For the Conservation Curious

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Water Issues and Natural Gas March 21, 2011

By the time you read this, World Water Day 2011 may have come and gone, but the issues it brings to light are important 365 days a year.  One such issue that has dominated the news media lately is natural gas fracing and its impacts on water resources.  People are asking the questions – will it contaminate our groundwater? Will it use up too much of our surface water? What are the long-term impacts to our water resources?  I am not a hydrogeologist, so I don’t want to get too technical here, but I will give some general information and point you in the right direction for more information.

Here in Pennsylvania, companies are extracting natural gas from a layer of rock known as the Marcellus shale formation.  This shale is located several thousand feet underground and only recently has it been economically feasible for drillers to extract the natural gas from the shale.  The process is called hydraulic fracing, where a hole is drilled into the ground and large quantities of water and other materials are flushed into the hole to bring out the gas. 

Each natural gas well uses more than 3 million gallons of water.  Sounds like a lot, huh? It is, but if you compare it to how much water one person uses for showering, drinking and washing their clothes (69.3 gallons per day, according to the American Water Works Association) and multiply that by the population of Pennsylvania in 2009 (12,604,767 people according to the U.S. Census), you get more than 873 million gallons of water per day.  The Susquehanna River Basin Commission estimates that when the natural gas industry is working at full capacity in the state it will use 28 million gallons of water a day; still a relatively low number when compared to other industries.  So yes, water use is important, but it’s not the key piece of the equation, in my mind.

What is more important is what happens with that water once the company is done with it.  An estimated 20 to 30 percent of the water put into the hole comes back up.  It is no longer just water though; it also contains brine, sand, drilling fluids, and perhaps radioactive materials from the rocks underground (the New York Times published an article recently about the radioactivity of the waste fluid, but state officials say the article misstated a lot. Who’s right? I’m not sure.)  If the fluid is sent to local waste water treatment facilities, they have to be able to filter out the pollutants. Some people question whether or not they have the capacity to do so.  Some of the drilling companies reuse their waste water, but eventually they have to dispose of it somewhere.

Then there is the issue of surface spills.  Accidents happen, no matter how careful you are.  So there is a worry that some of the fracing fluid, wastewater, or even the diesel fuel from all the vehicles involved in drilling and transporting water for fracing  might contaminate streams.  In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection cited over 850 violations of Marcellus shale drillers.  These violations include discharge of industrial waste including spills into streams (15 percent), violations of the Clean Stream Law (9 percent) and improper construction of wastewater impoundments (15), among other issues.

Natural gas drilling is here to stay in Pennsylvania.  No matter where you stand on the issue, that much is clear.  So it’s up to everyone to get informed, learn to distinguish the truth from the propaganda, and work to make the industry as clean, safe and environmentally-responsible as it possibly can be. 

For more information on Marcellus shale and fracing, go to: http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/naturalgasexploration/index.htm

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