Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Record shows EPA staff warned of Dimock water pollution Report exposes disconnect between results and action

Last week the LA Times reported that the federal EPA dropped an investigation into water pollution associated with shale gas development in Dimock Pennsylvania despite evidence of problems. The reason: political pressure from the industry.

I have been covering the Dimock story since before the EPA investigation began in January 2012. (It provided one of several narrative lines for my book Under the Surface.) The recent LA Times report neatly squares with the story line that has been developing over the last two years. Specifically, the disengagement of the EPA represents a story that works in favor of the extraction of oil and gas from shale through the controversial process of high volume hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking. Yet it’s one that conflicts with industry spin – that the EPA dropped investigations in Dimock and elsewhere because they lack merit or have failed to turn up any problems tying fracking with groundwater contamination.

The story in Dimock goes even deeper than the recent LA times report, and I will get to that shortly.

First a recap: The LA Times report, by Neela Banerjee, cited leaked information from the EPA that showed “staff members warned their superiors that several wells had been contaminated with methane and substances such as manganese and arsenic, most likely because of local natural gas production.” More specifically, Banerjee reports:

The presentation, based on data collected over 4 1/2 years at 11 wells around Dimock, concluded that "methane and other gases released during drilling (including air from the drilling) apparently cause significant damage to the water quality." The presentation also concluded that "methane is at significantly higher concentrations in the aquifers after gas drilling and perhaps as a result of fracking [hydraulic fracturing] and other gas well work."

This is important and relevant, but not all that much of a shock, given what the record already showed. In July 2013, after months of field study, the EPA publically released 725 pages of testing results from the Dimock investigation and a brief summary. The agency found hazardous substances -- specifically arsenic, barium, manganese and methane -- “at levels that could present a health concern” in the water supply of five of 64 homes – roughly 8 percent. The report concluded that no further action was required because “In all cases the residents have now or will have their own treatment systems that can reduce concentrations of those hazardous substances to acceptable levels at the tap.” In short, households had been notified of the problem, and industry was making provisions to provide filters or alternative water supplies. (My original post can be found here, with a photo gallery of investigation here.)

The mainstream press, encouraged by industry public relations, widely mis-interpreted the EPA press release as a sign that “the water is safe.” Since then, and until now, the Dimock story has faded into background of the fracking debate for the mainstream press, but not for those who have been following the story closely. In addition to raising this issue again, Saturday’s LA Times piece brings to light another critical dynamic: The decision to discontinue the federal investigation in Dimock, and forego the next logical investigative step to trace the pollution to its source, was not made by the rank and file staffers on the ground immersed in the investigation, but by higher-ups in Washington. The LA Times report is consistent with information I have gleaned from various sources in the EPA. It’s also consistent with another decision by the agency’s leadership to abruptly drop an investigation into a link between fracking and ground water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming.

In 2011, the agency issued a summary of its investigation into polluted water wells near fracking operations on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Pavillion.  Testing of two deep monitoring wells found:

detection of synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids, benzene concentrations well above Safe Drinking Water Act standards and high methane levels. Given the area’s complex geology and the proximity of drinking water wells to ground water contamination, EPA is concerned about the movement of contaminants within the aquifer and the safety of drinking water wells over time.

Testing of two drinking wells found:

chemicals consistent with those identified in earlier EPA samples include methane, other petroleum hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds. The presence of these compounds is consistent with migration from areas of gas production. Detections in drinking water wells are generally below established health and safety standards. In the fall of 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reviewed EPA’s data and recommended that affected well owners take several precautionary steps, including using alternate sources of water for drinking and cooking, and ventilation when showering. Those recommendations remain in place and EnCana [an operator] has been funding the provision of alternate water supplies.

Yet, facing intense pressure from the industry to butt out, the EPA abruptly decided to shelve plans to push ahead with a peer-reviewed study of the project, and relinquished control of the investigation to state officials supportive of the industry and unenthusiastic for federal involvement in their regulatory affairs. The EPA also dropped a similar investigation in Weatherford Texas in the face of legal threats from the industry.  (More on that here.)

It’s hard to overstate the symbolic importance of all this. EPA involvement represents a special kind of threat to the industry because it could open the door for federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The first governs what goes into the ground, and the second governs the handling and disposal of hazardous waste. The fracking industry enjoys exemptions from both.

In words and action, Obama has shown enthusiasm for shale gas development. It follows that he has directed his EPA not to interfere with an industry that is beginning to spread its wings across the lower 48 states (map here) with the promise of cheap domestic energy. Meanwhile, Obama, whose first term was focused on economic stimulation, is now choosing his environmental battles as he deals with pushback from the industry and its many allies in Congress. A day prior to withdrawing from Wyoming, Obama announced on the world stage that he would seek to regulate coal emissions under the Clean Air Act. The Keystone Pipeline is another bargaining chip that remains on the table.

The LA Times piece may energize the debate over the EPA’s retreat from the fracking issue and shake an air of complacency about states’ ability and willingness to oversee the industry. At the very least, it has provoked some powerful environmental lobbies. Kate Sinding, an attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, wrote in her blog this week:

EPA simply walked away and asked the public and the residents of Dimock to take its word for it. Indeed, the agency did not even mention the word “methane” at all in its press release announcing the end of the investigation. As a result, it was widely reported in the mainstream press that EPA had found the water in Dimock was “safe” to drink (see, for example, here and here). This perception persists among many in the general public.

So now for the part of the story that the LA Times piece does not cover:

After the EPA issued the Dimock results last year, the agency quietly turned the investigation over to a sister agency called the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (There was no mention of this in the EPA press release summarizing the Dimock results, but links to records, along with my report, can be found here). The ATSDR lacks the enforcement muscle of the EPA, but it does advise the agency concerning health impacts from pollution. The Dimock investigation faces an uncertain fate in the hands of the ATSDR, which has a relatively small budget and staff and is notoriously slow.  Has the Dimock investigation been sent there to languish on the shelves of unattended science?

Since the EPA’s file on Dimock landed in the ATSDR office, I have been checking in with agency spokeswoman Bernadette Burden. Last year she said the agency did not have a time frame for the results and their release. Asked for an update this week, she replied “we hope to have it out before the end of 2013.”

It’s a reply that, not surprisingly, offers plenty of political wiggle room.

Monday, July 22, 2013

From California to NY Islands, fracking questions abound LA forum covers science, regulations, public engagement

With President Obama’s support of shale gas development – encouraging exports while preserving regulatory exemptions – the momentum of an onshore drilling bonanza is growing from a regional to a national story.

High volume hydraulic fracturing as a means to extract oil and gas from shale was discovered and refined in Texas and recently adapted to tap shale basins in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Oklahoma, Alabama, Colorado, Arkansas, North Dakota and other places. Drilling is pending in New York and California, both of which sit over world class shale reserves now accessible through fracking. The trend will likely accelerate as Obama encourages plans to use fracking to turn U.S. shale reserves into a global commodity – a move that will raise prices, increase markets and encourage more exploration. At the same time, his EPA has shown a disinclination to interfere with a patchwork of state regulations, some stronger than others, to oversee the industry, or to advocate the repeal of industry exemptions – enacted under Ronald Regan and George W. Bush -- from hazardous waste laws and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Safeguards to protect the environment and public health are becoming an issue as petroleum development – once carried out mostly in geographically remote areas away from public  view – spreads along massive mantels of shale extending under larger population centers.

As recently reported by Mike Soraghan of Energy Wire, drilling increased 40 percent while spills, blowouts and other mishaps rose 17 percent from 2010 to 2012 in states where comparable data was available. While arriving at these numbers, Soraghan ran into a problem encountered by many journalists seeking to quantify impacts of petroleum production – a scarcity of records and documentation due to lack of standards and enforcement. He reported:

There are no national figures on oil and gas spills or enforcement. But where state records are available, they show agencies pursue fines against oil and gas producers in only a small minority of spill cases. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality pursued water quality fines against 10 producers in 2012, records show, as it recorded 204 oil and gas production spills. In Texas, the leading producer of oil and gas, regulators sought enforcement for 2 percent of the 55,000 violations identified by drilling inspectors in the last fiscal year. In Pennsylvania, the heart of the Marcellus Shale gas drilling boom, 2012 records show state regulators levied fines in 13 percent of the cases where inspectors found violations. And in New Mexico, oil and gas regulators haven't issued fines in years.

Some spills are reported and some spills go unreported. There are also unknown numbers that get reported but not in a way that is easily accessible. State agencies rely on industry reports to compile spill data. These files tend to be decentralized and many lack searchable data bases. Through my own research in writing Under the Surface, I found that companies are routinely cited for failing to file reports. It’s something regulators often characterize as minor “paperwork” violations, but it really cuts to the heart of the public disclosure controversy.

In Texas, officials promote a "compliance-based" approach, Soraghan reports. “Commission inspectors place a premium on helping drillers get back into compliance with the rules rather than hitting them with fines.” It’s a regulatory style that regulators defend over a more aggressive "rules-based system," which, they say, will make drilling no safer or more environmentally friendly. Oklahoma has a similar approach. When an inspector followed up on a spill of 300,000 gallons of oil and wastewater into pastureland, he logged this: "Reinspected spill area. Found spill has been cleaned up. Looks OK. Please close incident. No further action anticipated."

States such as California, which sit over relatively unexplored reserves, are still waking up to local, regional and global implications of oil and gas development in the shale era. The Monterey Shale extends under some 1,750 square miles of California. Fracking is suddenly a hot topic in the state with an identity historically tied to both resource extraction and environmental protection. (While many shale gas plays are booming, there is controversy over the yet-to-be-proven viability of the Monterey, as seen in this AAPG critique.)

This week I’ll be at a conference at UCLA dedicated to improving the public knowledge base on the science and policy of shale gas development, and its social ramifications. It’s a pressing topic as the nation experiences a drilling boom that has gone from offshore to onshore, with a proportionate increase in stakeholder involvement.  The conference, sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, will divide 90 or so participants, including scientists, journalists, academics, lawyers, economists, elected officials, regulators, planners, industry people and others with various backgrounds in shale gas development into three working groups: The state of the Science, the Regulatory Landscape, and Community Engagement. (You can read about participants, programs, and agendas here.) The assignment is to use “expertise and perspectives on the current landscape, including major gaps, barriers and solutions, for an informed approach to decision making on fracking.” We will present our recommendations in a public session on July 25.

It’s a broad and ambitious undertaking, but I expect one theme will recur as it has throughout this discussion: the effectiveness and merits of a regulatory system that relies heavily on voluntary disclosure and self-policing by the industry, and an abiding culture in state regulatory bodies. The industry is exempt from federal regulations that require a cradle to grave accounting of hazardous chemicals used to extract gas from wells. With no national baseline for handling toxic waste through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, industry has sought to ease public concerns and criticism by teaming with non-profit groups, such as the Center for Sustainable Shale Gas Development and the Environmental Defense Fund, to develop “best practices,” including waste disclosure protocols. It’s an approach that has engendered skepticism in those who believe it serves more as PR cover than an effective right-to-know tool.

At the conference Wednesday and Thursday, I’ll chair the group looking at community engagement issues. If I can bring anything to the table at the start, it’s an appreciation for the scope and diversity of stakeholders and their varying and often conflicting takes on information and mis-information.

Often, the conversation is framed in the context of those for or against shale development, along with testimony from winners and losers. In an attempt to frame this more comprehensively, I offer these these reference points. In a sense, issues begin with gas companies, investors, and speculators competing to capitalize on U.S. shale resources, and they end with energy consumers and ratepayers in residential and manufacturing sectors, nationally and globally, sensitive to price. Caught in the middle is a mind-numbing collection of public and private interests: Property owners who want to lease or don’t want to lease their land, residents and business owners who will shoulder costs or reap benefits of development; residents in the larger region affected by development; local governments, state, and regional entities dealing with community impact issues; federal agencies representing interests including stewardship of public lands, natural resources, and matters of energy, economics and climate; environmental activists and their lobbies; industry advocates and their lobbies; unions, workers and contractors concerned about job creation and occupational risks…

On and on.

The demands for information from each group will vary, and they are complicated by varying value sets, ideology and interpretations. There are stakeholders sympathetic to industry’s position that regulations threaten national independence, free-enterprise, and jobs. And there are those who see regulation (without exemptions) as an essential public safeguard for an industry that extracts wealth from other people’s land using large volumes of hazardous chemicals.

Organizers of the conference in LA on Wednesday and Thursday have done a remarkable job in bringing a healthy array of informed and relevant stakeholders to the table, representing public and private groups and the fourth estate. It’s going to be a busy week. I will report results.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Model T or Tesla: Reformers take on $3.9B NJ grid project Post-Sandy plan draws challenge to 20th Century ways

When Hurricane Sandy tore into the east coast last year, it left several million people without power – some for weeks -- and provided what is widely believed to be a preview of life with global warming.

Anticipating more extreme weather, PSE&G is pursuing Energy Strong -- a $3.9 billion plan to fortify its power grid. With funding from ratepayers, the project would raise and protect switching and substations, reinforce utility poles and overhead wires, and replace gas lines and other infrastructure in flood-prone areas. The intention, according to the plan, is to capitalize on low interest rates, cheap natural gas, and “a glut” of available labor to produce a stronger, more reliable power-delivery system that will withstand extreme weather and rising sea levels.

Energy Strong is a massive infrastructure project, but it represents something much more. It’s a critical test of how eager society is to prolong the life of a 20th Century grid designed around fossil fuels, or begin shifting to a new generation of technology that encourages power from multiple energy sources, including wind and solar.

According to an industry-generated release on PR Newswire, Energy Strong draws support from a number of municipalities, labor unions, businesses and health care providers eager for a grid that can withstand extreme weather and the promise of jobs associated with a multibillion infrastructure project.

It is also facing challenges from influential lobbies. The AARP is questioning the return on investment to rate-payers, and the Sierra Club challenges the wisdom of spending billions to shore up rather than modernize an archaic system of power-delivery. Tom Johnson, of NJ Spotlight, has been covering the proposal from the beginning. He summed up stakes of the AARP challenged in a May article.

The dispute underscores the tough choices facing state regulators and utilities, both of which are under pressure from the public to avert widespread outages, that can leave some customers without any power for more than a week. How to do so without increasing electric bills, already among the highest in the nation, is the dilemma facing state officials.

The problem became even more divisive last week, when the New Jersey Sierra Club and the New Jersey Environmental Federation filed a “motion for intervention”with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. The motion argued that the agency should focus on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and distributed generation – where energy is produced closer to where it is consumed from a decentralized network of power sources – including  renewable sources and hybrids -- in short, more of what a 21st Century, post-fossil fuel grid would look like.

Johnson reported in a follow-up article this week:

The entry of the two environmental groups in the BPU rate case is unusual, but it underscores the concerns harbored by some who fear the state’s aggressive clean energy goals may be undermined by huge investments in making the power grid more resilient.

This is really an argument about fossil fuels versus renewable energy sources. To some degree, it reflects a broader, national and global argument about justifying capital investments necessary to build the infrastructure for shale gas delivery. Knowing what we know now about climate change, does it make sense to channel money into expanding the life of a carbon-based energy grid for resources that at best will last a few more generations (or less) and at worst make the planet less suitable for human habitation?

According to the motion filed by the Sierra Club, the PSE&G plan misses a critical opportunity to begin adapting the grid to sustainable energy, in addition to reinforcing it. “A solution that focuses solely on the physical protection of infrastructure misses a huge opportunity to address or eliminate the underlying causes of the vulnerability,” the motion states. The environmental groups seek input to the plan “to ensure that cost effective investments going forward capitalize on opportunities to reduce energy demand through energy efficiency and other demand side efforts… Also techniques such as the use of a smart grid, distributed generation and renewable energy sources can provide critical support to the delivery of reliable and cost effective power to the public.”

In a phone conversation this week, Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club, told me the plan is based on an archaic model that is “like trying to make upgrades to the Model T automobile in the age of the Tesla… It’s more about reinforcing and elevating and not about being smart.” The intervening parties are not looking to stop the program, but to influence it, he said, adding that additional perspective and planning will ultimately help ratepayers.

Company officials, meanwhile, are pitching the plan as an urgent step to storm-proof the grid in the face of climate change that is no longer an abstraction projected for future generations. More than 1.9 million PSE&G customers (and millions more served by other utilities) lost power after Sandy -- some for as long as two weeks. In addition to Sandy, two other storms -- Hurricane Irene, the freak snowstorm in October 2011 – have in the last two years wrought damage unprecedented in the utility’s 100-year history. As spelled out in a company press kit for Energy Strong: “Keeping the lights on day-to-day is no longer enough. Future investments must be about increasing resiliency, which is the ability to withstand damage and quickly recover from extreme weather and events.”

Whether the economics support an appreciable shift to renewable energy is a matter of public policy as much as technology, and it begins with plans such as the PSE&G proposal. Anti-frackers in New York, where a moratorium on fracking now in its fifth year has spurred a similar discussion about the role of renewables, have seized the opportunity to showcase a plan of their own, which I wrote about in May. It’s authored by Cornell University researchers and demonstrates how the state can be run entirely on non-fossil natural resources – sun, wind, and water. Some say this looks good on paper, but does not readily translate to the real world. But if not now, when will we overcome the inertial forces of a carbon-based infrastructure? At the very least, the New York state plan provides a starting point for much-needed discussions about the empirical framework for life after carbon, and the Sierra Club challenge to the PSE&G plan begins testing our willingness to move progressively in that direction.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

LNG port slated for NY coast. Will gas come or will it go? Shale gas exports/imports stir energy policy debate

The second wave of the shale gas debate:Where does it go? 
The controversy over fracking began with the process of extracting gas from shale. Now it involves where the bounty goes and how it gets there.

First, about where it goes: In response to a glut from an onshore drilling boom, President Obama has voiced support for plans to boost sales by exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) to countries in Asia and other places where supply is low and prices are high. It’s a strategy opposed by anti-fracking groups because global markets  = more demand = more fracking. Export plans have also drawn resistance from the manufacturing sector and petro-chemical industry, which use natural gas both as fuel and feedstock to create products. As reported by, Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris argues that it’s far better for America to use its newfound shale gas supply to stimulate domestic jobs and production than it is to  export it wholesale to foreign manufacturing rivals. “America’s natural gas bounty is more than a simple commodity,” he testified at a Senate committee hearing in February. “It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity for America to export advanced products, not just BTUs.” His position is supported by a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy that shows exporting gas would drive up prices and drive down wages. Yet drawbacks would be more than offset from gains to economic stakeholders in the natural gas extraction and exporting industries, the report concludes.

Now, about how it gets there: Companies are seeking federal approval to convert natural gas import terminals on the Gulf and Pacific coasts to export terminals. Since the Obama administration approved LNG export terminals in Louisiana and Texas, more than two-dozen applicants have lined up with licensing requests.

Whether you are for this or against this, it’s easy to understand the economics. Companies developing low cost domestic shale are finding higher returns in foreign markets, while U.S. manufacturers are better served by keeping an abundance of cheap energy to themselves. But it’s not all that simple. While companies are racing to capitalize on overseas demand, one company is pushing ahead with plans to build a terminal to IMPORT gas to communities in New York and New Jersey, next to one of the world’s largest shale plays. Liberty Natural Gas is proposing the Port Ambrose project, 19 miles off the Long Island, in relatively close regional proximity to the Marcellus play, which extends under northeastern and mid-Atlantic states.


I put the question to Teri Viswanath, an analyst with BNP Paribas who follows global natural gas markets. Despite a glut in domestic markets, Viswanath said, there are still sizable pockets in parts of New England and New York City where demand is outpacing supply.  With neighboring Pennsylvania now a major producer, it isn’t related to a lack of gas. It’s due to lack of infrastructure. Unlike reserves in Texas and other established oil and gas states, the Marcellus Shale is in large part a “greenfield” development, Viswanath said, meaning it extends over areas that lack established infrastructure.

The aggressive build-out of that infrastructure continues throughout the northeast, including upgrades and add-ons to established pipelines to the south, and both new and expanded pipelines through Pennsylvania and upstate New York to New York City, New Jersey and New England. Even so, pipeline expansion is limited by logistic and social hurdles that will continue to prevent it from bridging the demand-gap in certain east coast markets – what Viswanath called “transportation-constrained” markets.

Pipeline gaps evolved partly due to a “supply push rather than a demand pull.” The supply push characterized natural gas development in the northeast. In other words, as operators explored and developed relatively small hit-and-miss conventional plays in the northeast, they built gas infrastructure along the path of least resistance – often along existing rights of ways. Before unconventional gas development changed the dynamic of energy consumption, natural gas markets were regional and prices fluctuated along with supplies. (Storage projects partly compensate for this by giving producers a place to warehouse gas when demand was low and sell it when demand spiked.) The build-out may have been different if it was driven by demand  – i.e. shaped by a critical mass of consumers and planners seeking access to a large and reliable supply.

Developments in the shale gas era are changing the equation, and they include public policy encouraging demand in the advent of the boom. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing incentives to displace fuel oil with natural gas (and other fuels) through the city’s Clean Heat program; and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy is pitching a program to encourage 300,000 households to switch to natural gas through the Connecticut Comprehensive Energy Strategy.

According to Liberty’s website, the company plans to import gas produced without the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing. It will come from “conventional” wells that are “likely in the Caribbean.”  In reality, according to Viswanath, the gas could come from many areas, including shale gas from the Gulf states. That leaves room to wonder how it is economically more feasible to produce shale gas in Texas or Louisiana, liquefy it, and ship it thousands of miles from the Gulf Coast to New Jersey and New York, than to pipe it a few hundred miles from Pennsylvania.

Not everybody buys assurances that the Port Ambrose project is all about importing. A collection of anti-fracking groups, including Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, Surfrider, and Clean Ocean Action are rallying opposition based partly on this assessment posted on

Ambrose LNG Port is a gateway to natural gas exports. In liquid form, LNG can be shipped around the world and sold to the highest bidder. While the project is currently described as an import terminal to receive natural gas from Trinidad and Tobago, it is widely believed that since the permit request filed under the Deepwater Port Act automatically covers both import and export, Port Ambrose, once constructed, will be used for export instead.

The question of import or export aside, The Port Ambrose project is generating plenty of controversy in coastal communities in New York and New Jersey still dealing with rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy. Some officials and residents fear the project is being railroaded without due evaluation, consideration, or public input, and some are flatly opposed to it proceeding under any circumstances. A previous version of the project was vetoed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

The new project has been revised and resubmitted, with the cooperation of the federal government. Officials from the Coast Guard and the Maritime Administration recently accepted the Environmental Impact Statement, a complicated document that is a fundamental aspect for approval. The very fact that the proposal is still on the table after being defeated once shows the motivation for companies, reading what they see as encouraging signs from the federal government, to ride the crest of the shale gas wave into the LNG business.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

H20 consumption for fracking exceeds industry projections Lack of reporting requirements discourages clear picture

Workers pump water from a lake to an impoundment
 for fracking in the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas.

Photo provided by USGS 
The amount of water needed for hydraulic fracturing, like much information we wish we could count on from the industry, is not well documented and varies case by case. But as shale gas plays ramp up throughout the country, evidence suggests actual quantities tend to exceed projections.

Assessing potential for high volume hydraulic fracturing to stress local water supplies is an elusive task. Lack of centralized and uniform reporting requirements leave reporters and researchers to compile trends from piecemeal and sometimes conflicting sources and extrapolations. Last week Forrest Wilder of the Texas Observer, wrestling with this very problem, reported:

If you want to know how much crude oil was produced in Texas in March, the numbers are available to the barrel (50,087,778). If you need a monthly rig count for the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas or the number of drilling permits issued in 2012 (4,143), the Texas Railroad Commission can provide that information. But if you want to know how much water was used to frack wells for any time period anywhere in Texas’ shale plays… Well, get out your calculator.

Wilder did just that, focusing on a three-county area—Dimmit, LaSalle and Zavala counties—in the southwestern portion of the shale play between San Antonio and Laredo. It’s a region of scarce rainfall and growing prospects of competition for water between burgeoning shale gas development and agriculture. Wilder found that, depending on the source of information, shale gas water consumption in 2012 ranged between 10,000 and 15,000 acre-feet. It’s a range that suggests, if nothing else, an astounding disconnect between industry projections and realistic values for water use. Based on the Texas Observer analysis, in 2012 shale gas developers in the three county-area used between one third and one half of what the Texas Railroad Commission -- relying on informal and unpublished industry estimates -- projected for the entire 24-county Eagle Ford Shale at its peak 10 years from now.

The Observer analysis was based on records by, a site that compiles information submitted voluntarily by “participating oil and gas companies.” In Texas, as with other places, some groundwater authorities require companies using water for fracking to obtain a permit, while others do not. Interpretation of the law “depends on which lawyer you talk to,” Slate Williams told Kate Galbraith of the Texas Tribune. Williams, general manager of the Crockett County Groundwater Conservation District in West Texas, asks drillers to report the amount of water they withdraw. “They don’t always do that, but it’s something we ask,” Williams said.

I came across similar contradictions last year raised by Lisa Wright, a fracking opponent trying to reconcile disparities between information from New York state officials and geologist Geoffrey Thyne. According to New York’s draft policy for shale gas development (the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement or SGEIS), horizontal shale wells use between 2 million and 7 million gallons each. Thyne is a researcher who worked first at the Colorado School of Mines and later at the University of Wyoming. He lost assignments with both institutions amid controversy over his critique of the industry, and figures he provided for Boulder Weekly reporter Shauna Stephenson that indicate a long gas well used between 48 million and 70 million gallons of fluid –  a calculation that was dismissed by the industry as ridiculous and misleading.

In addition to questions about consumption, Wright wondered why there was so much uncertainty about the amount of waste each well produces.  She cited a Stony Brook University study, published last year in the journal Risk Analysis, that found flowback from a given well ranges from between 10 percent and 80 percent of the volumes injected. (Fresh water that remains in the ground is removed from the eco-system – a status known as “consumptive use.” What comes out is laden with salts, unknown chemical mixtures, metals, and radium. Some of it comes from deep gas baring zones, some if it is injected with fresh water, and all of it is exempt from hazardous waste laws.)

Either end of the flowback range offered by Stony Brook study - 10 percent or 80 percent - poses problems that must be recognized and dealt with. Wells that produce little flowback consume relatively high amounts of fresh water. (They also become, in effect, disposal wells.) Those with high volumes of flowback produce corresponding amounts of polluted water. Wright raises a fair question: “With so many eyes on this issue, and with increasing drought conditions-- how can we NOT know this stuff?”

Looking for some clarity, I checked in with Tony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineering professor and former hydraulic fracturing consultant for the industry, and Terry Engelder, a geologist and industry consultant from Penn State. Tony sees shale gas development as a net loser when ecological costs are factored, while Terry believes it’s a winner. But both agreed that reliable information on water consumption is hard to get at; that there are many variables that can be manipulated to suit interpretations; and volumes will likely tend to increase over time as technology allows for wells that extend greater distances.

A 70-million-gallon frack job (a prospect raised by Thyne) would be logistically improbable if not impossible in Pennsylvania, Engelder said. He cited an example of a frack job in Bradford County, however, that used 8 million gallons to stimulate a mile-long Chesapeake well in Bradford County, and he acknowledged that wells in the future could extend twice that far, thereby using twice the volume. Ingraffea cited some wells in Michigan extending for miles that will use as much as 23 million gallons each.

“Laterals are getting longer everywhere, because many stages are unproductive, and operators have to justify the drilling expense,” Ingraffea said. “Longer laterals, all else being equal, more frac fluid.”

When industry proponents talk about the need for water to develop shale gas, they often put fracking in the context of other ways we use water, like sprinkling lawns, gardens, or golf courses. (See David Blackman’s recent piece in Forbes as the latest example.) The irrigation comparison, however, fails to recognize that watering a lawn and fracking a gas well are two entirely different things. For starters, water on lawns and golf courses is not forever removed from the eco-system, nor is it reintroduced with an array of hazards.

The industry’s water needs are not merely a concern among liberals and greens. As reported recently by Norimitsu Onishi of the New York Times, competition for water in California is raising tensions between farmers and operators as the drilling industry pushes into fertile farm regions in pursuit of unexplored shale gas reserves. And concerns over water lead community leaders in Mora County, a small town in energy-rich New Mexico, to pass the nation’s first countywide ban on hydraulic fracturing. (Hear report by Carrie Jung of KUNM radio here.)

Engelder agreed that competition for water between agriculture and drilling in Texas and elsewhere will become more of a problem if things don’t change. “I think frackers are going to have to learn to use salt water from the Gulf of Mexico in very short order if they wish to continue,” he said. “Otherwise, get 'em all on wind from west Texas and electric vehicles…  We are going to need all the water we can get for AG.”

Areas not prone to drought also have water conflicts. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, an ardent drilling supporter and opponent of industry regulation, recently accused the Delaware River Basin Commission of hindering the economy and violating property rights by holding off shale gas development in its ecologically sensitive jurisdiction. The agency monitors the drinking-water supply of more than 15 million people, including Philadelphia and half the population of New York City, and prohibits Marcellus Shale drilling in the basin that covers parts four states - New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware – as it considers policy.

 If shale gas develops along its current trajectory, the industry will need more water tomorrow than it does today. In short, we will have more wells with longer laterals tapping shale reserves extending under dozens of states, including many areas where drilling is new and unfamiliar. If the current anti-regulatory attitude persists nationwide, the public will have little control over what it cannot see coming. As the industry has fought hard to preserve federal loopholes that exempt it from Safe Drinking Water Act and hazardous waste laws, it’s a safe bet that it will not be eager to provide accessible information on its water consumption habits. It’s the kind of information that invites regional planning initiatives that pro-drillers characterize as a drag on the industry, even if they are vital to long-term community safeguards.