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Water all around ... Or is there?

Published Sep 10, 2010 9:22 PM

Much of the focus on the rapid expansion of natural gas extraction through hydrofracturing, or “fracking,” has centered on methane leaks and chemical contamination of residential water wells. In Dimock, Pa., more than 15 residents sued Cabot Oil and Gas Corp., charging permanent damage to their wells.

However, another concern is the impact of fracking on renewable sources of fresh water. Some fear that this drilling process may be draining valuable and irreplaceable water resources.

The process of hydrofracturing starts when a well is drilled thousands of feet down and horizontally to reach shale formations deep beneath the earth’s surface where natural gas is “trapped.” The gas is released when the shale is “fracked” — broken up by a mixture of water, sand and chemicals forced down the well. Anywhere from 1 million to 9 million gallons of water are used per frack. A well may be fracked more than once.

According to newsroom ProPublica, in July 2009 there were already 52,700 natural gas wells in Pennsylvania, second only to Texas’ 76,436. These numbers were compiled before a boom in new leases due to Pennsylvania’s lack of regulation. With the pace of drilling increasing, it is estimated that more than 30,000 new natural gas wells could be developed in the Upper Delaware River Basin in coming years.

To open the existing Pennsylvania wells required between 53 billion to 475 billion gallons of water. If all the estimated wells are drilled, another 30 billion to 150 billions of water would be needed.

Where does all this water come from? Trucking water to a well site is expensive. Drillers have found that it’s cheaper to run a fire hose from a local source, be it a river, stream, creek, lake or pond.

Regulations for drawing water vary from state to state. In Pennsylvania companies are required to seek permits that stipulate the volume, in millions of gallons of water, to be drawn each day from specific fresh water sources. Enforcement of these permits is sporadic. Four gas companies have already been caught withdrawing water from trout streams without permission.

A list of water sources approved for drillers provided by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission includes the Susquehanna River, the Chemung River, and numerous creeks, streams and ponds in 10 northeastern Pennsylvania counties. In Bradford County alone, more than 31 million gallons of water could potentially be removed from local water sources in one day’s time.

In early September, a subcontractor for Cabot Oil and Gas requested permits to withdraw water from the Susquehanna River where it runs near the entrance of a public, recreational park in Tunkhannock, Pa. The company offered a lease fee of $500 a year.

Impact on Earth’s fresh water resources

More than 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, but only 2.5 percent is fresh water. Much of it is frozen under polar icecaps, present as soil moisture or in deep underground aquifers not accessible for human use.

The less than 1 percent that is accessible is found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and underground sources shallow enough to be tapped. While fresh water is a renewable resource, the world’s supply is steadily decreasing. During the 20th century more than half the world’s wetlands were lost to agriculture use and land development.

According to Wilma Subra, technical advisor for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, “The withdrawal of large quantities of surface water could substantially impact the availability of the surface water resources downstream and damage the aquatic life in the surface water bodies. When groundwater resources are used in the fracturing process, the groundwater aquifers can be drawn down and result in water wells in the area going dry.” (http://leanweb.org/)

Writing in the Round River Blog, Brian Creek questioned the impact that demand for local water resources, in order to drill in the Michigan Antrim Shale region, could have on the Jordan, Michigan’s first wild and scenic river. He estimates that water needed for fracking 10,000 wells there would use more water than flows through the river in a year. (March 19)

Salt concentration build-up

On average, 25 percent of the fracturing fluid returns to the surface as “flowback” or “produced water.” This water goes to treatment plants, where metals are removed. The chemicals contained in the flowback water are toxic agents and a probable cause of cancers in humans.

The remaining fluid is salt brine, which is then diluted and discharged into the rivers. There is concern over potential environmental harm from salt levels, as the amount of water being released into fresh waters from shale gas operations grows from a trickle to a tidal wave. New, stringent treatment regulations for recycling-produced water in Pennsylvania won’t take effect until 2011.

Pennsylvania is not the only state facing this problem. In Arkansas, wastewater from shale wells was being spread over land farms. The state shut down 11 of the 13 operations when soil chloride concentrations exceeded permitted levels. While not allowed under permits issued, oil-based drilling fluids had also been applied at some sites. In an April 2009 report, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality stated that some fields may have been “irreversibly damaged.”

In July, the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies approved $1 million for the U.S. Geological Survey to study the cumulative impact on water withdrawals for fracking in the Delaware River Basin.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) noted, “With over 15 million people relying on the Delaware River for clean drinking water, we simply cannot allow drilling to move forward without first giving full scrutiny to the cumulative effects on water resources throughout the region.”

“Hydraulic fracturing poses a possible health and environmental threat to the millions of people who make their home in the Delaware River watershed and the almost 10 percent of the nation’s population who rely on these waters for drinking, recreational and industrial use,” said Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ).

Problem is global

The use of hydraulic fracturing is going global. Halliburton, which developed the process, has operations in more than 70 countries. The impact of fracking on global fresh water resources has yet to be measured, but with scarce water resources in many parts of the globe, it is raising concerns.

A regulatory Global Gas Shale Initiative Conference was held in Washington in August involving representatives from 20 countries and 10 federal entities, as well as state and local regulators. The conference included representatives from the Groundwater Protection Council, an association of state regulators.

The conference addressed the future impact of gas drilling that could account for 30 percent of future gas supplies in the U.S., Canada and China, and a dramatic portion of future global gas supplies. Fresh water resources are already scarce in many parts of the world and have led to struggles against attempts to privatize water in Latin America and Asia.

David Goldwyn, the State Department’s coordinator for international energy affairs, at a State Department briefing on the conference, opined, “We have, in our country, an umbrella of laws and regulations that makes sure this is done safely and efficiently.” He confidently asserted, “We have safe drinking acts,” completely ignoring the fact that the Clean Water Act of 2006 specifically excludes oversight of hydraulic fracturing — the “Halliburton Clause.”