The Times West Virginian

December 22, 2013

Study calls for natural gas industry to provide better data about impact on water resources

By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — According to a new study, operators in the natural gas industry need to improve their data reporting related to the impacts on water resources.

Representatives from Downstream Strategies LLC and San Jose State University collaborated to write a report titled “Water Resource Reporting and Water Footprint from Marcellus Shale Development in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.” The study was released Oct. 30.

Authors Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies, and Dustin Mulvaney, assistant professor at San Jose State University, got involved in the study through the Switzer Foundation, which funded their research.

Hansen and Mulvaney are both Switzer fellows, meaning they each received fellowships when they were in graduate school to support the work of environmental leaders. Through this connection, they had access to funding from the foundation to do a study involving the collaboration between two Switzer fellows.

Hansen and Mulvaney jointly developed the idea for their project and proposed it to the Switzer Foundation for grant funding.

Mulvaney, who has been at San Jose State University for four years, said he was interested in this topic because he had done some related work previously. He teaches courses on energy in the environment, sustainable energy strategies and solar energy analysis.

“We’ve had a strong interest in learning as much as we could about the development of the Marcellus Shale,” Hansen said of Downstream Strategies.

He started this environmental consultant business in 1997. Downstream Strategies, which is based in Morgantown and has a second office in Alderson, focuses on three main program areas: energy, water and land.

Meghan Betcher, environmental scientist for Downstream Strategies, was also an author of the study. The team spent about a year to a year and a half working on the project, which was done in collaboration with Earthworks.

Marcellus Shale development has ramped up significantly in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and there’s a lot of debate about the impact of Marcellus Shale development on water resources, Hansen said.

“We recognized that both West Virginia and Pennsylvania passed new laws and regulations related to the Marcellus Shale development, and part of those new requirements are for the natural gas operators to collect and report data about water withdrawals, fluid injection and waste disposal,” he said.

Hansen explained that the point of the study was to collect, analyze and learn from the new data that’s now being submitted, and assess whether or not these requirements are adequate and if they’re being enforced and used appropriately.

“The purpose of the work was to see if we could reconstruct water use across the various wells and then relate that to the amount of gas production,” Mulvaney added.

He said people will definitely continue to use a lot of natural gas into the future. With the most recent technological advancements in this industry, it’s important to understand the effects of extracting all of this natural gas on water use because water will be a scarce, limited resource.

While research has been done in the past on water quality, not many people had actually looked into the topic of how much water is being used in the Marcellus Shale gas development, Mulvaney said.

The study shows that in West Virginia, around 5 million gallons of water is injected for each fractured well. Mulvaney said he was surprised to learn how much of the water used in fracking stays permanently underground and never comes back up to the surface. In the state, 92 percent of that water stays permanently underground, and only 8 percent is recaptured.

Hansen said similar numbers were found in Pennsylvania.

He commented that another interesting finding involved the source of the water used in shale drilling and hydraulic fracturing in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

“In both states, by far, most of the water is withdrawn from streams and from ground water,” Hansen said. “Even though more and more of that fluid is recycled, the recycled water still makes up a small percentage of the total fluid that’s injected.”

He also said that of all the flowback fluid reported as waste from these processes in West Virginia, almost a quarter is shipped to Pennsylvania and a quarter to Ohio. Only a little more than half of that waste stays in West Virginia.

In terms of findings related to the adequacy of the reporting requirements, Pennsylvania requires the reporting of all waste that comes from the Marcellus Shale development indefinitely, Hansen said.

The study estimated, based on the Pennsylvania data, that the West Virginia data represents only about 38 percent of the total waste that’s generated, he said. This shows that there’s a lot of waste generated in the state that isn’t reported. Also in West Virginia, a significant number of wells had not yet reported their water and fluid flows, even though they should have.

“That points to the need for stronger efforts to be made to make sure that operators report their data,” Hansen said.

Mulvaney believes this report could potentially shift the conversation related to the impact of Marcellus Shale development on water resources.

Based on the findings, he believes it’s equally important to disclose how much water is being used per well. If companies aren’t reporting their water use, the study could encourage them to start improving their practices.

“I hope what it would do is lead to some changes in the reporting requirements that would require full reporting of waste in West Virginia, and that would compel operators to actually submit data that’s required,” Hansen said.

To access the full report, visit http://bit.ly/MarcellusWaterUse.

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.