Identifying Methane Sources in Groundwater; Quantifying Changes in Compositional and Stable Isotope Values during Multiphase Transport

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 9:40 AM
Toti Larson and Kiran Sathaye, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, United States
A dramatic expansion of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for natural gas in unconventional reserves is underway. This expansion is fueling considerable public concern, however, that extracted natural gas, reservoir brines and associated fracking fluids may infiltrate to and contaminate shallower (< 500m depth) groundwater reservoirs, thereby posing a health threat. Attributing methane found in shallow groundwater to either deep thermogenic ‘fracking’ operations or locally-derived shallow microbial sources utilizes geochemical methods including alkane wetness and stable carbon and hydrogen isotope ratios of short chain (C1-C5) hydrocarbons. Compared to shallow microbial gas, thermogenic gas is wetter and falls within a different range of δ13C and δD values. What is not clear, however, is how the transport of natural gas through water saturated geological media may affect its compositional and stable isotope values. What is needed is a means to differentiate potential flow paths of natural gas including ‘fast paths’ along preexisting fractures and drill casings vs. ‘slow paths’ through low permeability rocks. In this study we attempt quantify transport-related effects using experimental 1-dimensional two-phase column experiments and analytical solutions to multi-phase gas injection equations. Two-phase experimental results for an injection of natural gas into a water saturated column packed with crushed illite show that the natural gas becomes enriched in methane compared to ethane and propane during transport. Carbon isotope measurements are ongoing. Results from the multi-phase gas injection equations that include methane isotopologue solubility and diffusion effects predict the development of a ‘bank’ of methane depleted in 13C relative to 12C at the front of a plume of fugitive natural gas. These results, therefore, suggest that transport of natural gas through water saturated geological media may complicate attribution methods needed to distinguish thermogenic and microbial methane.