Depending on whether you’ve just watched Josh Fox’s Gasland, or its recent documentary riposte FrackNation, you might conclude a) that fracking has contaminated groundwater across the country or b) that environmentalists’ claims are overblown.
Which is true? Fact is, we still don’t know. There has been plenty of good reporting on the subject—which should make us worry—but precious little scientific inquiry. The Environmental Protection Agency is taking an age over its water-safety report, and the state-level work has been patchy, at best.
Instead, the fracking debate has been characterized by hyperbole and hot-headedness—which helps no-one. (Though you could argue that it benefits drillers more, because their crews are already working).
The goal of BaseTrace a year-old startup by graduates at Duke University is to take some heat out of the debate, by offering a little objectivity.
Part of the problem has been the difficulty of linking drilling sites to water supplies. Communities have said they’ve been affected, but connecting the dots has proved elusive. The idea of BaseTrace is to put an indestructible DNA marker in the fluid used to bring gas to the surface, so we can know what happens to it.
"BaseTrace gives you something that is well-specific, so the debate becomes more than unsubstantiated claims," says cofounder David Roche.
The advantage of using DNA is that you can create unique markers, depending on the structure. And you can use very small quantities. CEO Justine Chow says a single vial (see picture) is enough to test 7 million gallons of fluid.
Since coming up with the idea in graduate school, the team has done computer modeling, lab work, and it has attracted $20,000 in seed funding. They are now working with RTI International, a nonprofit testing group in North Carolina. One issue is how long the DNA will last in a form that’s still useful. Chow says the substance will deteriorate in sunlight—but that’s not an issue if the fluid remains underground.
Roche says the business model will probably consist of working with exploratory companies and suppliers, who want to prove their methods are safe. But BaseTrace also wants to discuss its technique with regulators and environmental groups.
"The main goal here is to allow companies and communities to move forward," he says. "Natural gas is a reality. The drillers are moving forward, and the United States is probably going to become energy independent. We’re just hoping to provide the tool that allows it to be safe, and to allow communities to know it’s safe."
Of course, the rights and wrongs of fracking go beyond the groundwater issue. For example, we also have to worry about the use of wastewater plants for fracking residues, fugitive emissions escaping wells, and the wider impact on the search for alternatives to fossil fuels. But settling the most heated controversy would be a start. Hopefully, BaseTrace, and inventions like it, will settle some questions, so we can move on to the others.