New Report: Fracking Has Serious Impact to Water Resources
A guest post by Evan Hansen and Meghan Betcher with Downstream Strategies, which offers environmental consulting services that combine sound interdisciplinary skills with a core belief in the importance of protecting the environment and linking economic development with natural resource stewardship.
In recent years, natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale (NY, PA, OH, MD, VA, WV) has increased dramatically. Since the very beginning of the shale gas boom, water has been a key concern. The issue of water use and pollution due to hydraulic fracturing has been a hot topic amongst environmentalists, industry, and the media, but a comprehensive analysis of water use and disposal for the Marcellus Shale was lacking. Because of this, Downstream Strategies took on the task of using publically available data to perform a life cycle analysis of water used for hydraulic fracturing in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
As expected, we found that the volumes of water used to fracture Marcellus Shale gas wells are substantial and the quantities of waste generated are significant. While West Virginia and Pennsylvania have recently taken steps to improve data collection and reporting related to gas development, critical gaps persist that prevent researchers, policymakers, and the public from attaining a full picture of trends. Given this, it is highly likely that much more water is being withdrawn and more waste is being generated than is known.
While a considerable amount of flowback fluid is now being reused and recycled, the data suggest that it still displaces only a small percentage of freshwater withdrawals. While West Virginia and Pennsylvania are generally water-rich states, these findings indicate that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations could have significant impacts on water resources in more arid areas of the country.
In short, the true scale of water impacts can still only be estimated, and considerable improvements in industry reporting, data collection and sharing, and regulatory enforcement are needed. The challenge of appropriately handling a growing volume of waste to avoid environmental harm will continue to loom large unless such steps are taken.
The full report can be found here, and some of our interesting findings are listed below.
- In West Virginia, approximately 5 million gallons of fluid are injected per well, and approximately 4.3 million gallons are injected per well in Pennsylvania.
- Surface water taken directly from rivers and streams makes up over 80% of the water used in hydraulic fracturing and is by far the largest source of water for operators in West Virginia. Because most water used in Marcellus operations is withdrawn from surface waters, insufficient timing of withdrawals can result in dewatering and severe impacts on small streams and aquatic life.
- Reused flowback fluid accounts for approximately 8% of water used in hydraulic fracturing in West Virginia wells.
- As Marcellus development has expanded, waste generation has increased. In Pennsylvania, operators reported an almost 70% increase in waste generated between 2010 and 2011, when they reported a total of 613 million gallons of waste.
- At present, the three-state region—West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio—is tightly connected in terms of waste disposal. Almost one-half of flowback fluid recovered in West Virginia is transported out of state. Between 2010 and 2012, 22% of recovered flowback fluid was sent to Pennsylvania, primarily to be reused in other Marcellus operations, and 21% was sent to Ohio, primarily for disposal via underground injection control (UIC) wells. From 2009 through 2011, approximately 5% of total Pennsylvania Marcellus waste was injected in UIC wells, mostly in Ohio.
- During 2009 through 2011, more than 50% of waste generated by Pennsylvania Marcellus wells was 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 was reported to be discharged to surface waters.
- Most of the water pumped deep underground—92% in West Virginia and 94% in Pennsylvania—remains there, lost from the hydrologic cycle.
- The blue water footprint for hydraulic fracturing represents the volume of water required to produce a given unit of energy—in this case one thousand cubic feet of gas. Wells in West Virginia required 1-3 million gallons of water and Pennsylvania wells required 3-4 million gallons of water to produce one thousand cubic feet of gas. These values are larger than previously thought.
- In West Virginia operators are only required to report flowback fluid waste. In Pennsylvania, where operators are required to report all waste fluid that returns to the surface for the duration of gas production, flowback fluid represents only about 38% of the total waste. This means that in West Virginia approximately 62% of waste is not reported, leaving its fate a mystery.
The authors of the report presented this research in a webinar, and it has received some attention in the media. Stories can be found here, here, and here. This report was written on behalf of Earthworks and was funded by a Network Innovation Grant from the Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation.