Review

Impact of Shale Gas Development on Regional Water Quality

Science  17 May 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6134, pp.
DOI: 10.1126/science.1235009

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Structured Abstract

Background

Natural gas has recently emerged as a relatively clean energy source that offers the opportunity for a number of regions around the world to reduce their reliance on energy imports. It can also serve as a transition fuel that will allow for the shift from coal to renewable energy resources while helping to reduce the emissions of CO2, criteria pollutants, and mercury by the power sector. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing make the extraction of tightly bound natural gas from shale formations economically feasible. These technologies are not free from environmental risks, however, especially those related to regional water quality, such as gas migration, contaminant transport through induced and natural fractures, wastewater discharge, and accidental spills. The focus of this Review is on the current understanding of these environmental issues.

Embedded Image

Drilling multiple horizontal wells from a single well pad allows access to as much as 1 square mile of shale that is located more than a mile below. [Image courtesy of Range Resources Appalachia]

Advances

The most common problem with well construction is a faulty seal that is emplaced to prevent gas migration into shallow groundwater. The incidence rate of seal problems in unconventional gas wells is relatively low (1 to 3%), but there is a substantial controversy whether the methane detected in private groundwater wells in the area where drilling for unconventional gas is ongoing was caused by well drilling or natural processes. It is difficult to resolve this issue because many areas have long had sources of methane unrelated to hydraulic fracturing, and pre-drilling baseline data are often unavailable.

Water management for unconventional shale gas extraction is one of the key issues that will dominate environmental debate surrounding the gas industry. Reuse of produced water for hydraulic fracturing is currently addressing the concerns regarding the vast quantities of contaminants that are brought to the surface. As these well fields mature and the opportunities for wastewater reuse diminish, the need to find alternative management strategies for this wastewater will likely intensify.

Outlook

Improved understanding of the fate and transport of contaminants of concern and increased long-term monitoring and data dissemination will help effectively manage water-quality risks associated with unconventional gas industry today and in the future. Confidentiality requirements dictated by legal investigations combined with the expedited rate of development and the limited funding for research are major impediments to peer-reviewed research into environmental impacts. Now is the time to work on these environmental issues to avoid an adverse environmental legacy similar to that from abandoned coal mine discharges in Pennsylvania.

Fracturing Hydrology?

Hydraulic fracturing, widely known as "fracking," is a relatively inexpensive way to tap into what were previously inaccessible natural gas resources. Vidic et al. (p. 826) review the current status of shale gas development and discuss the possible threats to water resources. In one of the hotbeds of fracking activity, the Marcellus Shale in the eastern United States, there is little evidence that additives have directly entered groundwater supplies, but the risk remains. Ensuring access to monitoring data is an important first step toward addressing any public and environmental health concerns.

Abstract

Unconventional natural gas resources offer an opportunity to access a relatively clean fossil fuel that could potentially lead to energy independence for some countries. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing make the extraction of tightly bound natural gas from shale formations economically feasible. These technologies are not free from environmental risks, however, especially those related to regional water quality, such as gas migration, contaminant transport through induced and natural fractures, wastewater discharge, and accidental spills. We review the current understanding of environmental issues associated with unconventional gas extraction. Improved understanding of the fate and transport of contaminants of concern and increased long-term monitoring and data dissemination will help manage these water-quality risks today and in the future.

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