Fracking's impact on water resources
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November 21, 2013
Fracking's impact on water resources

Hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania and West Virginia is consuming more water and generating more waste than previously estimated, according to a new report.  While these two states are “water rich,” the findings indicate that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations could have significant impacts on water resources in more arid areas of the country.  Also, if existing techniques are applied to the much deeper and thicker Utica Shale that lies below the Marcellus, then even water-rich regions could find that shale gas operations make water supplies vulnerable.

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These are some the main points made in Water Resource Reporting and Water Footprint from Marcellus Shale Development in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.  The report was developed in collaboration with Earthworks, an organization “dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the impacts of irresponsible mineral and energy development,” and was coauthored by Meghan Betcher, an environmental scientist, and Evan Hansen, an assistant professor of sustainable energy resources at San Jose State University. 

Economic benefits

The researchers note that conventional gas production has occurred in the Marcellus Shale region for decades, but unconventional wells using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have grown considerably more common in the past decade.  Nearly 9,000 horizontal Marcellus Shale natural gas wells have been permitted in these two states from 2005 to 2012, and more than 11,000 such wells will likely be permitted by the end of 2013, they say.

This activity has drastically increased gas production in the two states.  Moreover, these wells have made an important contribution by growing the regional workforce and contributing to state taxes, a significant economic benefit during a time of economic stagnation.

In recent years, both West Virginia and Pennsylvania have improved their regulation and oversight of water use and pollution from natural gas extraction, according to the report.   Both states now require recordkeeping and public reporting of key water quality and quantity information.  The researchers say they used these databases to document water withdrawals, fluid injections, and waste recovery and disposal, including transport of waste to neighboring states.

5 million gallons per well

The amount of water used per well and the volume of waste generated are significant, according to the report.  For each fractured well, approximately 5 million gallons of fluid are injected in West Virginia and 4.3 million gallons in Pennsylvania.  The great majority of this injectate remains underground—92 percent in West Virginia and 94 percent in Pennsylvania.  

“While a considerable amount of flowback fluid is now being reused and recycled, the data suggest that it still displaces only a small percentage or fresh water withdrawals, which will limit its benefits except in times of drought where small percentages could be important,” say the authors. 

Waste fate unknown

Here are several other findings in the report:

  • In West Virginia, surface water taken directly from rivers and streams makes up over 80 percent of the water used in hydraulic fracturing and is by far the largest source of water for operators.
  • In West Virginia, flowback fluid reported as waste represents only approximately 38 percent of total waste volume.  Because of inadequate state reporting requirements, the fate of 62 percent of fracking waste is unknown.
  • Pennsylvania operators reported an almost 70 percent increase in waste generated from 2010 to 2011—rising to a reported 613 million gallons of waste in 2011.
  • More than 50 percent of waste generated by Pennsylvania Marcellus wells is treated and discharged to surface waters—either through brine/industrial waste treatment plants or municipal sewage treatment plants.  This stands in “stark contrast” to West Virginia, where virtually no flowback fluid is reported to be discharged to surface waters.

Recommendations

The researchers recommend that states require operators of hydraulically fractured wells to report all aspects of water use and waste production, treatment, and disposal along the entire life cycle of shale gas extraction.  Effective enforcement of new rules governing surface water withdrawals is also recommended along with development of new methods to reduce water use and waste at all stages of shale gas production.

Information on the report

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