Fracking Impact on Water: Drilling for the Truth

May 1, 2012
A report from the BGS aims to find out the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water supplies. This issue's leader focus on Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reveals why by-products from the fracking process should not be treated by wastewater facilities.

A report from the BGS aims to find out the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water supplies. This issue's leader focus on Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reveals why by-products from the fracking process should not be treated by wastewater facilities.

Tom FreybergChief Editor

Before you ask the answer is no: we are not trying to replicate TIME magazine with this edition's cover. Well, maybe a little. The reason for the celebrity mug-shot close up was due to the gravitas of this issue's leader focus. US environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is well known in North America, having helped clean up New York's water supply, not to mention bringing legal action against hundreds of polluting wastewater plants. So why should the rest of the global water sector really care? Because having campaigned successfully across the US, he's setting his sights on the rest of the world.

Shale gas production increased to 4.87 trillion cubic feet in the US in 2010

As you will read from the interview starting on page 12, when he's not spreading the message about nutrient recovery in Europe, Kennedy is focusing on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing. Known as fracking, the controversial process has rightly attracted its fare share of critics.

Once touted as an answer to the inevitable depletion of fossil fuels, it was thought that fracking gas rich shale beds could provide between 2000-5000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – enough to power the US for 25 years.

Furthermore, a recent report from Regeneris Consulting said shale gas production has increased in the country from 0.39 trillion cubic feet in 2000 through to 4.87 trillion cubic feet in 2010, equivalent to 23% of total US natural gas production.

Despite such potential there remains a genuine concern and fear among the public. Reports blaming the fracking process – injecting high pressured water to break apart gas bearing rock – for triggering mini-earthquakes haven't helped. Reported threats of methane escaping into local water supplies have also been well dramatised (if exaggerated) in scaremongering films such as Gasland. If you haven't seen this yet it's worth watching if only for the scene of a Denver resident setting fire to methane allegedly coming out of his tap water.

It's worth noting that since the film release the director has been criticised for failing to mention that methane was present in the area's aquifer long before the presence of fracking. A report from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists cited that "Methane-rich gas commonly occurs in groundwater in the Denver basin, southern Weld County, Colorado. The gas generally is in solution in the groundwater of the aquifer."

Even in the UK the question of whether fracking is exacerbating already concentrated methane supplies in groundwater is being explored.

In December the British Geological Survey (BGS) started a project to estimate methane in groundwater levels before shale gas development gets underway. The BGS said evidence from the US has shown very high methane concentrations in groundwater in areas of shale gas exploitation – directly related to shale gas operations.

"However, there is considerable uncertainty as to the source of methane, its migration pathways and transport processes," it said. "Crucially there is no baseline data before the onset of shale gas exploitation."

The BGS had better hurry with this report – operations are already underway in the UK's shale sector. UK firm Cuadrilla Resources is the first in the country to explore shale and already has three operational sites in Lancashire. Estimates suggest the Bowland sedimentary rock basin holds a total potential resource of 5.66 trillion m3 of gas, or more than 10 times existing UK natural gas reserves.

Yet it is the treatment of wastewater from the process that rightly concerns Kennedy. In an article for the Huffington Post he wrote: "Sewage plants in the Marcellus region have been accepting millions of gallons of gas industry water that carry significant levels of radioactive elements and other pollutants that they are incapable of treating."

He later told me: "Fracking water should not be going into wastewater treatment plants. Sewage treatment plants are not designed for this. What we are finding now is that fracking [wastewater] not only has all of these organic chemical compounds but some of the shale beds, particularly the Marcellus Shale, are radioactive. And wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove this level of radioactivity."

Kennedy will continue his journey to enforce the water sector and rid the US of its poor shale habits and reputation. Enforcing the use of best available technologies – something US regulators have not mandated, he said, will be crucial.

Furthermore, with heightened regulation likely to be introduced, opportunities for onsite desalination and filtration technologies will inevitably grow. One thing is certain: despite controversy, fracking is here to stay.

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