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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Recycling and fracking's water footprint

The oil and gas industry says that 90 percent of Pennsylvania’s fracking wastewater is reused or recycled.  That’s a good thing.

But how much of a good thing is it, really?  This article provides an answer to that question.  And the answer is - not nearly as good as it sounds.

It describes a study conducted last year by the environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies that attempted to trace the use of water in hydraulic fracturing. Researchers looked at water use - from withdrawal to ultimate disposal of resulting wastewater - at several wells in the Marcellus Shale formation in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

  • Approximately 4.3 million gallons of fluid are injected per fractured well.
  • On average, only 6% of injected fluid is recaptured. The remaining 94% remains underground, permanently removed from the hydrologic cycle.
Recycling 90% (maybe – more on this below) of the 6% that’s recaptured doesn’t sound nearly as good, does it?

The fact that 94% of water used for every frack job is permanently removed from the hydrologic cycle is far more troubling that the industry’s stereotypical, out-of-context touting of a high recycling percentage. The report doesn’t describe what the cumulative impacts of that permanent removal might be over the course of the next several decades, as perhaps hundreds of thousands of wells are fracked.

And refracked. The report says: 
Marcellus well production begins to decline significantly after the first or second year and requires re-stimulation with new water injections after five to ten years.
The report says only this: 
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, which will limit its benefits except in times of drought where small percentages could be important. 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. However, if existing techniques are applied to the much deeper and thicker Utica Shale that lies below the Marcellus, than (sic) even water-rich regions could find that shale gas operations make water supplies vulnerable.
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.
There’s an urgent need for a lot more science on this subject, in my view. And for more and better data on water use. On that subject, the report said that there are: 
critical gaps…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. 
The report recommended to: 
  • Require operators to report all aspects of water use and waste production, treatment, and disposal along the entire life cycle of shale gas extraction.
  • Effectively enforce new rules governing surface water withdrawals and increase oversight of industry surface water withdrawals in order to protect rivers and streams.
  • Develop new methods to reduce water and waste at all stages of shale gas production.
There is good work being done by individual drilling companies on water recycling and alternative water sources, and important innovations coming from companies that service them.  But it is not enough to avoid short- and long-term conflicts between fracking and other water users - and a healthy environment.  Full life cycle water use tracking and reporting must be required, and business processes and regulation must both drive to a goal of waterless fracking.

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