Drinking water while fracking: now and in the future

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The data provided by the PA DEP are incomplete because confidential data are not released. It is impossible to make firm conclusions about water quality impacts when data availability is limited. Nonetheless, the PA experience appears to be characterized by a low rate of problems per gas well or unit of gas produced. Only about 160 of the complaints from homeowners about groundwater to the PA DEP between 2008 and 2012 were problems attributed to oil and gas activity—and only half of these were caused by companies known to drill unconventional shale wells. These problematic wells in turn represent only 0.1 to 1% of the unconventional shale gas wells drilled in that time period (Brantley et al. 2014). Management practices appear to be improving as well; the rate of problems has decreased since 2010 (Figure 1). Apparently, however, the public responds not only to the number of problems per gas well or per unit of gas produced but rather to the number of problems per unit time and per unit area. Thus, even though the r ate of problems with shale gas wells has remained small on a per well basis, pushback has grown in areas of increasing density of drilling and fracking. This may be especially true when consequences are fearsome such as flaming tapwater, toxic contamination, or earthquakes. It is natural that the social license for shale gas development is influenced by short-term, local thinking. But, such thinking may not be helpful given that Marcellus Shale gas wells generate one third the waste per unit volume of gas as compared to conventional shallow gas wells (Vidic et al. 2013). In addition, the release of pollutants such as carbon dioxide, particulates, mercury, nitrogen, and sulfur generated per unit of heat energy is lower f or unconventional shale gas than for fuels such as coal (Heath et al. 2014). Public pushback could nonetheless be a blessing. After all, pushback represents intensified interest in environmental issues. This interest may be seen in the PA DEP data for the rate of well integrity issues in conventional oil and gas wells—the increase in problem rate from 2008 to 2012 (Figure 1) is more likely due to heightened public attention and inspector scrutiny rather than a sudden deterioration in the management practices of the drilling companies (Brantley et al. 2014) During the next decades, the rate of hydraulic fracturing in PA will eventually slow. At some point, the use of produced brines to hydrofracture new wells will cease. Once recycling of brine to frack new wells stops, hundreds of gallons of brine will accumulate as waste at each well per day (Rahm et al. 2013). Disposal of this slightly radioactive brine will then become increasingly problematic. Interest on the part of the public for such issues is warranted. Public engagement today is needed to develop sustainable waste management and sustainable energy practices for the future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)21-23
Number of pages3
JournalGround water
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Computers in Earth Sciences


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