Shale rock natural gas drilling rig in Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Ruhrfisch.In a May presentation, Jamie Crawford of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) revealed that oil and gas drilling operations involving hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in southwest Mississippi are apparently proceeding in the absence of needed information on surface water resources. MDEQ has also yet to publish comprehensive rules on water use in fracking. Production companies need about a million gallons per day of fresh water from wells, rivers or ponds to fracture shale formations below 10,000 feet, and MDEQ is permitting water withdrawals from public streams without adequately measuring the quantity of water available.
Fracking combines directional drilling technology and ultra-high-pressure pumps to complete wells by forcing water, petroleum solvents and sand down the well to fracture shale formations and produce oil or gas. Permitted water withdrawals from the Amite River and other streams are ongoing; drilling operators are even buying pond water from landowners and trucking it to the well sites. Once used, the polluted water cannot be released back into streams but must be trucked away for treatment or injection into disposal wells.
Also, if well casings are improperly cemented and poorly sealed in the upper sections, fracking fluids can invade and pollute drinking water aquifers. This has been a major concern in other parts of the U.S. The vast majority of people in Southwest Mississippi are vulnerable to this threat because they drink well water from aquifers. Despite a lack of comprehensive rules or permits, MDEQ is granting companies temporary letters of authorization to proceed. MDEQ is lagging behind in regulating water use in fracking even as the drilling activity increases in Wilkinson, Amite and Pike Counties. It needs to act soon and decisively to regulate surface water use and to protect drinking water.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's Assistant Director of Science and Water Policy.