Meghan Betcher is a Staff Environmental Scientist with Downstream Strategies and coauthor of the report Water Resource Reporting and Water Footprint from Marcellus Shale Development in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
In recent years, natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale has increased dramatically. Since the very beginning of this shale gas boom, water has been a key concern. The issue of water use and pollution due to hydraulic fracturing has been a hot topic amongst environmentalists, industry, and the media, but a comprehensive analysis of water use and disposal for the Marcellus Shale was lacking. Because of this, we took on the task of using publically available data to perform a life cycle analysis of water used for hydraulic fracturing in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
As expected, we found that the volumes of water used to fracture Marcellus Shale gas wells are substantial and the quantities of waste generated are significant. While West Virginia and Pennsylvania have recently taken steps to improve data collection and reporting related to gas development, critical gaps persist 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 Given this, it is highly likely that much more water is being withdrawn and more waste is being generated than is known.
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. 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.
We found that a significant portion of waste generated in West Virginia and Pennsylvania is transported to Ohio for disposal in underground injection control wells. The three states are closely connected in terms of fluid disposal. However, we did not discuss water used and waste generated by Marcellus wells in Ohio.
In Ohio, very few—in comparison to West Virginia and Pennsylvania—Marcellus wells have been drilled. At the beginning of November, only 35 Marcellus permits had been issued and of these, 18 wells had been drilled. Instead, much of the unconventional drilling has been in the Utica formation, for which 963 permits had been issued at the beginning of November. Of these permitted wells, 600 had been drilled. As oil and gas development in the Utica continues to expand, it will be important for Ohio regulatory agencies to track water use and fluid disposal.
Regulatory responsibilities for oil and gas development in Ohio are shared by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). A summary of the responsibilities of each agency can be found here.
All facility owners who use greater than 100,000 gallons of water per day are required to register with ODNR. During our research, we were provided with a dataset containing all water users who withdrew water for use in hydraulic fracturing. This dataset only contained information for water used at 10 facilities.
We attempted to obtain data on the volume of water injected into wells. According to a representative of the ODNR Division of Oil and Gas, well operators can report injection volumes to ODNR, but most report to FracFocus instead. Currently, FracFocus contains records for 358 wells in Ohio, and it is not possible to determine the drilling formation for these wells. This number is far fewer than the number of Marcellus and Utica wells that have been drilled in Ohio.
Fluid that returns to the surface following injection, called brine in Ohio, is reported to ODNR along with production reports. These reports are available online; however, it is not possible to distinguish Marcellus wells from conventional wells. Due to the large number of Utica wells, data for Utica wells are contained in a separate file.
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.