Appalachian Basin

Assertions About Hydraulic Fracturing Water Trains Strictly HO Scale

Bill Huston’s attempt to characterize the amount of water that will be used to hydraulically fracture natural gas wells in New York State as enormous turns out to be a highly flawed “HO Scale” argument that fails on three tracks.  

Our errant friend Bill Huston has been at it again on several fronts and we must confess being amused by one his recent attempts to create hysteria over water use connected with hydraulic fracturing.  He does so in this blog post, where he uses trains to make a point about the amount of water employed to conduct fracturing operations in Pennsylvania, indicating they had already required enough water to fill a train of tank cars 3,000 miles long.  He then goes off on a tear to suggest hydraulic fracturing in New York will use up the equivalent of Cayuga Lake or something.

There are three problems with Bill’s data.  First, he suggests New York State will receive 70,000 gas wells, which is absurd.  That’s 25% more than the highest development scenario analyzed with respect to horizontal wells in New York’s SGEIS economic impact study.  Moreover, if we assume development will be mostly limited to Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga Counties (developable areas adjoining would add little acreage), which account for 3,952 square miles of land, that would mean 18 wells per square mile.  That’s one per 36 acres, before allowing for areas that cannot be developed.  These are, of course, substantial and even within development units, well density is more like one per 80-160 acres.  So, Bill’s number is not only inflated; it’s out of this world, way out.

Bill also tells a whopper to reach his water usage estimates.  His calculation assumes “5 fracks/well,” something for which there is no basis whatsoever.  Huston used “3 fracks/well” in a previous post, which is the first clue the source for these estimates is less than scientific.  It is an urban myth of sorts, retold so many times by our opponents they really believe it, but that doesn’t make it so, of course.  Refracturing has largely been limited to older vertical wells and there is no indication it is happening to any significant extent or is even economically viable for horizontal wells.  Could it happen?  Sure, but it’s all speculative, like so much of what serves as argument on the other side.

The biggest problem for Bill’s analysis, though, is simply the fact natural gas adds water to the hydrologic system. We have discussed this before and noted the combustion of natural gas yields water, much more water than is used in its production.  We included this from the Energy Information Administration:

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.

Some simple arithmetic tells us roughly 11 million gallons of water is added to the atmosphere from burning one billion cubic feet natural gas.  Some 2,879 producing Marcellus Shale wells in Pennsylvania generated 895 billion cubic feet of natural gas last year or an average of 310,872,000 cubic feet of gas per well.  That’s 3,420,000 gallons of water per well and that’s just one year’s production.  No one knows what the lifetime production of a typical Marcellus Shale well is yet, but here’s what the Scranton Times reported in 2011:

One of the most active gas operators in the northeast, Chesapeake Energy, upgraded its predictions for the performance of its Marcellus Shale wells from an average expected ultimate recovery of 3.75 billion cubic feet to 5.3 billion cubic feet once the company began to see production from its wells – an average that is now being proven by the production of all companies in the state’s most active Marcellus county, Dr. Engelder said.

This suggests a typical Marcellus Shale well will produce about 4 billion cubic feet of gas over its lifetime without any refracturing if that should even become a regular practice.  Let’s, for the sake of argument, assume this is wildly optimistic (more recent data collected by Engelder indicates its not) and cut it by half to 2 billion cubic feet per day.  Well, that means the typical natural gas well will, over its lifetime, produce enough gas that, when combusted, will add 22 million gallons of water to the hydrologic cycle.  That’s roughly four times the amount of water required to hydraulically fracture the well, meaning ever well generates 16.5 million net gallons of water (not including water recovered from flowback and recycled).

Now, let’s put this in perspective, Huston style.  Bill says a tanker car holds about 24,000 gallons of water.  It varies and the average is probably more than that, but let’s stick with his formula.  Let’s also halve the number of wells he suggests could be developed in New York to 35,000.  It’s actually much less than that, but, once again, let’s trust Bill for now.  This would mean New York State natural gas activity involving hydraulic fracturing over the next 30 years or so could be expected to produce a net contribution of  577,500,000,000 gallons of water to the hydrologic cycle.  That’s 24,062,500 railroad tank cars or a water train of over 273,000 miles in length, making Bill’s trains look like Tyco HO scale model railroad versions.

HO Scale Model Railroad

Nonetheless, HO scale, as a description of our natural gas opponents, seems very fitting, doesn’t it?  It is, after all, all playtime with them, all the time.

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