EPA analysis details water usage in fracking in Pennsylvania

Drillers in Pennsylvania used about 11 billion gallons of water to tap shale formations in the Appalachian Basin between 2011 and 2013, according to an analysis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

The EPA examined more than 39,000 disclosures submitted across the country between January 2011 and February 2013 to the website FracFocus, an industry-backed registry of the components used to frack shale formations, including the Marcellus and Utica shales that span Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

For Pennsylvania, the EPA examined 2,483 disclosures by natural gas drillers. 

Pennsylvania is among the states that require oil and gas producers to use FracFocus to inform the public of the amount of water and chemical additives they use. However, the rules vary from state to state, and some do not require disclosure. Last month, the Obama administration also mandated that drillers start using the registry to operate on federal lands. 

Nationally, nearly 92 billion gallons of water were used for fracking between January 2011 and February 2013. That includes 36 billion gallons in 2011; 52 billion gallons in 2012; and 3.8 billion gallons in the first two months of 2013 in the U.S., according to the EPA’s analysis.

Counties with the greatest reported cumulative total water volumes are clustered in areas of northeastern Pennsylvania, northern Colorado, western North Dakota and parts of Texas, according to the report.

Pennsylvania’s water usage for shale development came in second only to Texas drillers, which used 45 billion gallons during that period.

The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, said water usage by the industry is too high, especially in areas in the West where water is scarce or communities are facing drought conditions.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has seen the EPA study but “has not conducted a detailed analysis of the data presented in the study to determine if it aligns with the data collected [and] reviewed by DEP,” said Amanda Witman, a department spokeswoman.

She said regional DEP staff have a process in place to check FracFocus to determine compliance with reporting requirements. Fluid additives and chemical information also are required to be reported to the DEP in a well completion report. 

According to a 2012 report from global consulting firm Accenture, while the amount of water used for shale development is large, it’s relatively lower compared to other sectors, such as agriculture. Pennsylvania’s annual total water consumption is about 3.6 trillion gallons, according to Accenture.

The EPA’s report shows that many drillers in Pennsylvania and Ohio are reusing water more often than their counterparts in the West. More than 70 percent of disclosures that identified water sources in Ohio and Pennsylvania identified some amount of reused and associated types of water in base fluids.

It generally takes about 5 million gallons to frack a well. Of that, about 10 percent to 20 percent of the fluids, also called flowback, return to the surface via the well, according to Penn State University’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. The flowback can be treated and reused. 

Chemical disclosure

While the industry has embraced the FracFocus site, the registry has faced criticism for being difficult to use. Environmental groups also have said the rules requiring disclosures are weak and make it easy for companies to claim some chemicals are trade secrets.

The majority of oil and gas drillers have kept confidential at least one ingredient used in their chemical cocktail to hydraulically fracture shale plays in the United States, according to the federal analysis.

The disclosure of the ingredients in fracking fluids has been exempted under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, an exception commonly called the “Halliburton Loophole.”

“At least one chemical was identified as confidential business information in 70 percent of the disclosures analyzed,” Tom Burke, the agency’s science adviser, wrote in an EPA blog. “Chemicals claimed as confidential business information accounted for some 11 percent of the chemical ingredient records in all.”

Of the chemicals disclosed — almost 700 unique ingredients — the most commonly reported additives were methanol, hydrochloric acid and hydrotreated light petroleum distillates on a national average. Pennsylvania mirrored the national trend, as those were also the top three common additives.  

Methanol is associated with corrosion inhibitors and surfactants. Additives that contain hydrochloric acid often used a scale control agent, for controlling iron and serving as a solvent. Hydrochloric acid is known to be commonly used to clean the well perforations.

Still, water is the primary component of fracking fluids.

Hydraulic fracturing fluids were generally found to contain 88 percent by mass water, 10 percent by mass quartz — a proppant — and less than 1 percent by mass additive ingredients, according to the EPA’s report.

Stephanie Ritenbaugh: sritenbaugh@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4910

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