Appalachian Basin

Earthworks Report Chooses Old Data Over New Data

This week, the anti-oil and gas group Earthworks released a report on water use in the Marcellus region, exhausting nearly 90 pages to eventually arrive at the conclusion that hydraulic fracturing, in its view, uses too much water.

In so many ways, the paper is classic Earthworks. Like other extended press releases it has produced in the past, this report freely switches back and forth between various data points and time ranges – comparing apples to apples when it suits, but then mixing and matching its fruits and data sets either to avoid what they would consider a “bad fact” or to manufacture a separate narrative altogether.

To wit: The report primarily uses Pennsylvania data on wastewater that only spans from 2008 to 2011 to make claims about current trends. As you might expect, the fact that its numbers on wastewater recycling don’t go past 2011 is problematic, especially when you’re trying to evaluate current water use and wastewater trends. More current data are actually available, too – all the way up to June of this year – but because those data don’t lend themselves to Earthworks’ agenda, they are ignored.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the report’s fatal, though not unintentional, flaws:

Earthworks: “More than 50% of waste generated by Pennsylvania Marcellus wells is treated and discharged to surface waters—either through brine/industrial waste treatment plants or municipal sewage treatment plants” (p. ix).

FACT: Pennsylvania DEP data show that there was never 50+ percent of flowback, brine or produced water going to treatment facilities for surface discharge. Between 2008 and 2011, 26.2 percent of water was sent to permitted facilities for treatment and discharge. In 2012 and the first half of 2013, virtually no water whatsoever was sent to facilities for surface discharge.

The Earthworks report also claims that only 32 percent of the wastewater was recycled from 2008 to 2011.  But according to the actual data from DEP, 61.3 percent of water was recycled and reused. The data are available for 2012 and the first half of 2013, but the researchers pretend here that they don’t exist. In 2012, 86.1 percent of water was recycled and reused and, in the first half of 2013, a staggering 90 percent of flowback water was reused.

Earthworks: Horizontal Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania, on average, removed about 4.1 million gallons from the hydrologic cycle between 2009 and 2011 (Table 23). This totaled an estimated 17.8 billion gallons” (p. 58).

FACT: Here, as always, perspective is critical. Car washes consume over 600 billion gallons of water.  Numerous other activities including agriculture and irrigation use far more water than oil and gas production.  Even golf courses often consume more water.

According to experts at Penn State University, Pennsylvania uses about  12-20 million gallons of water per day for drilling and completing Marcellus Shale wells, which is based on approximately 1,500 wells completed in 2011. This “represents approximately .5-.8% of the 9.5 billion gallons of water the state uses daily.”

In Colorado, where water supplies can be constrained, hydraulic fracturing accounts for less than one-tenth of one percent of the state’s total water demand.  That footprint is even lower when you take into consideration the substantial increase in recycling.  While the report does concede that a “considerable amount of flowback fluid is now being reused and recycled” (p. 60), it doesn’t evaluate any recycling data after 2011. By leaving out that huge chunk of data, the researchers are able to suggest that recycling doesn’t account for much.

As we noted above, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Marcellus producers are now recycling around 90 percent of their flowback water, and overall reuse has been increasing considerably.

Earthworks: 94 percent of the water used “remains underground, permanently removed from the hydrologic cycle” (p. ix). 

FACT: Naturally, the report only looks at the water volume going into the well, while ignoring the fact that during the combustion process, natural gas – which is what’s produced from the wells in the Marcellus – actually creates water as it burns, which puts water back into the hydrological cycle.

Don’t believe us? Here’s how the U.S. Department of Energy puts it:

When one molecule of methane is burned, it produces two molecules of water vapor. When moles are converted to pound/mole, we find that every pound of methane fuel combusted produces 2.25 lb. of water vapor, which is about 12% of the total exhaust by weight.”

Researchers at Elmhurst College came to a similar conclusion:

“A simple combustion reaction is given for methane. The combustion of methane means that it is possible to burn it. Chemically, this combustion process consists of a reaction between methane and oxygen in the air. When this reaction takes place, the result is carbon dioxide (CO2), water (H2O), and a great deal of energy. The following reaction represents the combustion of methane:

CH4[g] + 2 O2[g] -> CO2[g] + 2 H2O[g] + energy

“One molecule of methane, (the [g] referred to above means it is gaseous form), combined with two oxygen molecules, react to form a carbon dioxide molecule, and two water molecules usually given off as steam or water vapor during the reaction and energy.”

Based on information from the Department of Energy, roughly 11 million gallons of water are added to the atmosphere from burning one billion cubic feet of natural gas.  That means one gas well will yield, on average, about 22 million gallons of water over 10 years (for more on that click here).  Compare that to the 4.1 million gallons the report claims went into the ground between 2009 and 2011, and the deliberate alarmism in the report has been completely debunked.

Earthworks: “In recent years, more than one-half of the waste generated by Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania is treated and discharged to surface waters—either through brine/industrial waste treatment plants or municipal sewage treatment plants” (p. 56).

FACT: This is objectively and demonstrably false. Pennsylvania DEP worked with producers in 2011 to end the shipment of Marcellus wastewater to these treatment facilities.  As the DEP’s unconventional shale well charts show, there is no percentage of wastewater allocated to such treatment facilities in 2012 or 2013.

You’ll notice the report says the data are from “recent years,” a crafty trick by the researchers that allowed them to avoid using data from the two most recent years.

Earthworks: “In Pennsylvania, Marcellus-specific water withdrawal data are not available outside of the Susquehanna River Basin … Withdrawal data are not available for individual wells … Given the holes in these datasets, it is likely that much more water is being withdrawn and more waste is being generated than is reported. In short, the true scale of water impacts can still only be estimated” (p. 60).

FACT:  Every bit of data on water use is publicly available. Producers in Pennsylvania, for example, are required to submit a well completion report, which must provide details on where the water was obtained and how much was used.

As the Pennsylvania DEP has also clearly stated, “generators of the waste need to keep records of the characterized waste (i.e. residual or hazardous) and where the waste went.”

The researchers gripe that “Pennsylvania completion reports are only available as paper copies” (p. 60), but that’s not a “hole in the dataset.” It’s a hole in the research that underpins this entire report.

Publicly available data for operations in the Marcellus show clearly that the various claims made throughout this latest “study” from Earthworks are no different from their previous swings and misses. But while they’re preoccupied with trying to invent a new reality, the actual reality in Pennsylvania is one to be celebrated.


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