EVOLVING CONCERNS OVER THE PRODIGIOUS VOLUMES OF WATER USED IN HYDRAULIC FRACTURING

Posted on October 31, 2012 by Michael Hardy

When hydraulic fracturing “exploded” in Pennsylvania and Ohio to unlock the huge reservoirs of natural gas buried thousands of feet below surface in the deep shale formations, the initial environmental concerns focused on the potential for contamination of drinking water supplies from the “fracking” fluids and methane, and from the induced seismicity from the disposal of the waste brines into the underground injection wells.

While those concerns remain, new issues have surfaced.  In Ohio’s Utica shale play, the deep wells typically consume 5,000,000 or more million gallons of water for the hydraulic fracturing and well completion.  Beginning in June, a number of political subdivisions and water districts saw the energy industry’s needs for water as a wonderful business opportunity.  For example, the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, whose eighteen counties cover 20 percent of Ohio, reportedly contracted with one exploration and production company to sell millions of gallons of water from one of its reservoirs in eastern Ohio.  The City of Steubenville signed a five year contract to supply as much as 700,000 gallons a day from a reservoir that holds water from the Ohio River.  Newspaper reports at the time mentioned monthly payments to Steubenville on the order of $120,000.  The Buckeye Water District enjoyed a seven-month windfall of $24,000 per month for sales of water to a large drilling firm. Even the Ohio Department of Natural Resources weighed possible plans to grant drilling companies access to state-held reservoirs, lakes and streams.

But the public announcement of these water supply contracts produced significant public backlash.  The reaction to the plans of the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, for example, prompted a reversal of the sales, and lead to a moratorium pending completion of an independent water availability study by the U.S. Geological Survey and an updating of the District’s water supply plan with input from the new study.  Low stream flows in the Susquehanna River watershed in Pennsylvania lead the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to suspend 57 approved water withdrawals by gas drillers and other industrial users.

Perhaps in response to the public outcry over the potential impact on water resources, the Ohio General Assembly passed wide-ranging legislation to deal with the growth of shale gas exploration in Ohio.  One of the features of that bill requires drillers to disclose their water source and the likely volume of water for well completion.

The link to that legislation is here: 
http://www.legislature.state.oh.us/bills.cfm?ID=129_SB_315

In another piece of legislation, the Ohio General Assembly adopted a measure to regulate the withdrawal of water from the Lake Erie watershed, effectively precluding the use of Lake Erie watershed waters for hydraulic fracturing in the counties where the drilling is occuring because they are outside the watershed.

The legislation on the use of Lake Erie water can be found at this link:
http://www.legislature.state.oh.us/bills.cfm?ID=129_HB_473

Even with these safeguards, groups like the National Wildlife Federation urge the adoption of even stronger rules on the use of water for hydraulic fracturing.  With the projected exponential growth of shale gas drilling, there will be continuing efforts to regulate the use of water, and the encouragement for water recycle and reuse, for hydraulic fracturing.