Protecting Pennsylvania's Three Rivers' Water Resources from Shale Gas Development Impacts

Article excerpt


Energy and water are two critically important and closely linked resources. Energy development and utilization demand massive amounts of water for resource extraction, refining, processing, and transportation as well as for electric-power generation. (1) Inevitably, use of water resources for energy production affects water quality and quantity. (2) The energy sector consumes nearly 40% of U.S. daily freshwater withdrawals) Although the Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts increased energy efficiency, decreased per-capita energy demand, and lower energy use per dollar of GDP, the EIA still projects primary energy use by the U.S. will increase by 0.7% annually from 2009 to 2035. (4) This increase in demand will further strain water resources where freshwater withdrawals already exceed precipitation: the high plains, the Southwest, Florida, and California. (5)

Shale gas will likely be an important resource in meeting increased energy demand. From 2006 to 2010 alone, shale gas production in the U.S. grew by an average of 48% per year. (6) Innovations in horizontal-drilling techniques and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) are the primary drivers of this boom, allowing for natural gas extraction that was once considered economically unviable. In 2009 the Potential Gas Committee, a nationwide group of natural gas experts including geologists and engineers, incorporated the impacts of these new technologies into its reserves estimates, causing the U.S.'s natural gas reserve to swell by 35%. (7)

Drilling a traditional gas well uses only 66,000 to 600,000 gallons of water, but the hydraulic fracturing of a typical shale gas well uses as much as 5 million gallons of water. (8) Drillers often seek water resources in close proximity to the well pad to meet their water needs. (9) In areas such as Texas' Barnett Shale, fracturing has consumed as much as 3% of groundwater in recent years. (10) While gas companies have taken actions to recycle fracturing fluids--known as "flowback water"--the technologies to do so are still in development, and shale gas development will likely continue to rely upon large amounts of freshwater in the near future. (11)

One of the most gas-rich, and therefore lucrative, regions for shale gas development is the Marcellus Shale, running through much of the Appalachian Basin. (12) Sitting over the heart of the shale, Pennsylvania has seen 2469 natural gas wells drilled from 2008 to 2010. Nearly 1500 wells were drilled in 2010 alone. (13) Assuming no recycling and an average use of 5 million gallons per well, these wells would have consumed over 12.3 billion gallons of Pennsylvania's freshwater. (14) The flowback from these wells results in significant volumes of wastewater that contains hazardous materials from the fracking process, including, high salt content, radioactive particles, and other constituents from the underground formations through which the water passes. Thus, hydraulic fracturing threatens not only water quantity, but also quality.

This article focuses on the threats to Pennsylvania's water resources from hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale. Part I introduces basic Pennsylvania water resource law and the practice of hydraulic fracturing and its impacts. Part II delineates the regulatory context of hydraulic fracturing at the federal and state levels and concludes that the current regime is inadequate to address the water-resource challenges posed by hydraulic fracturing. Part III focuses on the impacts of this inadequate regime on the three most significant rivers in Southwestern Pennsylvania: the Allegheny, the Monongahela, and the Ohio. It then suggests changes to the management of water resources and regulations to better address the impacts on the Three Rivers region.


A. Shale Gas Development

Traditional oil and gas drilling seeks natural accumulations of hydrocarbons in reservoir rocks. …