Shale Gas Well Drilling and Wastewater Treatment Impacts on Surface Water Quality in Pennsylvania

by Shannon Julius

Shale gas development can affect surface water quality by means of runoff from well construction and discharge from wastewater treatment facilities. Olmstead et al. (2013) conducted a large-scale statistical study of the extent to which these two activities affect surface water quality downstream. This study is different than most current literature related to the regional water impacts of shale gas development in that it focuses on impacts to surface water bodies as opposed to groundwater bodies. Researchers consulted online databases to retrieve locations of shale gas wells and wastewater treatment facilities within Pennsylvania. These were spatially related to downstream water quality monitors using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Concentrations of chloride (Cl–) and total suspended solids (TSS) were used as indicators of water quality because both are associated with shale gas development and are measured by water quality monitors. Shale gas wastewater typically has a high concentration of Cl–, which can directly damage aquatic ecosystems and is not easily removed once dissolved in water. TSS, which harm water quality by increasing temperature and reducing clarity, can potentially come from the construction of well pads, pipelines, and roads associated with well drilling, especially when precipitation creates sediment runoff. Results of the study suggest that wastewater treatment facilities are responsible for raised concentrations of Cl– downstream and that the presence of gas wells are correlated with raised concentrations of TSS downstream. Continue reading

Unexpectedly High Methane Concentrations over Shale Gas Fields

by Emil Morhardt

Methane, the main constituent of natural gas (both that from gas wells and from farm operations) is a powerful greenhouse gas, around 30 times more potent than CO2 over the hundred years after it is emitted. It is on the rise, and the culprit might be shale gas development, which utilizes hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Caulton et al. (2014) used an airplane to sample the air above a 2,800-square-kilometer area of the Marcellus shale formation gas fields in Pennsylvania. It was rich in methane, with between 2 and 15 grams heading skyward over each square kilometer every second, the upper limit of which is quite a lot higher than the 5 grams estimated from what was previously known about wellhead methane emissions; the authors suspected that the transient nature of gas leakage might be the reason, making very difficult to come up with an average over time from ground-level measurements. Since they were in an airplane, however, they could circle around areas of high concentrations and pinpoint the source. It turns out that…

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