Unconventional wells in Pennsylvania were always resource-intensive, but the maps below show how the amount of water used per well has grown significantly in recent years. In 2013, these wells used an average of 5.8 million gallons per well. By 2019, that figure had increased 145%, consuming more than 14.3 million gallons per well. This is a glimpse into the unsustainable resource demands of this industry and the decreasing energy returned on investment.
As fracking proponents will eagerly remind you, hydraulic fracturing was invented decades ago – back in 1947 – so the practice has been in use for quite a while. What really separates modern unconventional shale gas wells from the supposedly traditional, conventional wells is more a matter of scale than anything else. While conventional wells are typically fracked with tens of thousands of gallons of fluid, their unconventional counterparts are far thirstier, consuming millions of gallons per well.
And of course, more inputs translate into more outputs — not necessarily in the form of gas, but in the form of toxic, radioactive waste. This creates a slew of problems ranging from health impacts, to increased transportation, to disposal.
However, this increase in consumption has continued to grow on a per-well basis, so that wells drilled in recent years aren’t really in the same category as wells drilled a decade ago at the beginning of Pennsylvania’s unconventional boom.
In Pennsylvania, unconventional wells are primarily drilled into two deep shale layers, the Devonian-aged Marcellus Shale, which is about 390 million years old, and the Utica Shale from the Late Ordovician period, which was deposited about 60 million years before the Marcellus. These formations have been known about for decades, but did not yield enough gas justify the expense of drilling until the 21st century, when horizontal drilling allowed for a much greater surface area of exposure to the shale formations. However, stimulating this increased distance also requires significantly more fracking fluid – a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals – which increased the consumptive use of water by several orders of magnitude. And in the end, all of this extra work that is required to extract the gas from the ground has made the industry unprofitable, as high production numbers have outpaced demand.
As residents in shale fields around the country started to see impacts to their drinking water, they began to demand to know more about what was injected into the ground around them. The industry’s response was FracFocus, a national registry to address the water component of this question, if not the issue of fracking chemicals. In the early days, visitors to the site could only access data one well at a time, so systematic analyses by third parties were precluded. Additionally, record keeping was sloppy, with widespread data entry issues, incorrect locations, duplicate entries, and so forth.
Many of these issues were addressed with the rollout of FracFocus 2.0 in May of 2013. This fixed many of the data entry issues, such as the six different spellings of “Susquehanna” that were used, and enabled downloads of the entire data set. For that reason, when we wanted to look at changes over time, our analysis started in 2013, where only minimal obvious corrections were required at the county level.
However, statewide data is available since 2008, and as long as we keep in mind the data quality issues from the earlier years, the results are even more stark.
|Year||FracFocus Reports||Total Water (gal)||Average Water per Well (gal)||Maximum Water (gal)|
Figure 1: While the total number of frack jobs reported to FracFocus has declined over the years, the amount of water per well has increased substantially.
In terms of the total number of unconventional wells drilled, the boom years in Pennsylvania were around 2010 to 2014, with more than 1,000 wells drilled each of those years, a total that has not been achieved again since. It is important to note that in this FracFocus data, we are not counting the wells, per se, but the reported instances of well stimulation through hydraulic fracturing, commonly called frack jobs. In the earliest portion of the date range, submitting data to FracFocus was voluntary, and therefore the total activity from 2008 through 2010 is vastly undercounted, but we have included what data was available.
It should be noted that the average consumption for frack jobs started in 2020 are down from the 2019 totals, however, the sample size is considerably smaller. This smaller sample due, in part, to reduced drilling activity due to oversupply of gas in the Northeast, but also due to the fact that the year is still in progress. This analysis is based on data downloaded from FracFocus in April 2020.
Changes Over Time
As we examine changes in the average water consumption over time from Figure 1, we can see that operators in Pennsylvania averaged between 4-5 million gallons of water per well from 2008 to 2012. The numbers take off from there, tripling to more than 14 million gallons for 2019, the last full year available. At the same time, drilling operators began experimenting with truly monstrous quantities of water. In 2008, the only well with water data available used just over 4.1 million gallons. By 2019, there was a well that used 39.3 million gallons of water, almost a tenfold increase.
From late 2008 through early 2020, the industry recorded the use of 65.8 billion gallons of water in unconventional wells. Since we know that many wells during the early boom years did not report to FracFocus, the actual usage must be substantially higher. For the years with the most reliable and complete data – 2013 to 2019 – total water consumption ranged from 5.9 to 10.9 billion gallons per year. For context, the average Pennsylvanian uses about 100 gallons per day, or 36,500 gallons per year.
That means that the 10.9 billion gallons that were pumped into fracked wells in 2018 equals the total usage of 298,667 residents for an entire year. Alternatively, that water could have filled 16,517 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It is equivalent to 33,455 acre-feet, meaning it could fill an acre-sized column of water that stretches more than six miles high.
Surely, there must be a better way to make use of our precious resources than to turn millions upon millions of gallons of water into toxic waste.
By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology, FracTracker Alliance