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A critical review of the risks to water resources from unconventional shale gas development and hydraulic fracturing in the United States

Authors: 
Vengosh A, RB Jackson, N Warner, TH Darrah, A Kondash
Year: 
2014
Journal: 
Environmental Science and Technology
Journal Volume/Pages: 
48:8334-8348

The rapid rise of shale gas development through horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing has expanded the extraction of hydrocarbon resources in the U.S. The rise of shale gas development has triggered an intense public debate regarding the potential environmental and human health effects from hydraulic fracturing. This paper provides a critical review of the potential risks that shale gas operations pose to water resources, with an emphasis on case studies mostly from the U.S. Four potential risks for water resources are identified: (1) the contamination of shallow aquifers with fugitive hydrocarbon gases (i.e., stray gas contamination), which can also potentially lead to the salinization of shallow groundwater through leaking natural gas wells and subsurface flow; (2) the contamination of surface water and shallow groundwater from spills, leaks, and/or the disposal of inadequately treated shale gas wastewater; (3) the accumulation of toxic and radioactive elements in soil or stream sediments near disposal or spill sites; and (4) the overextraction of water resources for high-volume hydraulic fracturing that could induce water shortages or conflicts with other water users, particularly in water-scarce areas. Analysis of published data (through January 2014) reveals evidence for stray gas contamination, surface water impacts in areas of intensive shale gas development, and the accumulation of radium isotopes in some disposal and spill sites. The direct contamination of shallow groundwater from hydraulic fracturing fluids and deep formation waters by hydraulic fracturing itself, however, remains controversial.

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