Coal Mine Drainage for Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Extraction

Proceedings and Recommendations from a Roundtable on Feasibility and Challenges

by Aimee E. Curtright, Katheryn Giglio


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Research Questions

  1. Is there a sufficient amount of water from abandoned or actively managed coal mines to permit its use in hydraulic fracturing operations?
  2. Is it technically feasible to use this water for hydraulic fracturing activities?
  3. What are the economic or environmental benefits, if any, to pursuing the idea?
  4. What factors would enable such initiatives?

On December 14, 2011, the RAND Corporation hosted and moderated a roundtable conference, "Feasibility and Challenges of Using Acid Mine Drainage for Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Extraction," with funding from the Marcellus Shale Coalition. The event brought together representatives from industry, academia, and nonprofit organizations to examine the use of coal mine water and, specifically, drainage from actively managed and abandoned coal mines to support hydraulic fracturing (popularly known as "fracking") operations in the Marcellus Shale formation. The goal of the one-day conference was to assess the feasibility of such approaches, to examine the potential economic and environmental impacts, and to identify the data and regulatory gaps whose resolution would permit further exploration or use of these approaches. The participants concluded that the feasibility, cost, environmental benefits, and regulatory framework for using coal mine drainage in hydraulic fracturing will depend on the water's quantity and quality (including the need for pretreatment), its proximity to natural gas extraction sites, the cost of such water sources compared with that of fresh water, and whether the regulatory and legal environment is amenable to industry exploration and development of the option. These proceedings provide an overview of the topics and discussions at the roundtable conference and are accompanied by a collection of online appendixes containing the papers and slides prepared by the panelists and presented at the event.

Key Findings

Coal Mine Water Is Plentiful and Its Use Is Technically Feasible, but Quality Remains a Concern

  • The roundtable panelists and participants were in agreement that there are large quantities of coal mine water in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania -- much more than could be used in the coming decade for hydraulic fracturing.
  • The chemical properties of this water vary greatly between sites and even sometimes within a site. Thus, the likelihood that industry will consider it an attractive source of water will depend on details that are specific to each mine water source, each company, and each natural gas extraction site.
  • Sources of coal mine water appear to be located relatively close to hydraulic fracturing operations. However, site-specific characterization would be required to assess logistical feasibility on a case-by-case basis.

Further Research Could Clarify the Viability and Facilitate the Use of Coal Mine Drainage

  • A lack of data makes it difficult to determine the logistical and technical requirements of approaches to using drainage from abandoned and actively managed coal mines in Pennsylvania for hydraulic fracturing operations. There is a need for a comprehensive database on the locations and quality of these water sources.
  • A site-by-site assessment of the costs and transportation needs of coal mine drainage could support industry decisionmaking regarding the cost-effectiveness of such sources relative to that of fresh water.
  • Reinterpreting or modifying current legislation to alleviate or remove barriers, specifically in terms of liability for legacy cleanup efforts, could help increase industry receptiveness to such approaches.


  • There is a need to synthesize and organize existing data -- and to conduct new studies -- on sources of coal mine water that could be used for hydraulic fracturing operations.
  • Researchers and operators will need to further explore quantity and quality needs to confirm whether coal mine drainage sources represent a viable, large-scale alternative to fresh water.
  • A collaborative approach among regulatory entities, industry, and other stakeholders to developing and analyzing technical concepts and implementation mechanisms for the use of coal mine drainage would help encourage the remediation of environmental concerns and determine whether it can serve as a long-term solution.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Background on Water Use for Hydraulic Fracturing in the Marcellus Shale

  • Chapter Two

    Session 1: Volumes and Characteristics of Coal Mine Water

  • Chapter Three

    Session 2: Technical Uncertainties and Challenges in Using Coal Mine Drainage for Hydraulic Fracturing

  • Chapter Four

    Session 3: Economic Feasibility

  • Chapter Five

    Session 4: Regulatory and Legal Barriers

  • Chapter Six

    Opportunities, Challenges, and Future Research Directions

  • Appendix

    Roundtable Agenda, Participants, and Speaker Biographies

These proceedings were sponsored by the Marcellus Shale Coalition and were developed in collaboration with the RAND Environment, Energy, and Economic Development Program within RAND Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment, a division of the RAND Corporation.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Conference proceeding series. RAND conference proceedings present a collection of papers delivered at a conference or a summary of the conference.

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