Hydraulic fracturing in faulted sedimentary basins: Numerical simulation of potential contamination of shallow aquifers over long time scales


  • This article was published with an incorrect title on 12 December 2013. This error was corrected on 18 December 2013.


[1] Hydraulic fracturing, used to economically produce natural gas from shale formations, has raised environmental concerns. The objective of this study is to assess one of the largely unexamined issues, which is the potential for slow contamination of shallow groundwater due to hydraulic fracturing at depth via fluid migration along conductive faults. We compiled publically available data of shale gas basins and hydraulic fracturing operations to develop a two-dimensional, single-phase, multispecies, density-dependent, finite-element numerical groundwater flow and mass transport model. The model simulates hydraulic fracturing in the vicinity of a permeable fault zone in a generic, low-recharge, regional sedimentary basin in which shallow, active groundwater flow occurs above nearly stagnant brine. A sensitivity analysis of contaminant migration along the fault considered basin, fault and hydraulic fracturing parameters. Results show that specific conditions are needed for the slow contamination of a shallow aquifer: a high permeability fault, high overpressure in the shale unit, and hydrofracturing in the upper portion of the shale near the fault. Under such conditions, contaminants from the shale unit reach the shallow aquifer in less than 1000 years following hydraulic fracturing, at concentrations of solutes up to 90% of their initial concentration in the shale, indicating that the impact on groundwater quality could be significant. Important implications of this result are that hydraulic fracturing should not be carried out near potentially conductive faults, and that impacts should be monitored for long timespans. Further work is needed to assess the impact of multiphase flow on contaminant transport along natural preferential pathways.