) there has been no detectable migration of gas or aqueous fluids to the Upper Devonian/Lower Mississippian gas field during the monitored period after hydraulic fracturing.
    NETL-TRS-3-2014 - "An Evaluation of Fracture Growth and Gas/Fluid Migration as Horizontal Marcellus Shale Gas Wells are Hydraulically Fractured in Greene County, Pennsylvania"

    This report is notable because it's the same PA Marcellus shale as one mentioned in DavePhD's answer.

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