Impressions from the PA gas drilling summit (Dec 10th – 11th, 2008)

A contingent from Cornell attended the PA gas summit organized by Penn State University from Dec 10 – 11.  The powerpoint presentations from the summit are now available online.  Since the development of the Marcellus is more advanced in PA, my objective for attending the summit was to see what lessons could be drawn from the PA experience for protecting New York’s water resources.

DEP (PA equivalent of NYS DEC) assistant council (Scott Perry) stated that wastewater disposal is now the most pressing water issue for the development of the Marcellus in Pennsylvania, and I think the same will be true in New York/ The SRBC has developed a robust methodology for regulating water withdrawls while protecting other uses and ecosystem services. They are also promoting creative solutions such as water ‘banking’ during high flow periods, re-use of fracing waters, and the use of water resources that are already contaminated (e.g. acid mine drainage). Activities in DRBC deserve further scrutiny, but I believe that they are following the lead of SRBC. A big issue for New York pertains to the portions of the Marcellus play that fall beyond these two basins. At present, the DEC is not equipped to manage water withdrawls with the same competency as the river basin commissions.

PA has adopted a ‘presumption of responsibility’ standard to ensure that drilling companies restore or replace water supplies that suffer an impairment of quality or quantity within six months of any drilling activity. The DEP has also adopted a progressive approach to storm water pollution prevention that requires the same BMP’s and reporting standards as other development activities.

On a promising note, industry representatives now claim that most wells in the Marcellus will be not be hydraulically-fractured multiple times as was the case in the Barnett Shale. Whether or not this is just technological optimism or is grounded in experience is too early to say. With respect to volumes, experience in PA suggests that most of the areas of the Marcellus are ‘dry’ and all the produced water is actually frac water that has interacted with the salts and other constituents of the formation.

Specific points that emerged from the presentations:

  • Municipal waste water treatment (MWWT) facilities are not equipped to handle the type and concentration ranges of pollutants in ‘frac’ and produced water. The chemical signature of produced water varies significantly from E to W and N to S in the Marcellus (e.g. high Barium concentrations in eastern portion of play). High TDS concentrations in wastewater can also significantly disrupt biological processes that underlie almost all MWWT processing. PA has now capped treatment of gas drilling wasterwater at 1% of total annual flows to MWWT. Even so, many facilities do not have any excess treatment capacity. By itself, MWWT is not a long-term solution (acts only as a dilution mechanism) and there is limited scope in the near-term to accommodate more in-flows. With pre-treatment (either on-site or at specialized facilities), this would alleviate some concern with respect to metals, NORMs, etc. Not clear what component of the brines would be removed with some of these options.
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  • Specialized treatment facilities (e.g. Hart Resource Technologies, HRT) appear well-equipped to separate out pollutants such as metals, benzene, and NORMs from the fracing fluid and produced water. Sludges created in this process are immobilized (i.e. resistant to acid precipitation and leaching) and then land filled. However, the existing specialized facilities in Pennsylvania are operating at or near capacity and although new facilities have been proposed, none have been permitted yet by DEP. In the near and mid-term, it is extremely unlikely that facilities in PA with be able to accommodate any wastewaters from New York State.
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  • Even with advanced processing in specialized facilities, the end products of treatment must be disposed. This is especially problematic with respect to TDS (Total Dissolved Solids). HRT maintains that the salt they produce at their specialized treatment facilities is nearly food grade. But what do you do with it after it’s produced? Demand and prices for salt are extremely low. Moreover, it already appears that water quality is being significantly impaired in the Monongahela River from TDS discharges resulting from Marcellus drilling. Many water bodies are at their assimilative capacity with respect to TDS and cannot accommodate additional loadings (e.g. West Branch of the Susquehanna).
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  • Due to geology and other factors, scope for disposal with deep injection wells is extremely limited. At present, there are only 7 of these wells in PA and they only accept very small volumes for disposal.
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  • HRT comments that technologies are really driven by volumes involved, and this play will require a different set of infrastructure than is currently in place.
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A key take-home message for me was that although PA is much further along than NYS in developing the Marcellus and an effective regulatory framework, they are still grappling with the issue of cumulative impacts and are already experiencing negative impacts (e.g. Monongahela River) as a consequence.

-Andrew McDonald, WRI Research Coordinator

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One Response to Impressions from the PA gas drilling summit (Dec 10th – 11th, 2008)

  1. jeffrey.jacquet says:

    On the dry-well (little produced water) issue, I seem to remember somebody saying that there is a certain formation, or “line in the sand” so to speak where wells to one side will be dry, while wells on the other side will have produced water. The idea seemed to be that most wells would lie on the dry side. It would be interesting to see where this line is in comparison to NY and everything else.

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