The State Journal
14 August 2008
Story by Pam Kasey
Marcellus Shale is generating a lot of natural gas activity in Appalachia these days.
And that activity is generating questions about water.
"The Marcellus completion ... requires much more water than a conventional well in West Virginia or Pennsylvania would," said Ben Hardesty, president of Dominion Exploration and Production in Jane Lew.
But that increased use of water also is raising questions among some people.
"Where does it come from? How polluted is it after use? What happens to it?" asked Abby Chapple of Potomac Water Watch, one group that is concerned about the water.
These questions will become more prevalent as Marcellus activity increases.
The Marcellus Shale formation lies primarily in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, in some places a mile and more below the surface.
It's a new gas play.
In the past, producers extracted gas from permeable formations that gas moves through freely, explained Roger Willis. Willis is senior vice president at Universal Well Services in Meadville, Pa., which "completes" drilled wells by installing equipment, cementing to protect groundwater and making the gas flow for the producer.
Now, Willis said, producers are trying to get gas from impermeable shales.
"In other areas of the country they've successfully unlocked the puzzle of how to get the gas out, so we're now applying that in the east," he said.
The technique they're applying is fracturing: bombarding the shale with a gas or liquid under high velocity to break it into pieces and allow the gas through.
When water is used it's called hydraulic fracturing, or "hydrofracking."
Hydrofracking requires, of course, lots of water.
In West Virginia, the water comes from nearby waterways, according to James Martin, chief of Oil and Gas at West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection.
Companies may withdraw freely up to 750,000 gallons per month, said DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco, no matter the size of the waterbody. Above that, they must report to DEP's Division of Water.
A withdrawal rate of 750,000 gallons per month is well below one percent of the lowest flow of the moderate-sized South Branch of the Potomac at Brandywine over the past month, according to online stream gage data.
But it's more than 10 percent of a low flow point in 1999.
Residents concerned about excessive withdrawals have to watch for that and report it to DEP themselves, Cosco said.
"Our Oil and Gas staff will call the company ... withdrawing water from that stream and say, "Things are getting low -- you need to look into getting your water from another source," she said.
Hydrofracking uses more than just water.
The water carries sand, which props the cracks in the shale open, Willis explained.
It also is treated with additives that make it "slicker" to speed it through the pipe and "thicker" to hold the sand in suspension.
Additives are proprietary secrets but may include gels, "similar to what you might find in a shampoo," Willis said, as well as salts, and other substances.
Some of the frack water comes back to the surface: 600,000 to 1,000,000 gallons for a Marcellus completion, according to Paul Hart, president of Pennsylvania Brine Treatment, which treats frack water and discharges to Pennsylvania streams.
That's the equivalent of one to one-and-a-half Olympic-size swimming pools.
"Flowback" carries additives plus things it picks up underground.
"Under the pressure and under the heat and the time that the water is down there, natural contaminants that are in the formation get dissolved in the water, such as the salts, iron, other heavy metals, barium, then come up to the surface," Hart said.
It also may carry low-level radiation.
Much West Virginia frack water is injected underground.
PetroEdge, which Reservoir Engineer Joe Holson said has drilled more than 40 Marcellus wells mainly in West Virginia's north-central counties, has its frack water trucked to a commercial facility in Ohio that treats it and injects it under permit into depleted oil and gas reservoirs.
Equitable Resources has three Marcellus wells in north-central West Virginia, according to Communications Director Wayne Desbrow.
Equitable's West Virginia production water is sent to a treatment facility in Wheeling, Desbrow said, and then injected underground.
Hart said some West Virginia frack water goes to Pennsylvania Brine Treatment.
"Currently almost half of the water produced in New York and almost half produced in West Virginia comes to Pennsylvania to be put in the rivers," he said, "because New York doesn't have a solution and neither does West Virginia."
West Virginia DEP does not keep numbers on frack water.
"We don't know how much water is returned as part of the drilling operation," Martin said. "(Companies' drilling permit applications) don't have to give volumes but they have to show how they're going to dispose of the drilling pit fluids."
Pennsylvania Brine Treatment wants to add six new treatment facilities to its existing three and Hart believes, as Marcellus activity ramps up, more solutions will be needed.
"The reality is that the volume is going to be too high and it's not going to be practical to put all of that in the rivers," he said. "Transportation costs more than disposal, too, so we're going to be looking for ways to handle the water at the well site so they don't have to transport."