WILLIAMSPORT - In the wake of concerns about how natural gas exploration could impact the region's water resources, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission has tightened regulations regarding water use for drilling operations.
Effective Oct. 15, all natural gas exploration companies operating in the Susquehanna River basin must receive approval from the commission before using water, regardless of the amount.
Prior to the ruling by commission executive director Paul Swartz, companies were required to seek permission from the commission if consumptive water use reached 20,000 gallons per day during any 30-day period, water withdrawals of 100,000 gallons per day during any 30-day period or use involving groundwater or surface water withdrawals.
Consumptive use is defined as any use in which water is not returned to its source for potential future use.
The commission regulates quantity issues, while the state Department of Environmental Protection regulates quality issues.
Commission regulations allow its executive director to make such a ruling when water use activities have the potential to affect water resources in the basin, according to the commission.
"While this regulatory provision is certainly not new, it is the first time in the commission's 37-year history we are imposing it on a class of projects," Swartz said. "After careful consultation with the commissioners and my technical and legal staff, I decided it would be prudent to impose the more stringent provision on the natural gas industry to give us the ability to review and regulate the industry's individual and cumulative impacts on water resources."
Factors considered by the commission prior to Swatz's ruling included quantity and rate of water use; location of water being consumed; potential to alter physical, biological, chemical and hydrological characteristics; and the potential to affect interstate water quality.
In Lycoming County and surrounding areas, gas companies are focusing on the Marcellus Shale, a formation located deep underground that is believed to contain massive amounts of natural gas.
To remove the gas, companies use a technology known as hydrofracturing, or "hydrofracing." The process involves pumping large quantities of pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals into the ground to pulverize the shale and release the gas trapped in it.
Most of the water used in hydrofracing remains underground or must be trucked away and treated at sewage treatment plants. Either way, it is not returned to its source.
According to Swartz, the regulation is designed to provide additional protection to the region's water supply, not provide a stumbling block for gas exploration.
"Our intent is not to impede the proper development of the natural gas reserve in the Susquehanna basin, but rather to balance the economic needs with the sustainability of water resources for all uses," he said.
The commission, at its Sept. 11 meeting, plans to propose new rules to streamline administrative review procedures for companies wanting to buy water for consumptive use from a public water supply system.
The proposed rules would allow such companies to use wastewater and other sources as well as water from public systems, according to the commission. It will not affect review procedures regarding groundwater or surface water withdrawals, it said.