Focusing on the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on Wednesday made a pitch for more rules to cover the handling of wastewater produced in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) with the release of a new NRDC report.
The document, which was authored by NRDC's Rebecca Hammer and Carnegie Mellon University civil and environmental engineering professor Jeanne VanBriesen, combines an evaluation of federal and state laws with a "thorough review" compiled by an independent scientist. The report looks at alleged health and environmental risks posed by the high-volume waste stream and currently available treatment and disposal methods.
Industry groups contacted by NGI's Shale Daily raised questions about the NRDC's overall work, assumptions and conclusions, while some state officials indicated that the environmental organization's report appears to have adopted some of the ways that states are already addressing wastewater issues.
NRDC focused on two aspects of the fracking process: flowback, which is fluid injected into a gas well that returns to the surface when drilling pressure is released; and produced water, which is all the wastewater emerging from the well after production begins, most of which is salty water contained within the shale formation. "Hydrofracking and the production of natural gas from fracked wells yield byproducts that must be managed carefully to avoid significant harm to human health and the environment (flowback and produced water among them)," NRDC's report said.
A spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) accused NRDC of trying to "grab headlines" and said water management recycling technologies across the Marcellus continue to advance daily. He said the industry is taking "proactive, environmentally focused efforts...aimed at protecting our water resources as well as the environment more broadly."
MSC pointed to a 2011 Associated Press (AP) report, "confirmed by actual data," that said the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania is recycling the vast majority of water. The spokesman said "a small percentage" of wastewater is going to disposal wells permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Dan Whitten, vice president for strategic communications with America's Natural Gas Alliance, said his organization strongly disagrees that additional federal regulation is needed. "Our activities have been and continue to be regulated effectively at the state level," Whitten said. "Several states have worked with stakeholders from all sides of this issue to develop rules that fit their unique geologic conditions, and we think that is appropriate."
A spokesperson for Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said regulators in that state still are reviewing the NRDC document, but that "Wyoming's rules for wastewater may already conform to those [NRDC] recommendations."
Whitten said shale operators are using "innovations, including closed-loop recycling and treatment technologies, that substantially reduce the amount of wastewater we generate."
The NRDC report characterized current options available to operators as "inadequate to protect human health and the environment." It conceded that some wastewater disposal methods used in the Marcellus region are "problematic, but with better regulation some could be preferable while others should not be allowed at all."
The MSC spokesperson adamantly disagreed, contending that facts counteract the NRDC claims. These include the AP report, which found that about 97% of fracking wastewater was either recycled, sent to deep-injection wells or sent to a treatment plant that does not discharge into waterways. In addition, a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection secretary told a congressional committee last November that there has been a sea change in the state, resulting in "virtually no" discharge of fracking wastewater.
"By recycling the wastewater, [drillers] can reduce their transportation costs and the overall environmental footprint of the industry," according to independent experts cited by the MSC.
Nevertheless, the NRDC report insists that "government oversight of wastewater treatment and disposal must be improved at both the federal and state levels." It contends what the states and industry are doing now is inadequate.