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Water Risks From Fracking

Water Risks From Fracking

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An assessment of risks from fracking
An assessment of risks from fracking

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Published by: James "Chip" Northrup on Oct 19, 2012
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12/10/2012

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Risk Analysis, Vol. 32, No. 8, 2012
DOI: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2011.01757.x
Water Pollution Risk Associated with Natural GasExtraction from the Marcellus Shale
Daniel J. Rozell
and Sheldon J. Reaven
1
Inrecentyears,shalegasformationshavebecomeeconomicallyviablethroughtheuseofhor-izontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. These techniques carry potential environmental riskdue to their high water use and substantial risk for water pollution. Using probability boundsanalysis, we assessed the likelihood of water contamination from natural gas extraction inthe Marcellus Shale. Probability bounds analysis is well suited when data are sparse and pa-rameters highly uncertain. The study model identified five pathways of water contamination:transportation spills, well casing leaks, leaks through fractured rock, drilling site discharge,and wastewater disposal. Probability boxes were generated for each pathway. The potentialcontamination risk and epistemic uncertainty associated with hydraulic fracturing wastewaterdisposal was several orders of magnitude larger than the other pathways. Even in a best-casescenario, it was very likely that an individual well would release at least 200 m
3
of contam-inated fluids. Because the total number of wells in the Marcellus Shale region could rangeinto the tens of thousands, this substantial potential risk suggested that additional steps betaken to reduce the potential for contaminated fluid leaks. To reduce the considerable epis-temic uncertainty, more data should be collected on the ability of industrial and municipalwastewater treatment facilities to remove contaminants from used hydraulic fracturing fluid.
KEY WORDS:
Marcellus; probability bounds analysis; water
1. INTRODUCTION
Natural gas has become a preferred fossil fuelfrom an environmental and political perspective.
(1)
Compared to coal or oil, natural gas generates lessair pollution and greenhouse gases (although natu-ral gas production potentially can generate excessivemethane emissions that could offset the beneficial ef-fects of reduced CO
2
emissions
(2
,
3)
). In the UnitedStates, natural gas is a primarily domestically pro-duced fuel that creates jobs and does not increaseinternational trade deficits. Finding new supplies of natural gas to keep up with demand is a challenge.
1
Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY, USA.
Address correspondence to Daniel Rozell, Department of Tech-nology and Society, 347A Harriman Hall, Stony Brook Univer-sity, Stony Brook, NY 11794-3760, USA; drozell@ic.sunysb.edu.
Shale formations are a very promising source of nat-ural gas.
(4)
Shale is a sedimentary rock formed fromclay-rich mud in slow moving waters. The mud is aprecursor to natural gas and oil deposits owing to itshigh organic material content. By 2030, it is expectedthat half of all natural gas produced in the UnitedStates will come from unconventional sources, pri-marily shale formations.
(5)
The Marcellus Shale is thelargest of the newly developing shale gas deposits inthe United States.The Marcellus Shale is a thin, black forma-tion that covers approximately 124,000 km
2(6)
fromNew York to West Virginia at depths ranging fromground level to over 2,500 m (Fig. 1). As recentlyas 2002, the entire formation was estimated to hold53 billion m
3
of natural gas.
(7)
However, more recentestimates of recoverable natural gas are as large as13.8 trillion m
3
.
(8
,
9)
By using the advanced techniques
1382
0272-4332/12/0100-1382$22.00/1
C
2011 Society for Risk Analysis
 
Marcellus Shale Water Pollution Risk 1383
Fig. 1.
The Marcellus Shale formation in northeastern UnitedStates (modified from Milici and Swezey
(71)
).
of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, it nowseems to be economically feasible to extract naturalgas from the Marcellus Shale. Although these tech-niques are well established, they are not without po-tential risk.Hydraulicfracturinguseshigh-pressuresolutionsto create and prop open fractures in rock to enhancethe flow of oil, gas, or water. More than 750 dis-tinct chemicals, ranging from benign to toxic, havebeen used in hydraulic fracturing solutions.
(10
,
11)
Al-though these additives are less than 2% by vol-ume of the total fracturing fluid, hydraulic fractur-ing is a water-intensive process and at least 50 m
3
of chemicals would be used for a typical 10,000 m
3
hydraulic fracturing project.
(12)
Given the extensiveuse of hydraulic fracturing in recovering gas from theMarcellus Shale, large quantities of wastewater areexpected to be generated. In 2010, the U.S. Environ-mental Protection Agency started an investigation,scheduled for completion in 2012, of the potentialimpact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water.
(13)
Currently, hydraulic fracturing is exempt from reg-ulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act due toan exemption written in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
(14
,
15
,
16)
The public policy decision to pursue natural gasextraction from the Marcellus Shale involves severalpotential risks and benefits. The crucial unknownis the potential risk of water contamination fromhydraulic fracturing. This study generates boundedprobability ranges of water contamination risk for atypical natural gas well in the Marcellus Shale re-gion that is being developed using high-volume hy-draulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. The prob-ability bounds constitute the best case (smallestpossible contamination) and worst case (largest pos-sible contamination) for a single well. The distancebetween these bounds represents the amount of epis-temic uncertainty (lack of knowledge) regarding theprocess. The analysis is intended to inform the con-tentious public debate over shale gas extraction inthe region. Stakeholders and the public generally candecide if they are willing to accept potential watercontamination risks within the probability boundsand policymakers can decide if additional research isneeded to decrease the epistemic uncertainty beforea policy decision can be made.
2. DATA AND METHODS2.1. Analysis Method
The risk analysis was performed using probabil-ity bounds analysis (PBA) as developed by Yager,
(17)
Frank
et al 
.,
(18)
Williamson and Downs,
(19)
Fersonand Ginzburg,
(20)
and Ferson.
(21)
PBA is used to cre-ate probability boxes (p-boxes) that combine proba-bility distributions to represent aleatory uncertainty(natural variation) and interval arithmetic to rep-resent epistemic uncertainty (lack of knowledge).Karanki
et al 
.
(22)
provides a more complete overviewof interval analysis and PBA calculations with exam-ples. Because p-boxes emphasize the bounded rangeof a class of possible distributions that might be gen-erated by techniques such as second-order MonteCarlo or Bayesian sensitivity analysis, p-boxes areparticularly well suited to analyses where distribu-tion parameters are highly uncertain and correla-tions are unknown. The computationally simple andmathematically rigorous bounds generated by PBAare useful for analyses where tail risks and best-case/worst-case scenarios are of special interest.
(23)
For these reasons, PBA has been recently used ina variety of environmental risk assessments.
(24
27)
The method has been critiqued as a simple worst-case technique,
(28)
but risk managers can use PBAto determine if a desirable or undesirable outcomeresulting from a decision is even possible, whetherthe current state of knowledge is appropriate formaking a decision, or as a complement to other riskanalysis methods. For this study, the software RiskCalc 4.0
(21)
was used for all calculations.
 
1384 Rozell and Reaven
Fig. 2.
Model of water contamination pathways.
2.2. Model
There are many types of water contaminationthat can result from the shale gas extraction process,including: gases (e.g., methane and radon), liquids(e.g.,hydraulicfracturingfluids),andsolids(e.g.,drillcuttings). Because the hydraulic fracturing processgenerates primarily liquid waste products, this riskassessment only considers water contamination fromdrilling and hydraulic fracturing fluids. For the pur-pose of the assessment, the model defines contami-nation as anything that could potentially exceed thelimits of the U.S. Clean Water Act or Safe Drink-ing Water Act. Given recent public attention to thepotential environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing,drillers have been making the transition to hydraulicfracturing components that are considered largelybenign.
(29)
However, even a benign hydraulic frac-turing fluid is contaminated once it comes in contactwith the Marcellus Shale. Recovered hydraulic frac-turing fluid contains numerous materials from theMarcellus Shale formation in excess of drinking wa-ter standards, including: sodium, chloride, bromide,arsenic, barium, and naturally occurring radioactivematerials such as uranium, radium, and radon.
(30)
Thus, any drilling or fracturing fluid is suspect for thepurposes of this study.The proposed potential water contaminationpathways are shown in Fig. 2 for a hypothetical shalegas well drilled in the Marcellus Shale using high-volume hydraulic fracturing. The pathways followedthe life-cycle of the water used and were modeled asdescribed below.
 2.2.1. Transportation
Potential water contamination due to tankertruck spills to and from the well site was modeled as:
CV 
T
=
(1
+
R
)
×
C
×
S
×
L
S
,
(1)where
CV 
T
is the contaminant volume spilled fromtransportation in m
3
per well,
is the drilling andfracturing fluid on site in m
3
,
R
is the portion of drilling and fracturing fluid returned from the well,
C
is the number of hazmat truck crashes in theUnited States each year,
S
is the total number of hazmat shipments in the United States each year,
S
is the portion of hazmat tankers that spill in crashes,and
L
is the portion of a tanker truck load thatwould spill in a crash.
 2.2.2. Well Casing Failure
A failure in a well casing that would cause a leakof fluids to the surrounding groundwater was mod-eled as:
CV 
W
=
WFail
×
WLeak
×
,
(2)where
CV 
W
is the contaminant volume leaked fromthe well casing inm
3
per well,
WFail
isthe probabilitythat a Marcellus Shale gas well fails,
WLeak
is portionof the injected fluids that leak from the well, and
isthe drilling and fracturing fluid on site in m
3
.
 2.2.3. Contaminant Migration Through Fractures
The potential for hydraulic fracturing fluid totravel through fractures into overlying aquifers wasmodeled as:
CV 
F
=
FL
×
Fluid
×
(1
R
)
,
(3)where
CV 
F
is the contaminant volume leakedthrough fractures in m
3
per well,
FL
is the prob-ability that well fractures will leak to an overlyingaquifer,
Fluid
is the portion of fluids leaked throughfractures,
is the drilling and fracturing fluid on sitein m
3
, and
R
is the portion of the fracturing fluidreturned from the well.
 2.2.4. Drilling Site Surface Contamination
The potential for water contamination fromdrilling site spills due to improper handling or leaksfrom storage tanks and retention ponds was modeledas:
CV 
DS
=
D
×
FD
×
×
R
,
(4)where
CV 
DS
isthecontaminant volumedischargedatthe drilling site in m
3
per well,
D
is the probabilitythat the drilling site will experience some discharge,
FD
is the portion of drilling site fluids discharged,
is the drilling and fracturing fluid on site in m
3
, and

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