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April 27, 2012

Could Coal Mine Drainage Be Used for Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Extraction?

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued regulations intended to reduce air pollution from natural gas extraction, targeting methane and other volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from hydraulic fracturing wells. These first-ever national standards for air emissions from shale gas extraction preceded new national regulations related to water pollution from hydraulic fracturing, another key issue which has thus-far been left to the individual states.

A recent RAND report examines the feasibility and challenges of using coal mine drainage for hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale. Coal Mine Drainage for Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Extraction offers recommendations from a roundtable that brought together leading researchers, hydraulic fracturing operators, representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and other stakeholders. The roundtable explored the use of coal mine water and drainage from mines to support hydraulic fracturing operations in the Marcellus Shale formation, and examined the potential environmental and economic impacts of the practice.

The participants concluded that site-specific characteristics will determine the technical and economic viability of hydraulic fracturing with coal mine drainage, but that the water source is abundant, is often close to drilling areas, and may require little pre-treatment. Existing laws and regulations, however, may discourage the use of coal mine drainage for hydraulic fracturing. Additionally, in order to achieve a long-term remediation of coal mine drainage, the broader context of watershed quality in the region needs to be considered, and a permanent water remediation infrastructure needs to be established.