Today I wanted to give a summary of a report put out by the Pacific Institute titled Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Resources: Separating the Frack from the Fiction. The Pacific Institute, which has been around for 25 years, released the paper which was written by Heather Cooley and Kristina Donnely in June of this year. For this report they conducted extensive interviews with experts from state and federal agencies, academia, industry, environmental groups, and community based organizations from throughout the U.S. If you are not familiar with what fracking is you can read an earlier article I wrote on fracking here: What the Frack?
Fracking deals, for the most part, with the retrieval of natural gas from deposits deep underground. Although fracking has been around for decades recent technological advances have made it more economical and have led to a boom in natural gas production. In the U.S. natural gas production is estimated to increase 30% over the next 25 years, from 22 trillion cubic feet to over 28 trillion cubic feet. Along with this increase in production there has also been an increase in concern over the social and environmental impacts of fracking, especially as related to water resources.
This concern comes from the fact that companies involved in fracking use a mixture of chemicals that are shot into the ground during the process, then pulled out, and later disposed of, sometimes by shooting it back into the ground through injection wells. Due to the concern a number of states have passed, or are planning on passing, laws requiring the disclosure of chemicals used in fracking. However, because of the strength of the industry it is often difficult to get these laws passed, especially in states where there is a lot of fracking going on. The industry doesn’t want to divulge what they’re using because it gives them a competitive advantage and helps them avoid litigation.
From interviews done for this report 15 key areas of concern were identified. Those are shown in the table below:
This table shows a wide variety of concerns, some of which are the focus of this article. I’ll now run through some of the key facts from the different sections in the report.
- The EPA reports that fracking shale gas wells requires between 2.3 and 3.8 million gallons of water per well, and an additional 40,000-1,000,000 gallons is required to drill the well. However, the report goes on to note that this number can be up to 13 million gallons per well in addition to the water needed to drill the well.
- So where does all this water come from? It is typically taken from a single location or watershed near the well site. Sometimes it is taken from “remote, often environmentally sensitive headwater areas”. When water is taken from headwater areas it can have detrimental impacts on downstream flow and everyone that lives along the water. Also important to note is the fact that this water is taken out of the earth and never goes back into it because it is either not recovered or is polluted, something they call “consumptive” use.
- The withdrawal of so much water can lead to conflict. This year natural gas companies successfully bid for unallocated water in Colorado, water that previously had been claimed and used by farmers in the area. In Pennsylvania 11 approved water withdrawal permits for natural gas projects were suspended even though the area was not in a drought at the time. This move suggests that even under normal conditions the amount of water fracking requires is causing conflict with other uses.
- Water withdrawals can also impact water quality through mobilizing naturally occurring substances, promoting bacterial growth, causing land subsidence, and mobilizing lower quality water from surrounding areas. If taken from surface water it can affect the hydrology and hydrodynamics of the source water and lower volumes means reduced ability to dilute municipal or industrial wastewater.
- While natural gas is for the most part located far below underground sources of drinking water the well bore must pass through the water source in order to get to the gas. Vibrations and pressure pulses can lead to changes in the water’s color, turbidity, and odor. Further, chemicals and natural gas can escape the well bore if it is not properly sealed and cased. Old, abandoned wells can also serve as passageways for contaminants into groundwater. Currently there are 150,000 undocumented and abandoned oil and gas wells in the U.S.
- Methane contamination of drinking water is another issue (shale gas is composed of nearly 90% methane). A study showed that methane levels in drinking water near an active gas producing area (less than 1km from well) were 17 times higher than outside this area. Methane is not currently regulated in drinking water although it can cause explosions, fires (you may have read about people’s water lighting on fire), asphyxiation, and other health and safety concerns.
- Groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing fluids is another area of concern. In 2011 EPA testing found chemicals commonly associated with fracking in drinking water wells in Wyoming. However, it is often hard to prove that these chemicals are from fracking because of the lack of baseline data.
- Once the well pressure is released fracturing fluid (water, chemicals, etc) and naturally occurring substances flow back up to the surface. This fluid is called flowback.
- “Produced water”, water that was already in the ground but came out of the well as a result of fracking, also has to be dealt with. Produced water could be groundwater or naturally occurring substances (such as radioactive material, metals and salts).
- Wastewater is temporarily stored in pits, embankments, or tanks until it is moved and disposed of offsite. Groundwater contamination can occur during this time if the pits are not lined (or not lined properly) or tanks leak.
- So what do they do with all of this wastewater? Most of the time it is injected into Class II wells. Class II means that this wastewater is exempt from hazardous waste regulations and therefore are held to less stringent requirements vs. Class I wells that are specifically for hazardous waste. The EPA estimates there are around 144,000 Class II wells in operation in the U.S. These wells have been known to leak or be over filled.
- It’s possible for wastewater to be treated at municipal treatment plants, but this is uncommon and controversial because those systems are not meant to treat that type of wastewater and so what they discharge often has levels of total dissolved solids (TDS) that exceed standards.
- Wastewater can be reused in new fracking operations, for irrigation, dust control, and to deice roads. For the most part if reused the wastewater must be treated first, but in other cases it is just mixed with clean water to dilute it and bring the levels of TDS and other harmful chemicals to an acceptable level.
They then talk about truck traffic, but I’m not going to go into that besides saying that they estimate one well requires 3,950 truck trips which adds traffic, causes air pollution and erosion, and increases the likelihood of a spill.
Surface Spills and Leaks
- Spills can occur at any stage during fracking. The chemicals need to be transported to the site and then mixed on site, both of which can lead to spills. Equipment or above ground storage tank/pit failure can lead to a spill. Or people can lead to a spill in the case of a hauling company that was dumping millions of gallons of produced water into streams and mine shafts.
- Between January 2008 and August 2010 there were a number of documented violations that could result in spills and leaks in the Marcellus region. These violations include 155 industrial waste discharges, 162 violations of wastewater impoundment construction regulations, and 212 faulty pollution prevention practices.
- New research documents 24 cases of adverse health impacts on humans, pets, livestock, horses, and wildlife associated with natural gas production, including spills and leaks.
- While stormwater runoff naturally occurs fracking disturbs the land surface which increases the timing, volume, and composition of runoff.
- Current natural gas drilling practices require the clearing of 7-8 acres per well pad, plus additional land for access roads, storage, waste pits, parking, equipment, etc.
- Runoff from fracking sites can contain pollutants from contact with equipment, storage facilities for the fracking fluid and produced water. And where does all this go? Down into rivers and streams.
- Stormwater runoff is regulated at the federal level (although states can sometimes administer their own permitting program). At the federal level oil and gas operations are exempt from the Clean Water Act. Yes…you read that correctly. How ridiculous is that? That means that they are not required to get a stormwater permit unless they are found to generate stormwater discharge containing a reportable quantity of oil or hazardous substances or it violates water quality standards. But someone needs to be testing their stormwater runoff in order to find out if they’re in violation, and how often do you think that happens?
Overall I think this was a pretty good report. They do point out that a lack of credible and comprehensive data and information is a major problem. Like I said before, the industry doesn’t want to give up any of its secrets so it’s hard to get any rock solid data. Also they point out that most reports come from industry or advocacy groups and have not been peer-reviewed, giving them less legitimacy, and leads to them being driven by opinion. I read a decent amount about fracking and found this report interesting and it brought up some topics that I hadn’t thought about before. Hopefully it’s also helping to get the word out to more people who are not yet aware of the dangers of fracking. If you’d like to read the whole report you can find it here: Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Resources: Separating the Frack from the Fiction.