November 7, 2008, Greenwire: Natural Gas: Marcellus Growing Pains Lead to Water-Discharge Woes for Pa. Industry

NATURAL GAS: Marcellus growing pains lead to water-discharge woes for Pa. industry (11/06/2008)

Katie Howell, Land Letter reporter

A Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection mandate limiting the treatment of wastewater from oil and gas drilling sites at sewage-processing plants that discharge into the Monongahela River could have far-reaching effects on the development of the prolific Marcellus Shale natural gas reservoir that underlies most of the state.

DEP, which has been investigating and attempting to dilute the levels of dissolved solids in the river, late last month ordered seven sewage plants that discharge into the Monongahela River Basin to significantly limit the amount of wastewater flow they allow through plants each day, a DEP spokeswoman said.

Teresa Candori, the spokeswoman, said the department restricted sewage treatment plants from allowing more than 1 percent of their daily flow to be drilling wastewater until the levels of total dissolved solids fall. Prior to the restriction, the plants allowed 10 percent to 20 percent of their daily flow to be wastewater from drilling, Candori said.

"We're very concerned about this. It has an immediate impact on Marcellus development," said Louis D'Amico, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Organization of Pennsylvania. "There are very few options [for wastewater disposal] once you start taking away sewage plants. It will have a tremendous impact on the industry."

Natural gas producers have been flocking to Appalachia in the past year to tap the Marcellus reservoir, which could hold as many as 50 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, or one-fourth of total U.S. reserves. Geologists and engineers have long known about the prolific reservoir but lacked the technology and sustained high natural gas prices to make it profitable to explore (Greenwire, May 5).

That changed as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology emerged, gas prices skyrocketed and Range Resources Corp. of Fort Worth, Texas, announced late last year that a Pennsylvania well was producing 3 million cubic feet of natural gas per day from the Marcellus reservoir.

Now the state is experiencing growing pains as it welcomes an influx of industry. The state has opened up public lands for exploration, much to the chagrin of environmental groups. And it has worked to establish environmental protections to safeguard against the pitfalls of horizontal drilling.

Hydraulic fracturing, the method of choice for producers looking to break apart the tightly packed shale and release the natural gas trapped in tiny pore spaces, requires pumping large amounts of chemically laced water into the ground.

That wastewater is what DEP is concerned is adding to the dissolved solid levels in the Monongahela River, which runs through southwestern Pennsylvania -- the heart of Marcellus country.

But industry officials say the water is not toxic and is not affecting the level of pollutants in the river.

"The water we're discharging is mostly [hydraulic fracturing] water. It's essentially freshwater with a little sand -- but hopefully that sand is left behind in the formation -- and some lubricants, but these are not toxic," D'Amico said.

DEP said the oil and gas drilling -- and specifically the Marcellus exploration -- was not totally to blame for the dismal conditions in the Monongahela. Candori said acid mine drainage runoff and low flow rates as a result of little rainfall were also at fault.

"Oil and gas drilling wastewater is not the primary source," Candori said. "It just happens to be the one thing we can control."

Candori said the sewage-treatment plants are complying with the DEP mandate and some have stopped accepting oil and gas drilling wastewater altogether.

D'Amico said the restriction is hampering the industry's efforts to explore in the region.

"If disposal through sewage plants is off the table, the problem is, where do you dispose of water from that production?" he said. "If you can't come up with a solution, you've got to shut wells in -- and this is certainly not the time of year to shut in and cut off natural gas production."

He said deep-well disposal is an option in some areas of the country, but in Pennsylvania, the geology prevents that. Deep-well disposal involves pumping the water back into the ground into deep rock formations and sealing them off so they cannot leak into groundwater reservoirs. Pennsylvania's limestone-rich geology is not ideal for deep-well disposal.

Candori suggested some additional alternatives, including storing the water at an industrial facility or taking it to other sewage-treatment plants that do not discharge into the Monongahela.

DEP will continue monitoring the total dissolved solids levels in the Monongahela and will allow sewage-treatment plants to process more wastewater from oil and gas operations once the pollutant levels drop.

Voters approve infrastructure upgrades

Sewage-treatment plants have been on the minds of Pennsylvanians this week, as voters passed a bond issue that would allow the state to borrow $400 million to repair and upgrade water and sewer systems (Greenwire, Nov. 5).

"Pipelines are in some cases leaking nearly as much water as they carry, plants sometimes treat stormwater and sewer water in the same plants, and in some cases, a lot of rain can overwhelm a plant and raw sewage will drain right into the stream," Candori said.

The bond, which passed with more than 60 percent of the vote, will allow the state to borrow money to make those necessary upgrades -- especially in the central part of the state, where federal mandates require the plants to comply with standards for discharge into the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The treatment plants in question are not the same ones regulated by DEP for their oil and gas drilling wastewater treatment.

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