NATURAL GAS:

Drought conditions strain driller's water use in major Pa. watershed

Blistering heat draped across much of the eastern United States has forced a regional planning authority in Pennsylvania to suspend water withdrawals by natural gas producers.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) earlier this week said it had suspended 64 permits to withdraw water from streams and other sources in the 27,000-square-mile watershed. Suspensions kick in when water levels hit a predetermined low point, and the requirement to stop withdrawing is written into permits for gas companies operating in the watershed. That includes heavy drilling areas in northeastern Pennsylvania's patch of the Marcellus Shale reservoir.

The number of suspensions could change day by day depending on real-time readings of water flows, but a spokeswoman for the commission said regulators are concerned that hot days and drought-like conditions in the Northeast could cause problems into the fall. Further, summer is the time of year when rivers, streams and groundwater decline naturally, adding to concerns that there isn't enough water to go around.

"Extreme temperatures are aggravating, but it's the lack of rainfall," said SRBC spokeswoman Susan Obleski. "This year, when you look at the 90-day period, which is what water managers look at, it doesn't look that bad. But it's been the last 30 days when conditions really declined."

Obleski warned about worsening circumstances. "If conditions don't improve, you're really going to decline quickly," she said. "If groundwater doesn't get any recovery, it will aggravate stream levels."

Large sections of the country are experiencing drought conditions and spans of record heat. According to a July 10 analysis by the National Drought Mitigation Center, based in Lincoln, Neb., recent rainfall provided little relief from hot weather covering much of the central and eastern United States. In the Midwest, northeastern Ohio Valley and southern Great Plains, there has been "widespread deterioration and expansion of dryness and drought."

In some areas of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, where the Marcellus and Utica natural gas basins reside, about half of normal rainfall has been recorded in the past 90 days, according to the center.

All of this has affected shale gas producers. In Pennsylvania, much of the drilling is occurring in the southwestern and northeastern corners of the state. The Susquehanna watershed runs through the state's midsection and northeastern counties, crossing into the southern tier of New York. Millions of gallons of water is taken from waterways to enable the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, during which high-pressure injections of water, sand and chemicals deep into the ground crack open shale-rock formations to release natural gas.

The SRBC issued suspensions of water withdrawal permits for Chesapeake Energy Corp., Southwestern Energy, Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp.'s XTO Energy and Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., among others.

Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an umbrella group for drillers in Pennsylvania, said in an emailed statement that the industry is using less public water as operators reuse more of what they take from public waterways. She said the group has "full confidence in SRBC's ability to regulate and manage stream flows under their existing policies."

"Because of our industry's ability to reuse and recycle water, these often short-lived suspensions have no material impact on natural gas development activities for our members," she said.

There is a debate afoot about how the Susquehanna River Basin Commission should measure water levels and determine when to suspend withdrawals. The SRBC has proposed policy changes recommended by the Nature Conservancy that would gauge water levels based on monthly seasonal cycles, a more precise measurement. Under today's rule, the commission uses annual average flow rates to determine how much water should pass by a point that a company wants to withdraw from.