Some fresh water disappears down a hole in ‘fracking’

    The natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, injects fresh water deep into a hole in the earth.

    The natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, injects fresh water deep into a hole in the earth.

    At least 80 percent of that water never comes back; no one is keeping close track of just how much fresh water is lost nationally due to fracking.

    Some of the water that does return to the surface is brackish or contaminated. Often, that wastewater is reused in fracking. Sometimes, it gets reinjected into the earth, to be sequestered.

    Thanks to the 2005 energy law, the federal Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate fracking in production wells.

    “In this case what you’re doing is you’re taking renewable water and you’re sort of making it effectively non-renewable.” – Meena Palaniappan, Director of the International Water and Communities Initiative for the Pacific Institute.The only way EPA gets involved in fracking is when water contaminated in the process gets reinjected into the earth for disposal. EPA has long regulated the use of injection wells to bury underground wastewater from industrial processes.

    Doug Duncan of the U.S. Geological Survey says that, as energy companies crank up major drilling across the multistate Marcellus Shale deposit, including Pennsylvania, it may be time to take a comprehensive look at how much fresh water is lost in the fracking process.

    Duncan: I don’t know that that has been evaluated. It’s undoubtedly a very large quantity. It’s definitely a fair question.

    Mike Hightower, head of the Water for Energy Project for Sandia National Laboratories, said natural gas drilling is a legitimate use of water resources – as legitimate as watering your lawn – but it still must be monitored and balanced against other needs.

    Hightower: I’m not sure that we can indefinitely expand gas shale development everywhere that we want to go, because we may not have the water resources.

    Jeff MacDonald, a geologist for EPA, admits that the agency does not have a handle on how much fresh water gets flushed away or contaminated through fracking.

    It’s a problem answering that question.

    MacDonald works in the Underground Injection Control Program for EPA’s Region, which covers Minnesota Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.

    Any tracking of water loss is done at the level where water permits are issued. In Pennsylvania that means individual river basin authorities and local level public water utilities.

    EPA’s regulation of industrial wastewater injection wells is aimed at protecting drinking water from being harmed, not at tracking loss of water.

    Karen Johnson, manager of the ground water enforcement branch of EPA’s Region 3 (which includes Pennsylvania and Delaware), said fracking does not pose the same risks as some other industrial processes because it involves fresh water being pumped underground.

    We’re only trying to prevent damage to drinking water, and fresh water injection would not be an endangerment. There isn’t any disposal of fresh water that’s regulated by us.

    Organizations such as the Susquehanna River Basin Commission do try to monitor loss of fresh water. The SRBC installed meters at water withdrawal sites all over its river valley to get real-time data on how much water Marcellus Shale drillers are taking.

    Susan Oblesky, a spokesperson for the SRBC, sees some good news on this topic. Not only have drillers proved responsive to the SRBC’s requests not to take water from small streams during periods of drought, she said, but the overall volume that drillers are pulling from the watershed is significantly less than the amounts they had requested.

    From January to June of this year, the SRBC counted 716 million gallons of water from surface sources used by Marcellus drillers. Most of that water ended up contaminated and underground.

    In that same period, drillers took roundly another 210 million gallons from public water supplies, raising overall usage in the first half of 2010 to about a billion gallons.

    These numbers don’t count drilling operations in other major watersheds across the state, such as the Delaware.

    In Texas, where the shale gas boom started in the early 1990s, water usage is even more mysterious. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issues permits for water withdrawals to oil and gas companies. But when asked for details about water use by these companies, Terry Clawson, a spokesperson for the TCEQ initially said, “We don’t regulate necessarily the use of the water.”

    He later conceded that water permits are under the agency’s purview. Asked for details on the scope of the water rights that TCEQ administers, Clawson told WHYY to file a right-to-know request for the information.

    Another Texas agency estimated the ground water used in natural gas drilling at 5.1 billion gallons in 2007. That doesn’t include any water drawn from surface sources.

    To put the Pennsylvania numbers in perspective, Oblesky of the SRBC said Marcellus Shale water use is less than that of golf courses in the watershed. Of course, water sprayed on a golf course is kept in circulation; it either evaporates or seeps into aquifers. Water injected deep underground is lost to the watershed.

    And that’s where people like Meena Palaniappan see a problem. She is the director of the International Water and Communities Initiative for the Pacific Institute.

    Palaniappan: In this case what you’re doing is you’re taking renewable water and you’re sort of making it effectively non-renewable.

    Palaniappan says that makes big global problem – a scarcity of renewable water – just a tiny bit worse.

    Still, Mike Hightower of Sandia Labs, who worries about water supplies for a living, cautions about making too big a deal out of loss of fresh water due to fracking.

    It’s not whether gas shale is good or bad. It’s ‘how do we maximize the pros and minimize the cons.’ You’ve got to get all the stakeholders together. I’ve seen just the opposite; I’ve seen a lot of hysteria.

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