Fracking uses a lot of lake and river water. A new study finds less than a tenth of it ever gets recycled.
Fracking in the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania and West Virginia do not only use millions of gallons of water per operation, according to a new report. The study also shows that operations fail to return almost all that water to its purified form.
The report, from San Jose State University, focused on water use and reporting in hydraulic fracturing in the states — and discovered that more than 90 percent of the water injected into the ground during the fracking process is lost from the hydrologic cycle.
That water is largely taken from freshwater sources. More than 80 percent of water used in West Virginia fracking operations comes from lakes and streams — in Pennsylvania, 70 percent is derived from freshwater sources.
While the Marcellus Shale formation doesn’t suffer from severe drought, other fracking sites throughout the nation do. With such vast amounts of water being taken — and never returned — the process is perpetuating concerns over drought and aquatic habitats.
“[This is relevant for] other shale basins across the U.S. where there is a bit more concern about the availability year-round, not just during times of stress,” said SJSU professor Dustin Mulvaney.
The nation saw that very scenario occur this summer in a small Texas fracking town. Residents of Barnhart realized the impact the industry was having on their community when they went to turn their faucets one day in July, only to discover the water had run out.
While the data collected by Mulvaney and his colleagues gave a picture of where water for fracking is coming from — and where it goes — the report also indicates the tracking of and regulation for such resources could be better regulated.
“We’re recognizing that the recent laws and rules are a step forward,” Mulvaney said, “but our work on water and waste reporting can be improved.”
A one-way flow
In West Virginia, it takes 5 million gallons of water to frack one well. Most of that water is taken from freshwater sources.
According to data compiled for the report, flowback fluid accounted for just 8 percent of water used in the fracking process. That means for one fracking operation in West Virginia, 4.7 million gallons of water is removed from the hydrological cycle. In Pennsylvania, roughly 4.6 million gallons of water are used for one well — and with only 6 percent recovered, 4.1 million gallons are removed from the water cycle.
The flowback fluid, a toxic mix including bromide and sodium, spills over when a fracking operation is complete. It differs from fracking wastewater, which is stored in large pools near fracking well pads, until it is transported to wastewater treatment plants.
The question researchers were looking at not only had to do with water sources, but also water disposal methods. Nearly half of all flowback fluid generates through the fracking process in West Virginia is transported to Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Ohio is home to a host of fracking wastewater injection wells, which are essentially old oil wells converted to store the toxic water. When the water is transported, it’s injected into the wells, where it’s transported well below the earth’s surface.
The use of disposal wells and treatment facilities has grown along with the industry. According to the report, the amount of wastewater generated grew by 613 million gallons from 2010 to 2011 — and that was in Pennsylvania alone.
That increase in production has also increased potential problems.
Radioactive water downstream from treatment plant
“There is significant potential for Marcellus development in Pennsylvania to impact water quality because a large percentage of waste is treated at plants that discharge to the state’s rivers and streams,” the report states.
Earlier this month, a fracking wastewater treatment plant in Pennsylvania was discovered to be generating radioactive water. The Pennsylvania Josephine Brine Treatment Facility was approved by the EPA and considered to be state-of-the-art.
However, the Duke University study indicated the facility wasn’t as effective as previously thought. Water tested downstream from the plant measured radiation levels 200 times of those detected in water samples upstream.
“The radioactivity levels we found in sediments near the outflow are above management regulations in the U.S. and would only be accepted at a licensed radioactive disposal facility,” said professor Robert B. Jackson said in a press release.
Jackson indicated that while the facility was removing barium from the water, traces of chlorides, sulfates, bromide and radioactive radium remained. When radium is exposed to humans, it can cause cancer, representing a dangerous scenario in a state that’s consistently generating more toxic wastewater and removing its freshwater.
Mulvaney and his colleagues recognize that treating all water used in the fracking process is not a viable or realistic option.
“There are limitations to the amount of recycled water that can be used,” he said. “The industry is growing so fast — reuse cannot be the single solution to protect the state’s water use.”
Trading freshwater for oil
So long as the fracking industry in the U.S. continues to grow, the issue of water use and disposal will remain.
Mulvaney and his research colleagues say the first step is to create more regulations for the industry, particularly those related to data collection of water use and disposal.
At this point, while some data exists, the system is sloppy.
“The databases have errors,” Mulvaney said. “They’re incomplete.”
Requiring operators to document water use and disposal at every step along the way — while providing an oversight system — would be a step in the right direction. Yet the report doesn’t stop there, as simply reporting actions does not solve a problem that exists — and is growing — within the Marcellus Shale region.
One recommendation in the report calls on states with fracking to “effectively enforce new rules governing surface water withdrawals and increase oversight of industry surface water withdrawals in order to protect rivers and streams.”
Fracking companies do have the option of using flowback fluid to frack wells, yet because only a small portion of the initial water usage is recovered through flowback water, that could create a problem for industry.
What’s clear is that fracking isn’t set to die anytime soon, as it’s considered America’s ticket to energy independence. Yet with so much water disappearing from area lakes and streams, there’s a question over whether trading freshwater for oil is worth it to the American populace.
“Because most water used in Marcellus operations is withdrawn from surface waters, timing is important, and withdrawals during low flow periods can result in dewatering and severe impacts on small streams and aquatic life.”