New study looks at gas drilling water pollution

March 11, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

There’s a new study out today that looks closely at the potential for water pollution from the boom in natural gas drilling, and does much to dispute the industry line that there’s nothing at all to worry about.

Here’s the abstract:

Concern has been raised in the scientific literature about the environmental implications of extracting natural gas from deep shale formations, and published studies suggest that shale gas development may affect local groundwater quality. The potential for surface water quality degradation has been discussed in prior work, although noempirical analysis of this issue has been published.

The potential for large-scale surface water quality degradation has affected regulatory approaches to shale gas development in some US states, despite the dearth of evidence. This paper conducts a large-scale examination of the extent to which shale gas development activities affect surface water quality. Focusing on the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, we estimate the effect of shale gas wellsand the release of treated shale gas waste by permitted treatment facilities on observed downstream concentrations of chloride (Cl−) and total suspended solids (TSS), controlling for other factors.

Results suggest that (i) the treatment of shale gas waste by treatment plants in a watershed raises downstream Cl− concentrations but not TSS concentrations, and (ii ) the presence of shale gas wells in a watershed raises downstream TSS concentrations but not Cl− concentrations. These results can inform future voluntary measures taken by shale gas operators and policy approaches taken by regulators to protect surface water quality as the scale of this economically important activity increases.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was done by Sheila Olmstead of the Washington, D.C., think tank Resources for the Future.   You can read the whole thing online here.

Olmstead and her colleagues studied the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and used regression analysis of more than 20,000 surface water quality observations to estimate the effects of shale gas wells and the release of treated shale gas waste on downstream water quality. The authors found that treatment of shale gas waste by treatment plants in a watershed raised downstream chloride concentrations but not the concentration of total suspended solids (TSS). In contrast, the presence of shale gas wells in a watershed raised downstream TSS concentrations but not chloride concentrations.

And if you missed it, we had a story in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail that looked at research that suggests the Marcellus Shale boom in West Virginia and elsewhere is being over-hyped by the industry and its political supporters:

The potential for natural gas from shale formations to fuel the nation’s energy future is greatly over-hyped by the industry and its political supporters, according to a recent report that says wells are playing out faster than has been projected.

Geologist David Hughes says in the report that “the geological and environmental realities” of the ongoing boom in shale gas and shale or “tight” oil “deserve a closer look” by political leaders and the public.

“The projections by pundits and some government agencies that these technologies can provide endless growth heralding a new era of ‘energy independence,’ in which the U.S. will become a substantial net exporter of energy, are entirely unwarranted based on the fundamentals,” Hughes wrote. “At the end of the day, fossil fuels are finite and these exuberant forecasts will prove to be extremely difficult or impossible to achieve.”

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