Mar 03, 2015

Tracking Fracking

Neda Simeonova

Over the past few years, advances in fracking technology have strengthened U.S. reserves of natural gas. According to the Energy Information Administration, shale gas fields in the U.S. are said to contain enough natural gas to power the country for 110 years.

The aim for energy independence is accompanied by an environmental backlash over concerns that fracking methods pose a threat to water, air, land and public health.

A few months ago, Illinois became the latest state to pave the way for oil and gas drillers to apply for permits to begin fracking. Illinois’ path to clear fracking regulations, however, has been long and winding. 

Although former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law what some considered strict rules for high-volume oil and gas drilling, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) was required to develop regulations enforcing Quinn’s law, IDNR’s initial draft for fracking rules shocked environmentalists by undercutting some key measures—specifically, the disposal of wastewater. A copy of the final IDNR rules, which have been approved, has yet to be made public. 

Meanwhile, Joseph Martens, the environmental commissioner of the state of New York, announced that he will ban hydraulic fracturing in the state following a study by the New York Department of Conservation. 

While hydraulic fracturing is gaining momentum, research continues to point to potential impacts of fracking on water resources, such as stream dewatering and surface and groundwater pollution. 

According to a 2013 Downstream Strategies report on water resource use for Marcellus Shale development, surface water taken directly from rivers and streams makes up more than 80% of the water used in fracking operations in West Virginia. Of the approximately 5 million gal of fluid injected per fractured well, only 8% of injected fluid is recaptured. The remaining 92% remains underground, completely removed from the hydrologic cycle. Additionally, the flowback fluid reported as waste in West Virginia represents approximately 38% of total waste volume, with the fate of 62% of fracking waste remaining unknown.

For Pennsylvania, the report also revealed that the state tracks three primary waste categories: flowback fluid, brine and drilling waste, with flowback fluid representing approximately 38% of the total. More than 50% of waste generated by Pennsylvania wells is treated and discharged to surface waters—either through brine/industrial wastewater treatment plants or municipal sewage treatment plants.

It is obvious that the volume of water used for fracking is substantial and so are the quantities of waste generated, leaving our country’s water supplies vulnerable. Thus, considerable improvements in reporting, data collection and sharing, and regulatory enforcement are needed. Until the true scale of fracking’s impact on water resources is determined, we need to make sure that we don’t trade our energy independence for water dependence.

About the author

Neda Simeonova is editorial director of W&WD. Simeonova can be reached at [email protected] or 847.391.1011.