State regulators and the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania are looking at the possibility of using water polluted from coal mining in place of fresh water for hydraulic fracturing.
Known as acid mine drainage, or AMD, this is the water that works its way through abandoned underground or surface mines and picks up contaminants – iron, sulfides, aluminum, and other metals. It’s highly acidic. When that water reaches a discharge point and flows into streams, it pollutes those streams so badly that they cannot support aquatic life. Pennsylvania has at least 4000 miles of such biologically “dead” streams from AMD pollution – one of the many outrageous legacies left by the state’s coal mining industry.
The solutions to AMD are straightforward: surface reclamation of abandoned mine lands, flooded strip pits, or coal refuse piles, or permanent treatment of AMD discharge. Those solutions area costly – as in tens of billions of dollars costly. For example, the cost of AMD remediation in the Susquehanna River Basin alone has been estimated at $15 billion
Using AMD for hydraulic fracturing could reduce the amount of higher-quality water withdrawn from rivers and streams for use in drilling. Treating AMD for use in drilling could reduce the amount of AMD flowing into streams and improve water quality. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission in fact encourages drillers to use AMD.
As a recent Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader article put it, “(u)sing the state’s latest natural resource boom to clean up the legacy of the last one seems like a natural pairing.”
Yes - as far as it goes. But it does not go nearly far enough, for 3 reasons.
First, such “beneficial reuse” of polluted water is at best a very limited benefit. It avoids first principles – our use of precious water resources and the daunting question of cleaning up AMD at its source.
Second, we must keep in mind that gas drilling is a special kind of consumptive water use. As I wrote here, rather than returning water to the natural cycle, as other consumptive uses of water do, gas drilling injects water deep underground, where 80% or more of it stays. It’s out of circulation forever. Doesn't it seem likely that this will have long-term, cumulative consequences?
Third, and most important for present purposes, is that using AMD for fracking does not actually clean anything up. Diverting a smallish amount of polluted water is far different than cleaning up a massive, pervasive statewide problem.
The official estimate of Pennsylvania’s AMD flow is 300 million gallons a day. Every day. Forever. The gas industry uses several million gallons of water to frack a well. A December, 2011 conference on using AMD for fracking found that even if every drop of the gas industry’s water use – statewide - came from AMD sources, the gas industry alone would never “use up” Pennsylvania’s AMD-polluted water - if using up water of any quality is actually a good idea or not. As reported by the Times-Leader, AMD in the Pittsburgh region alone could provide two to seven times the water needed by the industry annually.
So, using AMD for fracking is a good idea, and DEP and the gas industry should be commended for exploring it. But it avoids basic questions of statewide water quality and consumptive use of precious water resources. And, at best, it treats a symptom. It is not a cure.