The findings of this report suggest 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 Given this, it is highly likely that much more water is being withdrawn and more waste is being generated than is known.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, 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 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.