Marcellus Shale Development
Regulations Needed to Protect West Virginia's Rivers and Streams
The natural gas boom throughout West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York has brought water quality issues to the forefront of environmental policy.
Currently, West Virginia lacks effective policy to protect our water resources from this development. West Virginia Rivers Coalition remains commited to the creation and enforcement of regulations which would protect our exceptional rivers and streams.
The Marcellus shale is a porous sedimentary rock that which has trapped natural gas within the pores of the shale. Geologists estimate that is there is 168 trillion to 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas trapped within the shale. Conservative estimates place the volume at around 175 trillion cubic feet. However, some estimate that there may be as much as 516 trillion cubic feet of gas in this shale, enough gas to power the United States for 10-20 years. It is believed that with current drilling technologies the Marcellus shale could contain as much as 50 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas. Currently, a total of 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is produced in the entire U.S. per year.
The Marcellus shale is more than a mile beneath the earth’s surface. The Marcellus shale stretches from New York through West Virginia with most of Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio, Maryland and Virginia within the shale region. Almost the entire state of West Virginia in sits atop the Marcellus shale. The formation covers between 48,000 and 54,000 square miles (31 million acres).
Figure 1: The Marcellus shale formation is a part of the larger Devonian shale and covers most of West Virginia. (Picture from USGS.)
Although natural gas development has a long history in West Virginia the way Marcellus shale is developed is much different than the traditional vertical wells that dot the West Virginia country side. Marcellus shale wells are much deeper and use two types controversial drilling practices to extract the gas. These drilling practices, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, historically were not commonly practiced in West Virginia.
Until recently the natural gas could not be extracted from the Marcellus shale due to the depth of the shale and the nature of the gas. Developments in deep well drilling using a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” has made deep shale gas available to oil and gas companies. The Marcellus shale is one of many deep shales under development using these techniques. The advantage of horizontal drilling coupled with hydraulic fracturing allows drillers to go deeper and extract larger quantities of gas from each well pad. Each well pad has multiple arms radiating from a centralized drilling site. Each arm can reach up to a mile away from the well pad, cutting down the number of drilled wells. There are several consequences due to the nature of this drilling technique. Well pads and the surrounding area are highly developed when compared to a traditional vertical well. The scale of accidents such as spills and fires are much more devastating due to the size of the drilling operation.
Horizontal Drilling – a deep, cement cased, vertical well is drilled and long radiating arms are then drilled at an 90° angle reaching up to a mile away from the centralized well pad.
Hydraulic Fracturing – a technique using huge quantities of water to blast apart rock, the fractures caused by the high pressure water release natural gas which is then captured and transferred to the surface.
Figure 2: A well is drilled vertically and then turned 90°. After the lateral section of the well is drilled it is then fracked using water and chemicals to release gas from the shale. (Picture from www.geology.com)
The Issues Facing West Virginia's Waters
Hydraulic fracturing, as the name implies, is a water intensive practice. Enormous quantities of water are used to hydraulically fracture a Marcellus well. Typical wells use between 1-3.5 million gallons of water each time they are fracked, wells may be fracked numerous times. Regulation of how and where the water, used to hydraulically fracture Marcellus wells, is withdrawn is need to preserve smaller streams and waterways which are found throughout our state.
Water quality a major concern associated with oil and gas drilling. Millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals comprise the hydraulic fracturing fluid, this fluid is also known as "slurry". The sand and chemical additives work to break the rock apart and prevent corrosion to the components of the well.
The chemicals added to the water and sand “slurry” can pose a threat to water quality. Although the chemicals only make up about 1% of the fracking fluid injected into the wells thousands of gallons of potentially harmful chemicals are being used due to the large quantities of fluid used. If one million gallons of fracking fluid are used to frack a well, at 1% of total volume, 10,000 gallons of added chemicals are included into the slurry mix.
After a well is fractured a product know as flowback must be disposed of. Flowback is a mixture of hydraulic fracturing fluid and salt, sediment, trace metals, and traces of radioactive materials which are found in the formations being drilled. The disposal and treatment of this by product is the most serious environmental concern facing development of the Marcellus shale.
Waste Water Disposal
Flow back is stored either in holding tanks or retention ponds (pits) and must be removed from the site. From an environmental standpoint, retaining flow back in holding tanks is the preferred storage method as it offers the opportunity to create a closed system. However, holding flow back in open pits is more economical for the driller and thus the more common practice. Once collected and contained, this flow back fluid must be disposed of. Currently there are three legally allowed methods for disposing of flow back fluids in West Virginia. Although there are methods for the disposal of these fluids West Virginia does not have sufficent access to these solutions.
- Land application - a method used for smaller vertical wells in which wastewater is rudimental treated and then spread over vegetated areas away from water. The soil naturally filters the water before it reaches water bodies. West Virginia has released a guidence deeming this method of disposal unfit for the flow back from Marcellus wells.
- Underground injection wells - Under the EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program, the designation of Class II disposal wells is reserved for fluids produced from oil and gas operations. In this type of injection well, waste fluids are injected back into the same or similar formations as the ones from which they were produced. Although this type of retention disposal method has potential environmental consequences, it is currently the preferred method of disposal by many state regulatory agencies and the EPA because it, in theory, prevents contamination of surface waters. However, West Virginia currently has an insufficient number of permitted commercial disposal wells to handle the disposal of the large volumes of flow back fluids from Marcellus wells. In addition, inadequate study has been conducted on potential impacts to groundwater sources from the underground injection of waste.
- Industrial wastewater or municipal wastewater treatment plants - At these facilities the water is treated and then discharged to surface waters. Under Section 303 of the Clean Water Act, the party ultimately disposing of the wastewater and discharging to surface water is responsible for obeying the state and federal regulations pertaining to water quality standards of the receiving water body into which they discharge. West Virginia, currently, does not have sufficent treatment facilities to treat flow back from natural gas development.
Surface water faces the most threats from Marcellus shale development. Improper wastewater storage and disposal can lead to contamination of streams and rivers. There are documented cases of containment pits leaking flow back into the surrounding environment. The interconnected nature of water, particularly in West Virginia, makes the danger of leaks and spills a serious threat to all our rich water resources. It is vital that these water bodies are protected throughout the development of the shale.
While there is clearly a potential to affect groundwater with any drilling procedure, there is little research to date on the effect of Marcellus drilling and the surrounding ground water resources. Ground water contamination may occur slowly and is difficult to trace. Fractures created by the fracking process typically extend up to a couple hundred feet, however, fractures have been known to run as long as several thousand feet. These long fractures can serve as a fairway for fracking fluids to enter other formations. If these formations are water bearing they may lead to larger aquifers. There is clearly a need for systematic testing and monitoring of water quality in all groundwater surrounding Marcellus sites.
During the initial drilling of a Marcellus shale well the vertical section of the well is cased in cement to protect ground water and other geological formations from the hydraulic fracturing process. Improper casing or deterioration of the casing in Marcellus shale wells can lead to contamination of private drinking water wells. Northeastern Pennsylvania has learned this lesson the hard way, 16 families have had their private wells contaminated by methane due to improper casing of a nearby Marcellus shale well. Countless others have complained of tap water that can be ignited from an influx of methane into their water sources and fouled water from nearby deep shale wells.
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