Common Concerns About Water and Shale Gas Drilling: Mid-Atlantic Region

This video addresses current environmental issues and misconceptions surrounding shale gas drilling and production and is targeted to 8th–10th-grade viewers.
Common Concerns About Water and Shale Gas Drilling: Mid-Atlantic Region - Videos



  • Joy Drohan - freelance science writer and editor
  • Jennifer Fetter - Renewable Natural Resources, Penn State Extension
  • Sanford Smith - Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, Penn State
  • Charles Abdalla - Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education, Penn State
  • David Yoxtheimer - Earth & Mineral Sciences, Penn State


  • Brian Benham, Virginia Tech
  • James Clark, Penn State Extension
  • Alan Collins, West Virginia University
  • Corrie Cotton, University Of Maryland Eastern Shore
  • Deb Grantham, Cornell University
  • Dennis McIntosh, Delaware State University
  • David Messersmith, Penn State Extension
  • Brian Rahm, Cornell University

Funding Acknowledgement

This material is based on work supported in part by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under Agreement No. 2008-51130-19500.

The Mid-Atlantic Water Program is a coordinated effort among Delaware State University; University of Delaware; University of the District of Columbia; University of Maryland; University of Maryland, Eastern Shore; Penn State; Virginia State University; Virginia Tech; and West Virginia University.

View Transcript

- [Jennifer] True or false, common concerns about water and shale gas gas drilling in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Since 2007, the landscape in parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio has changed.

Marcellus shale is a rock layer that lies up to 9,000 feet underground beneath southern New York, northern and western Pennsylvania, the eastern half of Ohio, most of West Virginia, and western Maryland.

As of 2012 more than 6,000 wells had been drilled into the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania.

These wells extract natural gas to be burned for heating, making electricity, fueling factories, and running vehicles.

As of late 2012, more than 1,600 wells had also been drilled into the Marcellus shale in West Virginia, and less than 10 had been drilled in eastern Ohio.

There is also growing interest in drilling for natural gas in the Utica shale rock layer in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

The Utica shale lies below the Marcellus shale layer in this region.

It is developed for natural gas in the same way as the Marcellus, although it also contains oil.

As of January 2013, more than 200 wells had been drilled into the Utica layer.

This presentation focuses on common concerns about water resources and Marcellus shale drilling.

Pennsylvania is the main focus because most of the drilling so far has happened there.

We also summarize shale gas drilling in neighboring states.

In Pennsylvania, three agencies regulate water use in Marcellus drilling.

Those agencies are the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, and the Delaware River Basin Commission.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection or DEP, plays the greatest role in protecting water during Marcellus shale drilling.

In areas not regulated by the Susquehanna or Delaware river basin commissions, DEP oversees the withdrawal of water from natural sources like lakes and streams for use in Marcellus drilling.

The agency enforces standards for water storage on drilling sites.

DEP requires drillers to protect water quality on and around the drilling site.

DEP also regulates wastewater treatment and disposal associated with shale gas development.

Remember that a basin or watershed is all the land that water travels over or under on its way to a specific body of water like a stream, river, or lake.

The peaks of hills or mountains surrounding the body of water form a basin's boundaries.

This is because water runs downhill.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission is a partnership among New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the U.S. government.

The Susquehanna River Basin covers about two-thirds of Pennsylvania.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission requires approval for all water withdrawals for Marcellus drilling in the Susquehanna River Basin.

The Delaware River Basin Commission covers parts of Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York.

As of January 2013, the commission had not yet finalized policies for permitting water withdrawals for Marcellus operations.

Natural gas development is on hold in that basin while the agency studies the issues.

The same is true in New York and Maryland.

Hydraulic fracturing, which has also become known as fracing, is a big part of developing a Marcellus gas well.

Fracing involves injecting water mixed with sand and chemicals into a drilled well under high pressure.

This opens up fractures or cracks in the rock and allows gas to flow into the well.

Now let's consider some true or false questions.

See what you already know and what you can learn about shale gas drilling.

We will explore common concerns and misunderstandings about water and Marcellus shale drilling.

The questions roughly follow the path that water takes through the natural gas drilling industry.

That path includes water acquisition, water use, wastewater treatment and discharge, and finally wastewater disposal.

Let's begin with the industry's need for water.

True or false?

Water is needed for drilling and removal of natural gas from the Marcellus shale.

True, drilling a new well takes about 100,000 gallons of water.

Water cools the drill bit and carries rock cuttings to the surface.

Fracing a Marcellus well takes about another four million gallons of water.

This is a lot of water, but the Mid-Atlantic region is lucky to have a lot of surface water.

We receive about 40 inches of precipitation each year.

In some other areas of the United States where natural gas drilling is occurring, water supply is a bigger problem.

For a comparison, electricity generation in the Susquehanna River Basin uses about 180 million gallons of water per day.

In 2009, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission estimated that the Marcellus gas industry might eventually use 28 million gallons per day.

So Marcellus shale drilling uses a relatively small amount of water compared to some other industries.

However, it's important to understand that each industry uses and consumes water differently.

The water source is important.

Energy companies want to minimize costs, so they prefer to take water from the closest source to minimize expensive trucking.

This is sometimes a small, high-quality stream.

True or false?

Rules for water withdrawals for natural gas drilling in the Marcellus shale are the same throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

False, in Pennsylvania alone, three agencies are involved depending on the water source.

DEP makes decisions in western Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission in central Pennsylvania, and the Delaware River Basin Commission in eastern Pennsylvania.

The surrounding states' environmental agencies are involved there.

True or false?

In Pennsylvania, drillers can take as much water as they want out of permitted streams.

False, the DEP and Susquehanna River Basin Commission monitor stream flow.

They can order drillers to stop removing water from streams if drought reduces stream flow too much.

Problems can arise for the surrounding ecosystem and wildlife if stream flow falls too much.

Before the next question, let's review two terms.

Erosion occurs when water breaks down soil or rock and moves it away.

Sedimentation occurs when water stops moving and drops soil or rock in a new place, such as a creek or a pond.

Sedimentation can foul waterways and harm aquatic life.

True or false?

Control of erosion and sedimentation is important on Marcellus drilling sites.

True, research in 2012 showed that more than half of the Marcellus shale drilling sites in Pennsylvania are built into hills where soil erosion is likely to occur.

These sites require water management controls and regular monitoring for problems.

Scientists favor placing Marcellus wells where erosion and sedimentation are less likely to occur.

True or false?

Chemicals added to water for fracing include oils, gels, acids, bases, alcohols, antibacterials, and manmade organic chemicals.

True, a 2011 report from Congress said that about 750 chemicals have been used in fracing in the United States.

29 are likely to, or known to, cause cancer.

Typically only about 10 to 20 chemicals are used to frac any single well.

The drilling industry says that water accounts for 90% of the frac fluid.

Sand accounts for another 9.5%.

That leaves just 0.5% for chemicals.

Still, we would not want these chemicals in our drinking water or waterways.

In 2011, Pennsylvania enacted a new regulation requiring that all Marcellus wells have a steel casing and a cement seal on the portion passing through the groundwater zone.

This is to protect drinking water.

The industry is reducing its use of chemicals which saves money.

Range Resources, a major drilling company in the Mid-Atlantic region, says that chemicals make up only one-tenth of 1% of their fracing fluid.

But this still can be a large amount of chemicals because fracing requires a large quantity of fluid.

Drillers generally have to reveal what chemicals they use for fracing, but they do not have to specify the amounts of certain chemicals.

True or false?

Hydraulic fracturing has contaminated groundwater in Pennsylvania.

False, as of January 2013 we know of no evidence that groundwater contamination with fluids used in fracing has occurred as a direct result of Marcellus fracing in Pennsylvania.

However, there have been spills of fluids onto the ground that can seep into groundwater and cause contamination.

Therefore the fluids need to be carefully stored and handled.

A typical Marcellus gas well extends 4,000 to 8,500 feet into the Earth.

In Pennsylvania, water wells typically extend only 20 to 500 feet below the surface.

This leaves a large distance between the Marcellus shale and the much shallower groundwater tapped by drinking water wells.

Therefore there is little chance that fluids used to frac the Marcellus shale could move upward to contaminate drinking water wells.

True or false?

Faulty Marcellus shale well construction has allowed the release of flammable methane gas into private drinking water wells.

True, this has occurred in northeastern Pennsylvania including the town of Dimock.

Pennsylvania's stricter well construction and casing regulations enacted in 2011 should reduce this risk.

However, poorly constructed gas wells installed before that regulation took effect could potentially leak at shallow depths and pose a risk.

True or false?

Spills of fracing chemicals or drilling wastewater at the drilling site or from trucks can contaminate soils and reach the water table.

True, spills can happen because of human error or equipment failure.

Wastewater pits can overfill in a heavy rain.

Pit liners, earthen walls, and pipes can leak.

As far as we know, spills are a greater threat to drinking water than fracing chemicals moving up from deep in the ground.

Small surface spills are likely to contaminate only local ares.

True or false?

Most of the water that comes back up out of a well after fracing is reused to frac another well.

True, about 10% of the water injected for fracing comes back up out of the well within 30 days.

This is called flowback water.

This water is often cleaned and reused in another frac job at a different well.

On average in 2012 about 90% of flowback water was reused.

Reuse saves gas companies money on disposal.

It also reduces the cost of supplying water for the next frac job.

True or false?

Most flowback water in Pennsylvania is treated at public wastewater treatment plants.

False, almost all treatment of Marcellus wastewater at public treatment plants like this stopped in May of 2011.

DEP asked drilling companies not to use these plants.

This type of processing did not adequately remove contaminants in the wastewater.

Instead, treatment by dilution, filtration, or a chemical precipitation are common approaches.

Some facilities use distillation which involves boiling the water and condensing the vapor in a separate clean container.

This is a more advanced level of treatment, however, which uses more energy and is therefore more expensive.

Flowback water contains very high amounts of total dissolved solids, mainly salts and metals.

In 2010, Pennsylvania enacted a new regulation lowering the amount of total dissolved solids in treated Marcellus wastewater that can be discharged into waterways.

True or false?

Most Marcellus wastewater is disposed of by injection deep underground in wells in Ohio and West Virginia.

False, in 2012 only about 10% of flowback water was disposed of without treatment into specialized underground injection control wells.

Most flowback water is trucked to an industrial treatment plant and treated, then trucked to another drilling site.

There it is stored in pits or tanks until it's reused.

True or false?

Disposal of shale gas wastewater in underground injection control wells has been tied to recent small earthquakes in Ohio.

True, a number of small earthquakes occurred near Youngstown in northeastern Ohio in late 2011.

The quakes began shortly after a company started accepting Marcellus wastewater at an underground injection control well.

The well was shut down.

Scientists think the wastewater may have been entering a previously-unknown fault line.

Underground injection of shale gas drilling wastewater is also suspected of causing earthquakes in Arkansas and Texas.

True or false?

Flowback water can contain radioactive materials.

True, the water absorbs naturally occurring radioactive materials from the shale.

The longer water used for fracing remains below ground, the more radioactivity it picks up from the rock.

We don't yet know if the amount of radioactivity should be a concern.

In January 2013, DEP announced plans to study levels of naturally occurring radioactivity in oil and gas drilling wastes and equipment.

True or false?

It is clear how natural gas drilling in the Mid-Atlantic region will advance in the future.

False, by the end of 2012 the price of natural gas had dropped by more than half from its high in 2008.

Some companies have stopped or slowed the rate of well drilling.

Other companies have moved from a focus in northeastern Pennsylvania where the gas is dry to western Pennsylvania and Ohio where the gas is wet.

Wet gas includes valuable gas liquids that increase the production value of the well.

Some companies are now drilling in eastern Ohio.

The target there is the Utica shale which lies under the Marcellus.

It's uncertain how the profitability of those wells will compare with that of Pennsylvania Marcellus wells, but it looks promising.

We don't know now the ultimate impacts of shale gas drilling in the Mid-Atlantic region, so things to watch for include new regulations from New York, Maryland, and the Delaware River Basin Commission, and improvements in wastewater treatment technologies.


Only registered users can write reviews. Please, log in or register

Frequently Asked Questions


What are the technical requirements for watching videos?
What devices and browsers are supported for watching videos?
Can a video be viewed multiple times?
Can I share a video with multiple people?
Is there closed captioning available for videos?
Are videos accessible for people who require special needs or services?
Who do I contact if I have a question about a specific video?