Appalachian Basin

New Duke Study Confirms Shale Gas Water Efficiency

A recent Duke University study shows that shale development produces less wastewater than “conventional” oil and gas development while producing roughly thirty times the amount of natural gas from a single well.  That’s good news for our energy future, our economy and environment.

A new study released by Duke University this month finds that on a per-unit basis, the development of natural gas from shale formations actually produces less wastewater than so-called “conventional” wells. That’s certainly good news, especially considering the fact that the U.S. EPA, numerous experts, and many public officials (including President Obama himself) have all stressed the need to increase production of natural gas in the United States.

From the report (subs. req’d):

“For the Marcellus shale, by far the largest shale gas resource in the US, we quantify gas and wastewater production using data from 2,189 wells located throughout Pennsylvania. Contrary to current perceptions, Marcellus wells produce significantly less wastewater per unit gas recovered (~35%) compared to conventional natural gas wells.” (emphasis added, p. 2)

One of the most common talking points used by the other side is that hydraulic fracturing requires too much water, and that treating or disposing of wastewater poses too many risks to justify continued development. But as we can see, the technological advancements that have allowed us to access oil and natural gas trapped in shale and other tight reservoirs across the country have also come with increased efficiencies. That means more energy with less impact, which is good news for consumers and the environment.

Of course, the study also highlights a potential concern, albeit one that is being addressed far more comprehensively than the authors care to admit: the total volume of produced water coming from shale wells.

As development has increased in the Marcellus, a lot of other things have increased too: jobs, economic opportunity, and even the quality of the air folks are breathing. And, as one would expect, development has also brought with it an increased need to process and even recycle wastewater. The authors state that growing volumes of wastewater are “challenging industry to identify and develop alternative disposal methods” beyond underground injection.

Luckily, that’s a challenge the industry has met head on – and well before this Duke/Kent State study was ever released. Last summer’s headline said it all: “Marcellus flowback recycling reaches 90 percent in SWPA [Southwest Pennsylvania].” Last spring, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette similarly observed: “Gas drillers recycling more water, using fewer chemicals.”


Of course, the researchers point out the difference between flowback (which comes out of a well after the fracturing process) and produced water, or brine, which is produced from the well over time. But the researchers also opined that “most estimates focus on flowback and do not specifically consider drilling and brine wastewater…likely underestimating the total wastewater volume generated.”

But as the Pittsburgh Business Times reported back in August: “About 65 percent of brine from this region [Southwest Pennsylvania] was reused.” PBT even has a handy searchable tool of state data that includes drilling fluid, produced fluid, flowback, and many other categories of wastewater. Also worth mentioning is that, back in 2010, then-Governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell (D) said: “The technology in treating [produced] water is improving rapidly,” a reflection of real-world industry advancements in the Marcellus.

Unfortunately, the decision to leave out these details leaves readers with the impression that the industry is essentially unaware of the issues related to wastewater treatment, reuse, and disposal. In that respect, the researchers make a pretty significant error of omission, although the good news is that reality paints a much more reassuring picture than what was portrayed in the report. (Be sure also to check out for more facts about water usage, disposal, and recycling.)

But hey, if you are willing to cite the Howarth study as credible science – as the researchers for this study do (p. 3) – then you’re probably going to make at least a few errors when discussing responsible development. Thankfully, though, on the most important point – shale’s relative efficiency when it comes to water usage – these guys (despite their best intentions) appear to have gotten it right.

  • Victor Furman
    Posted at 11:51h, 23 January Reply

    Although it sounds good Duke lost all my respect when they did their first study and slanted it for a Park foundation paycheck.

  • Kim Feil
    Posted at 23:14h, 23 January Reply

    There is less water used when natural gas is used at power plants BUT that doesn’t count on the water it takes to mine ngatural gas…better to go wind and solar in long run….

    • observer
      Posted at 10:39h, 24 January Reply

      if wind were to power up the world NYRAD has enough in storage to keep the turbines spinning on the calmest of days

    • NY4GAS
      Posted at 00:31h, 25 January Reply

      Kim, you obviously know little about wind, solar, or natural gas or at least how they compare with each other. Are you at all aware of the fact that burning natural gas produces more water than was used to harvest the gas? are you aware of the water table disturbances created by wind turbine bases that are 40’x40’x40′ solid concrete? are you aware of the wastewater as a result of cleaning solar panels and mirrors to maintain very low efficiencies? I could go on and on, but i know the answers – NO! Germany is currently building 23 new COAL plants as the 10 year wind experiment has been pathetic producing 16% load factors and costing them a fortune. clueless!

  • fred jones
    Posted at 08:48h, 24 January Reply

    JD, reading the links you provided, I’m not sure you want to tout the study or the “headline” that “said it all”. When one actually reads the links in full you provided, the cumulative affect and the proposed upward rig counts, make your argument moot to a large degree (their findings not mine). Existing and proposed HVHF well count alone will surpass the conventional well numbers by leaps and bounds, so why the water usage per well might be less, the cumulative effect will negate the benefits over conventional wells water use. I thought you guys at EID poo-pooed Duke as a credible source anyway?

    • JD Krohn
      Posted at 12:46h, 24 January Reply

      Hi Fred:

      Thanks so much for your comment! It’s a good one. The assumption that an increased rig count will lead to overwhelming quantities of waste that can’t be managed is nestled on an unstable platform. Reason being, is it assumes that technology never changes but, of course, it does. One area where technology has changed is the use of water recycling. In the Marcellus, the natural gas industry is now recycling over 70% of its water waste industry-wide. Many of the larger operators are at 100% recycling and this trend will only increase. More recycling means less water is used and also means less water needs to be disposed of. Also, there are some technologies that can now treat HF fluids and produce a final product near the quality of distilled water. As for your point on Duke, we sure did. Their methane study had so many holes it looked like a coat you’d pull out of a moth infested closet. That said, those researchers appear to be taking a more moderate tone nowadays, but as this conversation notes, they still don’t have a complete understanding of the natural gas industry and its practices.

      • fred jones
        Posted at 08:52h, 25 January Reply

        I understand that the technology will advance JD…….after all, that’s how we now can economically and efficiently tap tight shale formations that was not feasible a decade ago….and is the bone of contention that EID must vigorously defend. Recycling has its draw backs too……..with some companies not using it, as it messes up their frac water “formulas” and eventually it becomes too saline. Once they figure out a way to actually take all the contaminants out, then you’ll see a significant increase in recycling. I would be interested in a link to your claim “Also, there are some technologies that can now treat HF fluids and produce a final product near the quality of distilled water.”

        I provided the numbers in a previous post on what % companies in Texas are using recycling…….and the numbers aren’t quite as high as EID touts.

        • JD Krohn
          Posted at 09:33h, 25 January Reply

          I’m going to go ahead and let someone from one of the companies respond to most of your thoughts here Fred. That said, it appears from your comments that you might not have the most up to date knowledge on recycling practices being used by the industry. Also, you asked for a link. Here is one, there are many more. Actually, there are videos on YouTube that outline the entire process.

          • fred jones
            Posted at 10:45h, 25 January

            Thanks JD……visited the site. Just wondering how many systems they have set up and how many drillers are using their system and the cost. My thoughts were based in a post I submitted to JD last week. Here is that post and the links where I got the info:

            Here is a few points from a Oct 2012 Texas piece on re-cycling frac water and some interesting numbers.

            “We’ve had some clients experiment with different stages,” he continued, with some using as much as 55 percent recycled water. He estimated the average is 22 percent recycled water used in his clients’ wells.
            “Now they have to rethink their whole program,” he said. “It requires a lot of research and has slowed progress as operators review the best path forward.” Some operators are aggressively adopting recycling programs while others are proceeding with more caution. “It’s a huge risk; you can spend millions and cause problems if you use too much recycled water.”
            In some cases, he said, the salts contained in the water can be incompatible with additives. His company’s chemical-free technology can eliminate some of those issues, he added.

   (Oct 2012)

          • fred jones
            Posted at 10:48h, 25 January

            Sorry JD……that was Joe I posted to……..I get you guys mixed up 😉

  • Marcellus & Utica Shale Story Links: Thu, Jan 24, 2013 | Marcellus Drilling News
    Posted at 10:33h, 24 January Reply

    […] New Duke Study Confirms Shale Gas Water Efficiency Energy in Depth – NMI A recent Duke University study shows that shale development produces less wastewater than “conventional” oil and gas development while producing roughly thirty times the amount of natural gas from a single well.  That’s good news for our energy future, our economy and environment. […]

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