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From the very beginning of the shale gas and oil boom, water use and pollution rose to the top of key concerns. Maybe it’s because it takes millions of gallons just to frack a well. Or the special exemptions industry enjoys from the Safe Drinking Water and Clean Water Acts. The era of climate change, when long droughts and intense floods highlight drilling’s impact. And the tens of thousands of rivers and streams nationwide that are already impaired.

So it’s no wonder that questions are being asked—by advocates, communities, researchers, and even industry analysts—about the “energy-water nexus.” This week, we got some answers with the release of a new report by researchers at Downstream Strategies and San Jose State University. Developed in collaboration with Earthworks, the report provides the most comprehensive investigation to date of water used and waste generated by Marcellus Shale gas operations in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, as well as where it all ends up. 

The numbers and their implications are sobering:

  • More than 80% of the water used in fracking comes directly from rivers and streams. Even in water-rich areas, unregulated withdrawals can be bad news for small streams and the creatures that live in them. And the result could be even worse in dry parts of the country. 
  • Fracking has a much bigger blue water footprint (the water used to produce a unit of energy) than previously thought, with just a thousand cubic feet of gas requiring 3-4 gallons of water in Pennsylvania and 1-3 gallons in West Virginia.  
  • Over 90% of all the water that drillers pump deep underground remains there, never to return to the Earth’s water cycle.  
  • It’s a mystery where more than 60% of the waste produced in West Virginia goes; the state doesn’t ask about anything but flowback, so operators don’t tell. 
  • While operators have started reusing more wastewater (accounting for over 30% of waste disposal in Pennsylvania), it’s nowhere near industry’s self-aggrandizing claims
  • Through 2011, more than half of all wastewater produced in Pennsylvania was sent to treatment plants and dumped back into rivers and streams. This remains a big problem despite a voluntary request to operators, as a lawsuit filed this week and a detection of radioactivity indicate. Recent rollbacks of treatment standards could make things even worse over time. 

This report clearly shows that extracting gas from deep shale is a thirsty and dirty business. Yet even after a careful, months-long research project run by experts, the true and likely much larger extent of water and waste problems from drilling isn’t completely clear. Lax industry reporting and state enforcement mean that huge data gaps remain.  

The precautionary principle implies that a lack of definitive information is no excuse for inaction when environmental protection and public health are at stake. Both common sense and this report make clear that a continued expansion of drilling will inevitably result in more water and more waste—making it imperative for states to not just ride the waves, but quickly get out ahead of them.