A Bad Week for Fracking, Another Black Eye for Natural Gas

fracking water use

Natural gas is still part of President Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy,” but businesses seeking to burnish their CSR profile with this relatively clean-burning fuel could be shooting themselves in the foot. Evidence continues to mount that the natural gas supply chain carries an enormous amount of environmental baggage as well as community welfare issues.

This week was a particularly bad one for the natural gas industry, with the release of two government reports in the U.S. and one in the U.K.

1. The USGS fracking report

The problem with natural gas is primarily due to the rapid expansion of fracking. Short for hydrofracturing, this formerly little-used drilling method involves shooting great quantities of chemical brine underground at high pressure, to jar gas (or oil) loose from shale formations.

Among other issues, fracking typically involves a great amount of water, which raises critical water competition issues in areas that are experiencing drought.

Some of the water used in fracking is lost forever deep underground. Great quantities do come back to the surface in the form of wastewater, but that is typically disposed in injection wells, which could also result in water loss.

Earlier this week, The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) issued the first ever national report that details the amount of water used in oil and gas fracking.

The survey looked at at water volumes used in more than 263,859 oil and gas wells drilled between 2000 and 2014.

The survey found that while some fracked wells involved as little as 2,600 gallons, the amount ranged up to 9.7 million gallons depending on whether the well involved horizontal drilling:

…horizontal wells also generally require more water than vertical or directional wells. In fact, in 52 out of the 57 watersheds with the highest average water use for hydraulic fracturing, over 90 percent of the wells were horizontally drilled.

Though horizontal drilling accounted for less than half (about 42 percent) of wells in 2014, the USGS noted that the number of wells involving horizontal drilling has increased since 2008.

As part of a regulatory toolkit, the survey indicates the need for more attention in areas where water use is higher, where competing interests such as agriculture already account for considerable use, and where communities face earthquake risks:

This spatial variability in hydraulic fracturing water use relates to the potential for environmental impacts such as water availability, water quality, wastewater disposal, and possible wastewater injection-induced earthquakes.

2. The New York State DEC fracking report

New York State’s longstanding moratorium on fracking appears to have transitioned into an outright fracking ban, now that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has released the results of its seven-year fracking study.

In addition to direct impacts, the study underscores the ripple effect of increased drilling on industrial infrastructure in rural upstate New York:

…This growth would in turn generate the construction of natural gas pipelines, gathering lines, compressor stations and other associated infrastructure beyond the well pad. This ancillary activity has the potential to create adverse impacts to state – owned lands, freshwater wetlands, forests and other habitat due to fragmentation, streams where pipelines cross, air resources (from Findings Statement, Page 9 compressor stations), visual resources, agricultural lands, threatened and endangered species, and the spread of invasive species…the drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and production phases involve other potential environmental impacts in areas such as spills, cuttings disposal, waste disposal, air emissions, and community character.

In effect, the DEC has provided seven years worth of study that backs up the environmental stewardship issues expressed in the recent encyclical of Pope Francis.

3. The DEFRA Fracking Report

The British government has also undertaken a comprehensive fracking study under the auspices of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA). It was previously released in redacted form.

The full version is now out in public, and as reported by The Guardian, the DEFRA fracking study echoes New York’s DEC study. It paints a picture of destructive impacts on rural communities that host fracking operations:

An official assessment of the impact of fracking, it warned that leakage of waste fluids could affect human health through polluted water or the consumption of contaminated agricultural products.

According to The Guardian, while the DEFRA study notes the job-creating potential of fracking, it also describes the potential for a seven percent drop in residential property values within a mile of fracking sites, while those within a five-mile radius could be faced with higher insurance costs.

The study also takes note of the U.S. experience with environmental impacts from fracking wastewater accidents, and the potential for contaminants to reach humans through the food chain.

4. Not the last straw for fracking, but…

Despite the rising tide of pushback, natural gas fracking is likely to be part of the energy landscape for the foreseeable future.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that businesses seeking clean alternatives to coal and petroleum fuels should skip over natural gas and go straight to biogas, solar, wind, and other forms of renewable energy.

Image: Courtesy of USGS.

Tina is a career public information specialist and former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She writes frequently on sustainable tech issues for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, and she is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey.