The process of hydraulic fracturing requires millions of gallons of water. Currently, much of this water is pulled from freshwater sources; however, a recent bill in Pennsylvania making its way through the state legislature aims to change that.

Senate Bill 875, authored by Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-Greene, Washington), would provide some relief to Pennsylvania’s waterways and preserve freshwater sources by encouraging drilling companies to use treated coal mine water instead of freshwater. Currently, drillers hesitate to use mine water for fear of being held liable if any untreated water from the mines were to leak into rivers and streams. The bill seeks to alleviate these liability concerns.

Essentially, the bill divides potential liability related to the mine water between the coal companies that own the mines and the drilling companies purchasing the water. The drilling companies will only be responsible for the treated water after it is purchased from the coal companies, and the coal companies will remain responsible for the mines themselves.

According to Bartolotta, liability issues are stopping the widespread use of treated mine water in fracking operations. “Utilizing treated mine water in natural gas operations holds the potential to significantly reduce the withdrawal demands on Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams,” said Bartolotta, who serves as vice chairwoman of the committee. “Questions regarding liability are the biggest barrier preventing more companies from taking advantage of this environmentally friendly process.” It is hoped that by removing these questions about liability, and affirmatively providing immunity to drilling companies in certain situations, this bill will increase the use of mine water.

The bill moved through the Pennsylvania Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee on June 22, 2015, and the Pennsylvania Senate on June 25, 2015, and continues its advance through the legislature.

A similar bill, introduced in January 2014, never made it to a vote on the Senate floor in part because of environmental lobbying groups. Many of these same groups, including the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, oppose the current bill as well, citing potential pollution concerns in the treating and transporting of the mine water. In particular, environmental groups are worried that trucks or temporary pipelines used to transport untreated mine water could leak untreated water containing metals and other pollutants into freshwater basins. There are also concerns from these groups that the treatment process will remove clean water from the watersheds that serve as the source of many streams, which would make it more difficult to restore polluted streams in the future because the streams would be robbed of critical base flow.

Senate Bill 875 will now be considered by the House of Representatives.

Co-authored by Anthony Ponikvar.