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Earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 and higher that struck Oklahoma in 2016. Photo credit: Earthquakes.ok.gov

Oklahoma Remains Nation's Human-Induced Earthquake Hotspot

Despite a crackdown on wastewater injection volumes, Oklahoma has once again been named the state with the highest risk of human-induced earthquakes, according to new seismicity maps released Wednesday by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Damage to buildings in Cushing, Oklahoma from a 5.0-magnitude earthquake on November 6, 2016. Dolan Paris, USGS

Geologists believe that these man-made quakes are triggered by wastewater from oil and gas operations being injected into deep underground wells. These fluids can cause pressure changes to faults and makes them more likely to move.

This process has been blamed for the Sooner State's alarming rise in seismic activity. Between 1980 and 2000, Oklahoma averaged only two earthquakes greater than or equal to magnitude 2.7—the level at which ground shaking can be felt—per year.

But in 2014, the numbers jumped to about 2,500 in 2014, 4,000 in 2015 and 2,500 in 2016.

The USGS said that the decline in 2016 quakes could be due to injection restrictions implemented by the state officials. According to Bloomberg, "State regulators aiming to curb the tremors have imposed new production rules cutting disposal volumes by about 800,000 barrels a day and limiting potential for future disposal by 2 million barrels a day."

However, even if there were fewer tremors last year, Oklahoma felt more 4.0+ quakes in 2016 than in any other year. Of the earthquakes last year, 21 were greater than magnitude 4.0 and three were greater than magnitude 5.0.

Some of the biggest quakes include a 5.0-magnitude temblor that struck Cushing, one of the largest oil hubs in the world, on Nov. 6. And the largest quake ever recorded in the state was a 5.8 that hit near Pawnee on Sept. 3.

Even with a decrease in wastewater injection volumes, the USGS determined that the 3.5 million people who live and work in areas of the central and eastern U.S. (CEUS) face significant potential for damaging shaking from induced seismicity in 2017. The majority of this population live in Oklahoma and southern Kansas.

Remarkably, man-made temblors have put this area's earthquake risk on par with another notoriously earthquake-prone state.

"The forecasted chance of damaging ground shaking in central Oklahoma is similar to that of natural earthquakes in high-hazard areas of California," the USGS said.

The researchers also found that an additional half million people in the CEUS face a significant chance of damage from natural earthquakes in 2017, bringing the total number of people at high risk from both natural and human-induced earthquakes to about four million.

"The good news is that the overall seismic hazard for this year is lower than in the 2016 forecast, but despite this decrease, there is still a significant likelihood for damaging ground shaking in the CEUS in the year ahead," said Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project, in a statement.

"The forecast for induced and natural earthquakes in 2017 is hundreds of times higher than before induced seismicity rates rapidly increased around 2008," said Petersen. "Millions still face a significant chance of experiencing damaging earthquakes, and this could increase or decrease with industry practices, which are difficult to anticipate."

The USGS also identified the Colorado/New Mexico area known as the Raton Basin as another high hazard area in 2017.

"Most of the damage we forecast will be cracking of plaster or unreinforced masonry. However, stronger ground shaking could also occur in some areas, which could cause more significant damage," Petersen said.

In a statement published in the Los Angeles Times, Oklahoma Geological Survey's director Jeremy Boak said that both regulatory actions as well as falling petroleum prices "should result in further declines in the seismicity rate and limit future widespread seismic activity."

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates oil and gas wells in the state, credited disposal rules for the drop in quakes, telling Bloomberg that it "serves to confirm the validity of the work done in Oklahoma to reduce earthquake risk, as well as the need for the effort to continue."

Katie Brown, a spokeswoman with a research and education program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told the Los Angeles Times that the reduced number of earthquakes "is a clear sign that the collaborative efforts between industry, scientists and regulators are working."

Fracking

1,650 Illegal Oil Wells Still Polluting California Aquifers

Gov. Jerry Brown's oil regulators failed to meet their own deadline Wednesday for shutting down 1,650 oil industry injection wells that are violating water-protection laws by dumping toxic fluid into protected California aquifers.

"Governor Brown's administration has decided not to protect our water from illegal contamination by the oil industry," said Hollin Kretzmann of the Center for Biological Diversity. "By failing to meet their own lax deadline for shutting down these polluting wells, state oil regulators have given Californians another reason not to trust a word they say."

All illegal oil-industry injection activities were supposed to be halted by Feb. 15, according to a promise made two years ago by California's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. The state could be imposing fines of up to $25,000 a day for every well that continues to operate in a protected aquifer.

But as of Wednesday, the state has shut just a portion of wells operating in aquifers that should be protected by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. State officials quietly announced the indefinite delay in enforcing the law in mid-January.

In March of 2015, state officials testifying before the California senate pledged to stick to the February deadline and other aspects of a schedule approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). John Laird, the state's Secretary of Natural Resources, told senators that the Brown administration was "fully committed to meeting these deadlines."

The promises came in the wake of admissions by the Brown administration that state regulators had let oil companies operate thousands of injection wells that have been dumping wastewater into scores of protected underground water supplies in Monterey, Ventura, Kern and other counties (see interactive map).

But instead of halting most of the illegal injections, state officials have moved forward with plans to exempt as many as 40 of these aquifers from water-protection laws. If these "aquifer exemption" applications are approved by the EPA, the oil industry would be allowed to make permanent use of these water supplies for the disposal of contaminated waste fluid.

"The Brown administration will go down in history for this failure to enforce the law and safeguard our water from oil industry pollution," Kretzmann said. "It's a shocking abdication of the governor's most fundamental duty to the people and environment of this state."

Fracking

Erin Brockovich Meets With Oklahoma Residents Impacted by Human-Induced Earthquakes

As Pawnee, Oklahoma still picks up the pieces from September's record-breaking earthquake, environmental and consumer advocate Erin Brockovich and lawyers from Weitz & Luxenberg have traveled to the Sooner State to speak with residents about the alarming number of induced earthquakes affecting the area.

Meetings were held in Pawnee and Cushing on Thursday. The legal team also made plans to stop in Stillwater.

"The communities definitely [are] feeling frustrated and voiceless and helpless and not sure where to turn" Brockovich told KOCO 5 News at the Pawnee meeting.

For most, as News 9 pointed out, insurance companies are not covering repairs from the 5.8-magnitude earthquake in Pawnee.

The Midwestern state has seen a shocking increase in magnitude-3 or larger earthquakes in recent years. Scientists have linked the seismic activity to the injection of large volumes of wastewater from oil and natural gas production into underground disposal wells. Fracking itself can cause earthquakes, although they are usually smaller and less frequently felt than earthquakes produced from underground injection.

The phenomenon has been dubbed as "man-made" or induced earthquakes as they are triggered by human activities as opposed to "natural" seismicity.

In a Facebook post describing her visit to Oklahoma, Brockovich wrote:

"In 2009, Oklahoma recorded a maximum of 195 earthquakes in any given year, but by 2014, seismologists recorded over 5,000 earthquakes. The increase in earthquakes has been linked to the growing volume of wastewater injected deep into the ground by companies with fracking operations. The total volume of wastewater injected into ground wells has grown from 2 billion barrels in 2009 to over 12 billion barrels in 2014. This must stop!"

State regulators have implemented regulations to reduce the frequency of induced earthquakes, including the closing of wells and a disposal volume reduction plan.

This year, disposal well operators placed about 23 percent less wastewater into geological formations within the earthquake zone compared to the previous year, the Associated Press reported. In all, Oklahoma Geological Survey data determined there were 623 quakes of 3.0 or greater in 2016, a 31 percent reduction from 2015.

At Thursday's meeting in Cushing—the oil hub town that saw a 5.0 quake in November—Brockovich acknowledged that many Oklahomans rely on the oil and natural gas industry for jobs. At the same time, she believes that residents affected by the earthquakes need protection.

"We want you to have jobs. We understand that," Brockovich said, according to Tusla World. "But we also understand homes have been damaged. People are fearful. They don't know who to trust."

She added that the oil and gas industry should "do what's right by your health and safety."

"This isn't a (political) party issue," Brockovich said. "This is a right or wrong."

New York-based firm Weitz & Luxenberg recently filed two class-action suits against oil and gas companies in response to severe damage caused by the powerful earthquakes in Cushing and Pawnee.

"Oklahomans continue to be put at risk by human-induced earthquakes, with hundreds of tremors—including the biggest in state history—rattling the area since my first town hall here last year," Brockovich, a Weitz & Luxenberg consultant, said in a statement provided to EcoWatch. "This problem is clearly not going away, and it is critical that we show the businesses behind these quakes that we aren't going away either."

Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association, responded to Brockovich's appearance in a statement to Tulsa World.

"I expect what Ms. Brockovich will find on her business trip from California is that over the past year seismic events in Oklahoma have declined by 31 percent and that Oklahoma's oil and natural gas industry has been quick to comply with state regulators' directives on disposal well operations," Warmington said. "Industry has also supplied its own data and millions of dollars in proprietary research to help all concerned parties better understand our state's geology and fault lines."

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Explosion Rocks Fracking Well in West Virginia

AlterNet

By Tara Lohan

An explosion at a nearby gas drilling well pad jostled John Pitcock awake around 4 a.m. Sunday morning.

The view from the Pitcocks' yard of the well flaring gas from the well pad where the explosion occurred on July 7. Photo credit: Tara Lohan/ Meghan Nesbit

Pitcock and his wife Diane moved with their sons from the Baltimore, MD, area to rural New Milton, WV, in Doddridge County nearly a decade ago to enjoy a quiet country life.

But when drilling companies began tapping the underlying Marcellus Shale in the area for natural gas reserves using high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—their peaceful country life disappeared. 

The Pitcocks have been plagued by noise, lights, dust, emissions and truck traffic after a neighbor leased his land to a drilling company, which has erected several well pads on the land adjacent to their property. Over the last year trees have been clear cut, miles of roads built through their rural neighborhood, and drilling has begun. On Friday, July 5, I visited their home and witnessed gas being flared from a well through the night—the light illuminated their front yard from a ridge top about 2,000 feet away. 

John Pitcock reported that the well continued to flare through the next day and night and another well beside it was loudly venting gas on and off. What became a nuisance turned to a real fright during the early morning hours of Sunday as John describes:

The Pitcocks were initially told (after driving off their property to find employees working nearby and emergency response officials) that they needed to evacuate, but were later told it was optional and they could remain.  

Since then conflicting reports have emerged about the number of workers injured and the severity of their injuries at the well pad, which is officially called the Hinterer 2H well on the Ruddy Alt pad and is operated by Antero Resources. The West Virginia Gazette-Mail reported at least seven injured and four or five workers were flown to West Penn Burn Center in Pittsburgh.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Doddridge County director of emergency services did not return phone calls as of publication. While the cause of the fire hasn’t been determined, writing for the Gazette-Mail, David Gutman explained that this is not the first safety issue that Antero has had recently:

  • Last August a spark at an Antero-owned well in Harrison County ignited methane gas several hundred feet underground, causing a fireball and a fire that burned for about an hour. Three workers were injured in that fire.
  • DEP cited Antero for failure to maintain well control for that incident.
  • DEP has cited Antero for 17 violations of state code in the past three years. Those have been primarily environmental violations—for things like failing to prevent waste runoff, failure to report discharges and contaminating waterways.
  • One violation, from Jan. 4, warned, "Imminent danger water supplys [sic] threatened by allowing pollutants to escape and flow into the waters of the state."
  • In June of last year Antero was drilling using water in Harrison County when they accidentally repressurized some old water wells, causing several geysers, one about 10 feet high, that flooded one nearby home and several garages.
  • In March 2011, state regulators shut down an Antero gas well in Harrison County after mud contaminated with drilling chemicals spilled into a nearby stream.

John Pitcock says that he doesn’t think companies should be drilling in this manner in proximity to people’s homes.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING pages for more related news on this topic.

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Northeastern States Protest Toxic Fracking Waste

Environment New York

Opening a new front in the battle over fracking in New York State, citizens in yet another neighboring state—Massachusetts—called on their legislators to ban the processing of fracking wastewater.

More than 11,000 Massachusetts residents call for fracking ban, June 26.

"Laced with cancer-causing and even radioactive materials, the millions of gallons of toxic wastewater generated by fracking are among the most compelling reasons for New York to abandon the path of dirty drilling." said Eric Whalen, Environment New York field organizer. "Our neighbors certainly think so. Looking at how fracking in Pennsylvania led to the export of fracking waste to surrounding states including New York, every single one of New York’s neighbors is sending a message about such waste in terms they hope Albany will understand: fuhgettaaboutit."

Here are the actions going on in neighboring states protesting fracking waste:

Anti-fracking activists call for a fracking waste ban at the Trenton State House on June 20.

"In other words, none of our neighbors are willing or able to be a dumping ground for New York’s toxic fracking waste," said Whalen. "This fact draws into sharp relief that fracking proponents have presented no credible plan to safely manage the billions of pounds of toxic waste that would be generated by a fracking boom in New York."

"We urge Governor Cuomo to recognize this toxic regional calculus, and close the door on dirty drilling," Whalen concluded.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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During Record Drought, Frackers Outcompete Farmers for Water Supplies

TckTckTck

By Emily Saari

The impacts of 2013's severe drought are apparent across the nation in forests, on farms and on once snowy peaks. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry is demanding unprecedented amounts of water for hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.

Farmer in field, Creative Commons: Neil Palmer CIAT, 2012.

Fourth-generation Colorado farmer Kent Peppler told the Associated Press (AP) that he is fallowing some of his corn fields this year because he can’t afford to irrigate the land for the full growing season, in part because deep-pocketed energy companies have driven up the price of water.

"There is a new player for water, which is oil and gas. And certainly they are in a position to pay a whole lot more than we are," Peppler said.

In a normal year, Peppler would pay anywhere from $9 to $100 for an acre-foot of water in auctions held by cities with excess supplies. But these days, energy companies are paying some cities $1,200 to $2,900 per acre-foot.

In seven states, including Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming, the vast majority of the counties where fracking is occurring are also suffering from drought, according to an AP analysis of industry-compiled fracking data and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s official drought designations.

The persistent U.S. drought wreaked havoc on American agriculture, raising food prices and forcing farmers to make record high insurance claims on lost profits for 2012.

As farmers struggle to make ends meet, limited fresh water reserves across the country are being diverted for fracking. The fossil fuel industry has identified deposits of oil and gas within shale rock formations deep underground, formerly inaccessible. In this new, "unconventional" drilling process, water mixed with sand and chemicals is injected into horizontal wells running through the shale. The injection cracks apart the rock, releasing the oil and gas and allowing it to rise to the surface for extraction.

Fracking requires enormous quantities of water. Estimates put water usage at between 3 and 5 million gallons per fracking of a single well, and each well can be fracked several times.

According to information accessed in 2012 from industry-backed FracFocus, a national fracking chemical registry managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, states have already seen more than 65 billion gallons of water used in 26,339 fracking operations.

In 2011, in a district in west Texas, the share of water resources used by fracking well sites jumped from 25 percent in 2010 to 40 percent in the first half of 2011. In Michigan, regulators granted a permit for a drilling company, Encana Oil and Gas, to use more than 21 million gallons of water at a single well in 2012. Repeatedly siphoning off these quantities of water for fracking can be a hardship for municipalities with limited capacity to augment their local water supplies—supplies that must also provide drinking and irrigation water for residents.

Water use by the fracking industry isn’t comparable to water use by homeowners or farmers' agricultural needs. When used for household or agricultural purposes, often the water can eventually return to the ground to replenish aquifers, rivers and streams through the hydrological cycle.

On the other hand, after water has been used for fracking, much of it remains trapped deep underground in the wells. Wastewater that bubbles up to the surface is contaminated—both with the chemicals used in fracking and with heavy metals picked up from the shale rock formation—and must be stored away from drinking water sources.

The options for storage are limited: it can be impounded in reservoirs or injected underground. If it were to be treated and returned to the environment, it would need to be trucked to an industrial treatment facility, because municipal wastewater treatment facilities are not properly equipped to remove the chemicals in fracking wastewater. In reality, a large portion of the water used in fracking is left underground and becomes effectively lost.

Renewable energy sources don’t have the same demands on water supplies. Solar and wind power use no water to capture energy and can peacefully coexist with agriculture. When it comes to generating electricity, for every 1,000 kilowatt-hours produced, solar thermal technology uses around 3,500 liters of water. In comparison, fossil fuels use 28,400 liters, more than eight times more. Solar photovoltaic and wind energy both consume less than 4 liters per kilowatt-hour of energy produced.

The nation faces a future made uncertain by the impacts of extreme heat, drought and wildfires exacerbated by climate change. Renewable energy generation not only cuts the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, it doesn’t tax water reserves, which are quickly becoming a limited and precious resource.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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Sign the petition today, telling President Obama to enact an immediate fracking moratorium:

Pipeline Failures Plague Oil Companies, Erode Public Trust

TckTckTck

By Emily Saari

“All pipelines leak, all markets peak” — a slogan of the
Tar Sands Blockade. Creative Commons: Elizabeth Brossa, 2012

Pipeline safety is growing more difficult to prove, as oil companies struggle with failing infrastructure and persistent pollution issues from spills that should have been cleaned up long ago. News of pipeline failures are eroding public trust in oil companies to quickly and effectively control toxic spills, much less prevent them in the first place. These events add gravity to President Obama’s pending decision to allow Canadian company TransCanada to build a pipeline across the U.S. to carry highly corrosive tar sands oil from Montana to the Gulf of Mexico.

Hilary Bird (@hilarybirdcbc) tweeted this picture of the Zama City wastewater spill in Alberta. Source: Twitter, 2013

A huge pipeline failure in Zama City, Canada, on June 1, spilled 2.5 million gallons of toxic tar sands wastewater into the environment, in what some are calling the biggest wastewater spill in recent North American history. Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board, however, waited 11 days to issue a public statement reporting the spill’s occurrence, raising doubts about the adequacy of government regulation and transparency.

Locals believe that the wastewater leak might have originated even earlier than June. Dene Tha’ Councilman Sidney Chambaud told The Canadian Press:

There are indications that the spill occurred earlier, during the winter season, but due to ice and snow it wasn’t discovered.

The spill occurred near the territory of the Dene Tha’ First Nation, where the community lives, farms, fishes and hunts. Yet Houston-based Apache Corp. said in its press release that the spill posed “no risk to the public.” This contradicts a statement by Dene Tha’ Chief James Ahnassay reporting that the spill “seriously affected harvesting areas.”

Tar sands oil spilled in Mayflower, AR into a suburban backyard. Source:
350.org

The ExxonMobil pipeline spill in Arkansas on March 29 sent 84,000 gallons of heavy tar sands oil through a suburban community and continues to pollute waterways and contaminate the neighborhood months later, keeping many of the evacuated residents from returning to their homes.

On June 14, the state of Arkansas and the federal Department of Justice filed suit against ExxonMobil on the grounds that Exxon violated state and federal clean water and air laws, asserting that the company must do more to pay for clean-up costs.

This follows a class-action lawsuit filed by Arkansas residents in April demanding $5 million in damages from Exxon.

Exxon’s history of pipeline failures doesn’t bode well for future pipelines. Exxon was fined $1.7 million for a spill in 2011 that sent 62,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River. In July 2010, a six-foot break in an Exxon pipeline near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan resulted in the largest on-land oil spill, and one of the costliest, in U.S. history.

Landowners watch as their land is dug up for a second time, growing wary of TransCanada’s integrity. Creative Commons:
Public Citizen, 2013

In Texas, newly laid pipes that could one day be part of the Keystone XL are being dug up and replaced for structural damage. Photographs from the sites by grassroots organization Bold Nebraska show pieces of pipe that have been spray-painted with the word “dent” and flags along the pipeline route that say “anomaly” and “weld.”

Landowners watching TransCanada retrace its steps to excavate and replace brand new pieces of pipe are increasingly suspicious of the integrity of the pipelines: “that it is not a matter of if, but a matter of when this line will leak.”

Michael Bishop, landowner in east Texas whose property is to be dug up once again to replace pieces of Keystone XL pipeline, said:

When the new segments are welded up, how can the public be assured that the work will not be a repeat of the shoddy, prior performance that has brought them back to our properties? If we were concerned about leaking before construction began, how can we have confidence in TransCanada at this point?

Landowners Against TransCanada, an organization formed to provide assistance to landowners in the U.S. to legally fight the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline, launched a petition telling the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to perform its legal duties to protect human health and the environment, and immediately investigate the pipeline anomalies and stop further construction of the southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Visit EcoWatch’s PIPELINES and KEYSTONE XL pages for more related news on this topic.

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Ohio Remains Nation's Radioactive Fracking Waste Sacrifice Zone

Food & Water Watch

Today, grassroots leaders in Ohio called out state leaders for failing to protect Ohioans from solid radioactive waste from hydraulic fracturing (fracking). According to local citizens groups, Gov. Kasich’s budget bill will provide inadequate protection from low-level radioactive waste (LLRW), and therefore constitutes a handout to the oil and gas industry. They are asking the state to require the oil and gas industry to properly dispose of LLRW.


 
“The regulations represent yet another concession to the oil and gas industry at the expense of Ohioans’ health and safety,” says Alison Auciello, an organizer for Food & Water Watch. “Governor Kasich and our regulators are billing the proposal as a way to monitor and keep radioactive waste from landfills. But the legislation will indeed do the opposite of the claims made by the administration. Even worse, it gives a false sense of security that we are being protected. Disposal of radioactive waste should be considered a grave matter, not an ill-informed side note to the budget bill.”
 
"The General Assembly is playing a word game to remake lethally radioactive waste into 'drilling cuttings' in order to allow drillers to dump their mountain of garbage on the cheap," said Terry Lodge, an attorney for the opposition working group. "They're replacing scientific fact with magical thinking and endangering public health, water, land and air—all for profit. By implementing these standards, they will violate federal standards. This will not stand."
 
“The radiation inherently present in shale gas drilling waste is a very serious concern. Whether disposed via injection wells, dumped into landfills or discharged into our Ohio surface waters from waste water plants, our state appears to be targeted as a regional radiation sacrifice zone," asserted Chris Borello, for Concerned Citizens of Stark County. "But once let out into our environment, this carcinogenic and long-lived toxin will leave Ohioans at risk forever. The proposal in the Ohio budget is an outdated, substandard criteria misleadingly contrary to what the National Academy of Science, the U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and what 37 other states cite as the protective definition concerning this form of radiation. If enacted, Ohio will recklessly allow much of this radiation to be swept under the rug, posing an ongoing threat to the health of residents.”
 
“Through the chosen definitions, this legislation exempts much radioactive and toxic material from any testing or tracking. Add oil-based substances, like benzene, to this concoction and the Governor and Ohio regulators think this waste can be used for ‘any manner authorized as a beneficial use.’ This is bad policy and endangers the health of Ohioans,” said Vanessa Pesec, president of the Network for Oil and Gas Accountability and Protection.
 
“Ohio learned an important lesson in the 1990s when we were considering placing a low level radioactive waste landfill in the state for medical and research waste. We learned that if you take a small amount of radioactive waste and mix it with a large volume of regular wastes, you end up with a large volume of radioactive waste," said Julie Weatherington-Rice, senior scientist at Bennett & Williams Environmental. "Somehow, our legislature and our administration have forgotten this vital, basic radiological lesson. Water soluble wastes like radium, uranium and radon gas just leach out anyway, leaving behind the rest of the radioactive elements to contaminate wherever our current government chooses to put them. You either learn from history, or you repeat the mistakes again and again.”

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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Sign the petition today, telling President Obama to enact an immediate fracking moratorium:

U.S. Fracking Industry Reacts to Water Scarcity Issues

Ceres

by Peyton Fleming

Hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) has recast the U.S.’s energy future, but it’s also shining a light on fragile water supplies, which could crimp the industry’s growth.

Exploration fracking well drilling in the desert.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The pinch is especially strong on shale energy producers and state regulators who are scrambling to find ways to keep the water flowing to this thirsty industry while not shortchanging farmers, municipalities and growing populations. Anywhere from two to 10 million gallons of water (along with sand and chemicals) are injected into each fracturing well. Multiply that times tens of thousands of wells and you’re talking lots of water—and wastewater, too.

Given a fast-changing regulatory landscape and the diverse geologic conditions of key shale energy basins around the country, it’s a challenge with no easy solutions.

“We’ve got to plan and plan and plan,” engineering executive Ken Burris told a crowd of 75 industry players and regulators last week at a Water Management for Shale Plays 2013 conference in Denver.

The urgency is palpable. In less than a decade, hydraulic fracturing has grown from a largely unregulated wildcat industry to an energy juggernaut that is rejuvenating rural economies in North Dakota, Texas and Pennsylvania and putting America back on track to become the world’s largest oil producer again.

 

But achieving such meteoric growth doesn’t come without growing pains—especially those around meeting the red-hot demand for water that shale producers need to inject into their wells.

Ground zero, in many ways, is Texas.

The U.S.’s second-largest state is in the midst of a historic drought, has little surface water to speak of and many of its groundwater aquifers are drying up. The most noteworthy of these sources under stress is the Ogallala Aquifer, which overlaps with the Permian Basin in west Texas. But that hasn’t stopped oil and gas shale production from booming, leading to a doubling in water use the past three years with even bigger jumps expected as more wells are drilled in the rich Eagle Ford formation in south Texas.

 

Industry players concede there isn’t enough freshwater to meet their needs. “There are areas, like out in west Texas, where water could be a limiting factor,” for shale production, said Ken Nichols, civil engineer at CH2M Hill, at the Denver conference.

And that means turning to alternatives, such as recycled water or brackish water, which are already seeing more use.

The state’s vast reserves of brackish groundwater seems to be getting the most attention, with one study saying it’s already providing some 20 percent of water being used in the Permian and Eagle Ford Shale Basins. “It’s a very promising resource for the state,” said Larry French, director of the Texas Groundwater Resources Division.

But it is expensive and energy intensive to make the slightly salty water usable for each drilling site. More scrutiny is also needed to understand how escalating withdrawals of brackish waters may compromise freshwater aquifers. Growing interest by water-starved cities and towns to desalinate brackish water is another complicating factor.

Colorado faces a similar challenge of more people, escalating shale production and growing competitive pressures for surface water, especially by agriculture, which has strong legal water rights and uses about 85 percent of the state’s water. “Anything [frackers] produce from these wells has the potential to affect senior water rights,” said Dick Wolfe, state engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

For this reason, shale producers noted during the conference that they are relying as much as possible on deeper groundwater resources. These “non-tributary” waters are typically thousands of feet underground and are largely isolated from rivers, streams and other surface waters. Wolfe says the vast majority of the state’s 50,000 oil and gas wells—many of them fracking wells in the Niobrara Basin in northeast Colorado—are in non-tributary formations.

While Wolfe is confident that shale production will not compromise the state’s water supplies and water quality, others are leery and are calling for much more stringent recycling of fracking wastewater.

“Most frack water is so laden with toxics or salts that it is unsuitable for other uses, and must be disposed of in shallow pits or far below groundwater reservoirs,” wrote Bart Miller, water program director at Western Resources Advocates, in the Denver Post. “We can only hope it will never migrate and contaminate drinking water reservoirs.”

Unlike Texas and Colorado, North Dakota is relying on both aquifers and surface waters for hydraulic fracturing, much of it coming from the Missouri River, Lake Sakakawea and over-allocated groundwater supplies. With wells popping up like dandelions—North Dakota now produces 10 percent of the country’s energy—tensions and lawsuits are escalating between frackers, farmers and other water users.

“When all of us had nothing [before the oil boom], there was nothing to fight about,” Dan Kalil, a county commissioner in western North Dakota’s Williams County, home to many oil and natural gas wells, told Reuters. “Now, so many friendships have been destroyed because of water and oil.”

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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Sign the petition today, telling President Obama to enact an immediate fracking moratorium:

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