Addressing global water availability for shale gas development

Posted On:

Monday, Dec 22, 2014 - 1:53 pm

Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas requires millions of gallons of water per well. As shale gas development booms across the United States and draws increasing interest worldwide, so does concern about water supply, especially in drilling regions where water resources are already strained.

Global map of shale basins.

A team of Duke University researchers is working in several nations to better understand the many issues surrounding water availability for shale gas development.

"Water scarcity could be a limiting factor for the development of shale gas using hydraulic fracturing, especially in parts of the world like northern Africa, South Africa, Australia, China and even California," according to Avner Vengosh, the team’s lead investigator.

Vengosh, professor of Geochemistry and Water Quality at the Nicholas School of the Environment, leads a multidisciplinary team that includes experts in geosciences, political science, energy policy and engineering. The group has received seed funding through a grant program of the Duke University Energy Initiative.

"Even though other fuels such as coal and nuclear consume more water than shale gas over their life cycle, limited water availability could be a concern for certain shale regions," Vengosh said. The study looks outside the United States because shale gas exploration is becoming a global issue. "In eastern United States, water availability has not yet been a major limiting factor. It may become so in the U.S., especially in a place like southern California."

To understand the challenges of water availability and identify potential solutions, the team is examining a suite of issues in three shale plays in the United States and Canada, one in South Africa, and two more in China. First, the team will develop a spatially coded database to understand hydrological issues and water availability in each region.

The researchers then will examine several options for limiting the use of scarce freshwater, including the use of alternative water sources and water recycling.  They will also examine the regulatory and legal issues in each region, with an emphasis on understanding how water policies affect the potential application of different approaches.

Vengosh (pictured left), who recently spent a month in China teaching at Duke Kunshan University, toured a variety of universities and research institutes currently working on water sources for shale gas development in the Sichuan basin, one of China’s most promising shale regions. One approach involves treating water produced from coal bed methane wells for use in new shale gas wells, reducing the amount of fresh water that need to be used for hydraulic fracturing and allocating marginal waters for hydraulic fracturing.

He also traveled this summer to South Africa’s Karoo desert, where shale gas development is beginning, to test groundwater quality and assess water availability options.

Other team members are taking on different pieces of the research. Civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Deshusses is investigating technical aspects such as ways to remove methane from water. Dalia Patino-Echeverri and Erika Weinthal, both from the Nicholas School of the Environment, are addressing policy questions surrounding water allocation, environmental regulations, and the management of wastewater from shale gas development.

The team expects to produce analyses on topics such as technologies for water treatment and reuse, policies for wastewater disposal, and information on the cost and availability of various water sources.

Posted By:

Daniel Raimi, EI Associate in Research