Aerial photogaph showing natural gas well site and fracking operation with related road and pipeline infrastructure in northeastern Pennsylvania forest.

Working Group:
Hydraulic Fracturing

Shale energy development — made possible by the new technologies of horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing — is helping meet increasing global demand for energy and providing economic benefits. But hydraulic fracturing also uses large quantities of water and produces toxic chemicals. Can better science help predict and avoid conflicts between shale energy development and the need for clean safe waters for people and natural systems?

Photo: Mark Godfrey/TNC | More Info
Photo: Ian Shive

Working Group Summary

Grounding Hydraulic Fracturing Policy in Science

Hydraulic fracturing releases trapped gas by injecting water, sand and chemical additives under high pressure. This industry’s demand for water can create conflicts with residential and agricultural water users as well as ecological communities. And toxic chemicals used in extraction and released from shale formations present additional risks to water quality.

Policy makers and managers who are both responsible for regulating and mitigating the effects of hydraulic fracturing as well as allocating water resources are faced with competing demands, short time frames, and limited knowledge. They need better science on the potential effects of water withdrawals and chemical contamination associated with hydraulic fracturing. Identifying where shale energy development and water conflicts are most likely to occur can help steer a course toward a balanced and constructive approach to that development.

This working group will synthesize fine-scale information across the 48 contiguous United States on:

  • Locations of shale energy wells, including water and chemical use by the hydraulic fracturing industry;
  • Water needs for domestic use and other industries such as agriculture;
  • Watershed importance to drinking water; and
  • Location of sensitive species to assess the effects of current and projected future hydraulic fracturing development on water quantity and quality.

A review of existing water use and waste management plans will also inform best management practice recommendations for states and countries with emerging fracturing industries.

Learn about the Challenge

Photo: Lynn McBride/TNC

The Challenge

Rapid Expansion with Limited Knowledge 

Reserves of oil and gas trapped in shale represent an abundant source of energy. In the United States alone, shale reserves amount to 4 times the projected worldwide energy consumption in the year 2040. But accessing these reserves also presents significant risks to water quality and quantity. Hydraulic fracturing uses up to 7 million gallons of water per well — with well densities reaching 180 per square mile. In 2010, water use in Texas’ Barnett Shale play represented 9% of water use in Dallas, one of the ten most populous U.S. cities.

Hydraulic fracturing operators also use various formulations of about 750 different chemicals, 27 of which are classified as hazardous according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Injection of these chemicals poses some risk to ground water, primarily if well casings develop cracks. Storing, transporting and disposing of flowback water (which contains additional hazardous and radioactive compounds picked up in the shale formations) pose additional contamination hazards to surface and ground water.

Policy makers face the need to quickly formulate regulations, at times with lack of scientific data to provide guidance.  Areas of uncertainty currently include: How will water allocations affect other constituencies using fresh water, as well as natural systems harboring threatened or endangered species? How should we develop mitigation plans given the risks of using toxic chemicals near water sources?

In the United States, regulation of shale development and hydraulic fracturing often falls on local municipalities, resulting in inconsistent policies. This policy environment is likely to result in a high administrative burden without ensuring environmental protection. We propose a science-based approach to identifying, avoiding and mitigating potential impacts of ongoing shale development, so that development can proceed while maintaining the integrity of communities and ecological systems.

Read about the Inquiry

The Inquiry

Balanced, Constructive Development: Aims and Product of the Working Group 

The goals of this interdisciplinary group of ecologists, hydrologists and legal experts are:

  1. Spatially quantify the effects of current and proposed fracturing on water quality and quantity at a fine scale across the 48 contiguous United States.
  2. Assess the adequacy of water use and waste management plans to address fracturing effects on water resources and develop guidance for policy makers and regulators.

To achieve the first goal, the group will:

  • Compile data on hydraulic fracturing wells including active and permitted wells, water and chemical use, and spill accident rates;
  • Map and compare domestic, industrial and environmental demand for water with expected demand of shale development to identify conflict areas;
  • Generate chemical risk maps for hazardous chemicals used and use simulation models to estimate extent and effect of spills.

Using the spatial results, the working group will identify sensitive plant and animal species and drinking water supplies potentially affected by changes in water quality and quantity.  Finally, to achieve the second goal, the hydraulic fracturing working group will conduct a water-use and waste-management policy review and use the results to assess how well plans are prepared for the identified risks.

The working group will also establish a stakeholder advisory group to ensure that working group products will be applicable to industry and government users. Companies make investments in many activities — such as environmental impact assessments, biodiversity action plans, life-cycle assessments, and environmental management plans — to manage environmental and reputational risk.  We expect that industry will use working group products to reduce risk of conflict and damage. Agencies and governments will be able to use these products to shape regulations, identify areas that may require additional resources, and strike a balance between conservation and development.

Preliminary Results

Due to differing reporting methods required by each state, it is usually hard to recognize spill patterns between states. To address this issue, the working group has standardized spill data across Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania and created a data visualization tool to bring together these data in an interactive format. This interactive spills data visualization tool allows for the exploration of the following factors: (1) when the spills are most likely to occur, (2) where the spills are most likely to occur, and (3) the underlying cause of the spill.

The interactive data tool allows state regulators and other stakeholders to identify trends in common pathways and causes, and pinpoint wells associated with unusually high spill rates. Better insight into the where, when and why spills occur will provide regulatory agencies and industry decision makers with important information on where to target efforts for locating and preventing future spills.

Explore the interactive spills data visualization tool

Meet the Team

Photo: Cyron

The Team

The Hydraulic Fracturing Team