My colleagues Michael McCawley, John Quaranta and I recently published a paper in which we summarized the findings of a year-long research project commissioned by the West Virginia Legislature. Given this level of effort and peer reviewed research, I can make a few comments regarding environmental practices in the shale gas industry.
Most wells in West Virginia are completed without incident, and our study found that most of the risks to water and air were manageable, often by applying common engineering and management controls. Environmentally protective practices are evolving rapidly. For example, flowback (waste water that returns to the surface after fracking) is highly toxic, and keeping it out of streams and people’s wells is absolutely necessary. This waste stream has largely been eliminated by re-using it to frac additional wells, saving stream water while safely disposing of the toxics. Additional research is needed to improve the installation and testing of well casing, waste handling and treatment.
Fugitive air emissions at the well site are another source of public concern. Fixing these leaks will require real time monitoring, source control and siting wells to minimize exposure.
This is a new industry, and technology is evolving rapidly. Simple and effective solutions exist for most of the problems that we identified. Like any complex industrial process, the risk of environmental harm needs to be continuously and systematically reduced. Our role at WVU is to provide the tools needed to understand the problems and provide solutions.
Director, West Virginia Water Research Institute
West Virginia University