Drilling for Natural Gas Jeopardizes Clean Water

There's been an explosion (sometimes literally) in natural gas drilling in the Northeast, but the tradeoff for this fossil-fuel energy could mean highly contaminated drinking water.

November 8, 2009

Natural gas wastewater ponds hold millions of gallons of highly contaminated water. Photo courtesy of PA Forest Coalition.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—With no stringent regulations in place and a Bush-era exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act, natural gas drilling companies are flocking to areas containing Marcellus Shale, a deep geological formation found in parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, where natural gas occurs naturally within the rock. The Marcellus Shale formation can be found in 63 percent of Pennsylvania, and also underlies a significant portion of New York.


Until recently, drilling a mile-plus deep shaft into the earth and blasting through this type of shale to release natural gas was inefficient and unprofitable. But thanks to the coupling of two types of technology—horizontal drilling and Halliburton-developed hydraulic fracturing—now, it's just inefficient. With huge gas-drilling companies standing to make a profit using the new combo method, which includes the use of carcinogenic chemicals and millions of gallons of water, the clean drinking-water supplies of millions are at serious risk. And taxpayers could be on the hook to clean up the mess years down the line unless strict regulations are put in place soon.

"Clean water is not limitless; it needs to be protected," says Louis Kaplan, PhD, senior research scientist and principal investigator of biogeochemistry at Stroud Water Research Center in Avondale, PA. "Anytime that we consider something like mining for coal or drilling for gas, all of those processes need to be viewed through a lens of environmental protection and sustainability." Right now, that is not the case. And while there's a drilling moratorium in New York as an environmental impact statement is being finalized, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is handing out natural gas drilling permits like Halloween candy, issuing more than 3,500 so far this year alone.

THE DETAILS: This type of natural gas drilling has been going on for some time in places like Texas and Wyoming. But what makes drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region even more appealing to investors and energy companies is its location, explains Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director of Clean Water Action. There's a big demand for natural gas on the East Coast, where there's already an existing pipeline to run the fuel and up and down the coast.

Geologists have known for a long time that the Marcellus Shale contained a lot of natural gas. But until recently, it wasn't cost-effective to go after it. The development of horizontal drilling, where a well bore is directed about a mile deep, and then at least a mile horizontally, has made it more economical to tap into more natural gas stored in the rolling blankets of deep shale. But drilling alone isn't enough to release the natural gas. Enter hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, in which a proprietary blend of chemicals, including ones listed as carcinogens, are mixed with sand and water and blasted into the rock formation, fracturing it to release the natural gas.

You know the saying, "What goes up must come down?" Well in fracking, some of what goes down comes back up, and that's known as flowback. Some of the hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals used in the frack fluid include formaldehyde, acids, and pesticides. This toxic stew is mixed with the about 4 million gallons of clean water required for the average fracking process. Some of this returns to the surface in the flowback, but on the way back up, the now-contaminated water sometimes picks up another harmful hitchhiker—normally occurring radioactive materials, or NORMS, found deep in the earth. Flowback water is stored in plastic-lined open pits at the drilling site, and eventually trucked away to wastewater-treatment facilities, which aren't adequately equipped to remove all of the toxins. The still-contaminated water, potentially laced with heavy metals like arsenic, chlorides, and toluene, and radioactive material, is then released back into streams and rivers.

In essence, some of the 2 percent of drinkable water on the planet is being traded in for a polluting gas.

WHAT IT MEANS: The natural gas industry has done a very good job of greenwashing the fuel, making people think that it's clean compared to other fossil-fuel energy sources like coal or oil. But when you consider it from a cradle-to-grave perspective—the entire process of extracting, transporting, storing, and burning, along with the depletion of clean drinking water and the creation of hazardous wastewater—hydrofracked natural gas looks less than clean.

Here are some other problems associated with the fracking process for natural gas:

•  Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) last week fined Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation $150,000 after methane gas leaked from a drilling operation site and seeped into nearby residential wells in Dimock Township, PA. An explosion in one of the wells blew off the homeowner's cement well cap. "This is not that unusual a problem, unfortunately," says Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit clean-water watchdog group based in Pennsylvania. "The problem of having methane migrate and get into groundwater is very serious. It's a dangerous gas. You're not supposed to drink water, shower, or wash clothing using water with methane in it."

•  A state coalition blames the dumping of untreated wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling operations for a September fish kill in Dunkard Creek, resulting in the deaths of at least 10,000 fish in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The dump affected the salt level of the water. "Having this water be too saline, when you're talking about discharging into freshwater streams, has a harsh effect on aquatic life," explains Arnowitt. "Some are turning freshwater ecology into brackish water ecology."

•  In the Pittsburgh area, regular sewage-treatment plants were accepting fracking wastewater. Not only did they not have the technology to process the stew of contaminants, but the waste overwhelmed the Monongahela River and total dissolved solids and chlorides spiked sky high. Millions of residents in the Pittsburgh area are dealing with their third drilling-related drinking water advisory in about a year.

•  A shale-drilling operation by Chesapeake Corporation may have induced earthquakes in the Dallas, Fort Worth area this summer, according to geoscientists.

•  Last fall, 46 homeowners' wells were contaminated with a drilling-related natural gas leak in Ohio. One home exploded, and residents there are still being told to drink bottled water. Some natural gas drilling contaminants, such as benzene, are poisonous even in tiny amounts that people can't always taste or smell.

Here's how you can help clean up dirty natural gas:.

• Demand FRAC ACT support. Versions of the FRAC Act—Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act have been introduced into the U.S. Senate and House that would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act. FRAC Act legislation would repeal a Bush Administration exemption given to the oil and gas industry, and would force them to disclose all the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing processes. No matter which state you live in, call your federal senators and representative and let them know you want them to sign on to cosponsor the bill.

• Be a skeptic. Chesapeake Energy Corporation announced two weeks ago that it would not drill for natural gas within the New York City watershed that supplies water to millions. However, Carluccio warns that this could just be a PR stunt, since the company can't drill there right now anyway, due to the New York drilling moratorium. At an October 28 hearing in Sullivan County, NY, a company representative stood up and said they'd oppose a ban on drilling in the state, and would go to court over it, Carluccio says.

• Write letters. No matter where you live, but particularly if you live in an area where drilling occurs, it's important to write letters to state and local agencies to push for stringent natural gas drilling regulations. New York extended the public comment period on its Environmental Impact Statement to December 31. The current draft involves administering permits under certain conditions, but does not get into regulation. "Registering your concerns with DEC [NY Department of Environmental Concervation] about possible detriments to water quality and the environment in drilling areas and for downstream water users is the most timely thing to do at this moment," says Carluccio. You can even attend hearings on the matter:

Tuesday, November 10, Stuyvesant High School, High School Auditorium, 345 Chambers Street, New York, NY 10282

Thursday, November 12, Chenango Valley High School, High School Auditorium, 221 Chenango Bridge Road, Chenango Bridge, NY 13901

Wednesday, November 18, Corning East High School Auditorium, 201 Cantigny Street, Corning, NY 14830.

You can also contact Delaware and Susquehanna River Basin commissions and PA DEP to demand tighter regulations on the handling of wastewater. For more information on speaking out against natural gas drilling, visit Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, and Clean Water Action.

• Clean up your act. "Natural gas is a very dirty fuel, and we don't have time to fool around with carbon fuels anymore, according to most recent reports about what kind of shape we're in in terms of global climate change," says Carluccio. "We can't afford to continue with carbon emissions. We have to look at renewable sources of energy that are not carbon-based at all." To learn more, check out our recent story on affordable solar power.