Fracking and wastewater

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a relatively new technology that has been delivering huge amounts of natural gas.  This has brought it under sustained attack by radical environmentalists, who have been willing to lie extravagantly in their crusade, including propaganda films like “Gasland” and the Matt Damon mega-bomb “Promised Land” – which actually tried to pass off the most spectacularly dishonest moments in the earlier “Gasland” film as the work of sinister false-flag operatives working for Big Gas.

These hysterical theatrics complicate the process of making rational decisions based on real science.  Among the most serious and persistent charges leveled against fracking is that it produces large quantities of polluted wastewater, which gets into the water table and harms humans, plants, and animals in the area.  This is a serious issue, and it deserves to be studied rationally.

The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) contributes some research that suggests fracking critics may have the situation exactly backwards, because “a conventional gas boom would release even more pollutants”:

There is a perception that the hydraulic fracturing of rock to discharge natural gas produces inordinate volumes of wastewater. After all, millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals are pumped at high pressure into the ground and a considerable portion of this fluid rushes back to the surface when the pressure is released.

Our research shows that for the Marcellus Shale — by far the largest shale gas resource in the United States — significantly less wastewater is generated for every unit of natural gas recovered by hydraulic fracturing than by conventional gas production.

In the peer-reviewed journal Water Resources Research, we compared wastewater volumes generated by more than 2,000 hydraulically fractured shale gas wells to the wastewater generated by conventional wells. We used publicly available data throughout Pennsylvania.

Our results surprised us: On average, shale gas wells generated about 10 times more wastewater but also produced about 30 times more natural gas. This means conventional wells generate about three times more wastewater than hydraulically fractured wells to produce the same amount of natural gas.

In other words, the fracking operation might generate a higher volume of wastewater, but it also produces a far higher yield of natural gas, making it more environmentally friendly on a per-unit basis.  PERC goes on to explain that the rock mined through conventional methods is more porous, and contains more contaminated water, than the rich shale formations exploited by fracking.  The pollutants released from the ground are more of a problem than the carefully-managed chemicals used in the fracking process.

The report concedes that the total volume of wastewater from a single operation can be an issue, even though per-unit pollution is much lower.  This presents an environmental challenge the fracking industry must address.  But PERC thinks regulators need to adjust their thinking, and be realistic about the environmental impact of the far less efficient methods they currently seem to prefer:

This reality of gas and wastewater has turned our idea of regulation on its head. If the recent surge in domestic natural gas production were driven by conventional instead of shale gas resources, we potentially would have three times more wastewater to deal with. And if the amount of wastewater produced in the region becomes unacceptable, the logical regulatory approach may be to first limit conventional natural gas production.

This counterintuitive conclusion raises an important point. Critics have targeted hydraulic fracturing, but many of the same environmental challenges presented by the shale gas revolution would exist if we were facing a comparable expansion of conventional gas production. So we must broaden the conversation, acknowledging the reality that any effort to substantially boost domestic energy production will have environmental costs.

Fanciful propaganda designed to stampede the public restricts the conversation, rather than broadening it.