Shale gas development creates a potential multibillion-dollar market for water supply and treatment services, the prospect of which could be encouraging some large investor-owned water utilities to support shale gas and downplay its water risks. Certain water companies suggest that with regulation, shale gas drilling poses no real threat to water quality. The companies’ financial interest in the shale market, however, casts doubt on the reliability of that assessment.
For the private water industry, shale gas development presents an opportunity because of — not despite — its water problems. Gas drillers use a water-intensive process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract natural gas from shale. The process injects millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, under high pressure to crack the rock formation to release natural gas. Much of that water returns to the surface, along with water from underground, contaminated with fracking fluids and other, possibly radioactive, substances. Private water players can make money on both ends by selling water to drillers and then treating the wastewater.