The Marcellus water resources and water footprint report takes a critical look at water-use data provided by natural gas drillers over the past couple years to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection—data operators are required to provide under the Horizontal Well Control Act of 2011.
The study interprets that data as well as compares it to the data reported in Pennsylvania, where the gas industry is substantially more developed. The president of Morgantown-based environmental firm Downstream Strategies, Evan Hansen, began his explanation by showing an image of what once was a pit where waste fluid from a fractured hydraulic well used to be stored.
“This is a waste pit that’s located in West Virginia and you’ll notice that there’s no waste in it,” Hansen explained. “And that’s because it was recently pumped dry. And that plastic liner is being removed. The reason is that in this case the flowback fluid that was stored there was draining through cracks in the liner directly into the bedrock that underlies this pit and contaminating the drinking water aquifer.”
Hansen went on to explain that ground water monitoring data was collected before, during, and after development of the site. That data confirms pollution levels increased in the drinking water. He says it’s a cautionary tale that underscores the importance of diligent attention to water issues related to oil and gas development.
Hansen says there are about 2000 well sites in West Virginia and 9000 in Pennsylvania. He says the average Marcellus well in West Virginia injects about 5 million gallons of water into wells as fracking fluid. One of the key findings in the report is that "the amount of water used per well is higher than previously estimated for Marcellus Shale wells."
“And by far most of the water comes from surface water—it’s about 81 percent—plus a portion of purchased water. That’s water purchased from local water utilities,” Hansen said.
Hansen found that 8 percent of the 5 million gallons that goes into each well comes back up.
Hansen says the DEP and industry should be applauded for adopting new recycling practices so about 75% of that flowback is now being reused. He says the remainder is disposed of in deep well injections.
“That’s important because every gallon of water that comes from reuse rather than withdrawal is protective of the environment,” Hansen said.
He added that tracking this waste water should continue to be a priority. West Virginia already sees 100-million gallons of waste water each year and PA, across the border where the industry is significantly more developed, sees nearly a billion gallons of waste each year.
Hansen’s report also indicates a need to improve data collection and reporting requirements.
Hansen says one of his biggest concerns is that West Virginia's state law only requires operators to report flowback water. It’s a different story in Pennsylvania where flowback only accounts for 38% of reported waste.
“In Pennsylvania, all types of waste are reported," Hansen said. "And not only are all types of waste reported, they are reported every six months. So there’s a good, full accounting of the waste generated from Marcellus operations in Pennsylvania. It’s different in West Virginia.”
Operators in West Virginia are required to submit data once a year, but according to the study, only about a third comply. Moreover, errors in data submissions are common.
“Roughly one third of the data we found to be suspect and so we decided to eliminate it before we crunched our numbers because we wanted to be sure that the data that we used for our analysis was reliable.”