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Frack-water waste, on the rocks

02nd August 2012

What to do with fracking’s lethal left-over cocktail of water, sand and chemicals has unleashed a new wave of technologies. But are these enough to silence the army of unswerving opponents to the practice? The industry seems to think so.

Should fracking be banned until the contam¬inated waste water forced out of wells is disposed of in fail-safe and envi¬ronmentally responsible manner?

Millions of gallons of water mixed with toxic chemicals and sand veers its way through shale rock propping open fractures that allow vast reserves of natural gas to ease freely into a well for collection.

The process is part of practice that has already extended the US’s available fossil fuel reserves and could play a critical part in its future energy mix. Supporters of shale gas believe the resource, which could amount to as much as 1,000 trillion cubic feet in the US alone, has the potential to benefit both national security and the economy. In the past six years, 450,000 fracking wells have been drilled in 31 US states; tens of thousands more are planned in the coming decade.

But what to do with the left-over mixture has put a spanner in the works for the advancement of the industry. Many countries and US states have imposed temporary moratoriums on fracking because of this very fact. New York, for example, ruled the practice should not move forward until the available wastewater disposal options are fully evaluated and safeguards are in place to address the risks and impacts. The New Zealand government is conducting an official enquiry into the environmental and health implications of fracking.

Damning reports

Reports pointing to groundwater contamination, even risks of earthquakes, have only served to compound these concerns. A study by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published in September 2011 showed that the groundwater in Pavillion, Wyoming was contaminated by chemicals used nearby in natural gas fracking.

The Agency later said it would propose minimum standards energy companies must meet before sending shale gas waste water to treatment facilities, amid concerns that fracking waste water is too polluted to be treated in existing state facilities. Despite the findings, which are not due to be finalised until 2014, the EPA has no plans to regulate underground disposal of waste water.

A study this year from the US Geological Survey concluded there was no direct link between earthquakes and fracking but it did point to a few instances when waste water wells had triggered some seismic activity.

Managing the problem

There are five basic options to manage wastewater generated during the production of natural gas from shale formations, according to a report published in May by the Natural Resources Defense Council: minimisation of produced water generation; recycling and reuse within gas drilling operations; treatment; disposal; and beneficial reuse outside of operations.

In Fracking’s Wake says on-site recycling can have significant cost and environmental benefits as operators reduce their freshwater consumption and decrease the amount of wastewater destined for disposal. However, it can generate concentrated residual by-products (which must be properly managed) and can be energy-intensive.

Moreover, because direct discharge of wastewater from shale gas wells to surface waters is prohibited by federal law, when operators want to dispose of wastewater with little or no treatment, they do so predominantly through underground injection. While this process requires less treatment than other management methods, it does create a risk of earthquakes and can require transportation of wastewater over long distances if disposal wells are not located near the production well, it found.

Technological breakthroughs

A new wave of companies is attempting to allay fears associated with the practice by providing solutions they believe can allow the waste-water to be both reused and/or disposed of safely. New York-based clean technology company, R3 Fusion Inc, for example, has developed a product they believe could combat problems associated with the flowback water generated.
 
Its so-called SPaCeR (short path condensate recovery), like other competing technologies works, by recycling the water used in fracking at an on-site water recovery and reuse facility. If successful, the company believes the treated water can be reused by companies drilling for natural gas; be legally discharged into surface water systems; used for agriculture, or discharged to municipal treatment.
 
Up to 2 million gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals must be injected into a well during fracking to break up rock thousands of feet underground and release trapped natural gas, according to the company. With potentially 500 wells to be drilled in New York annually this adds up to nearly 1 billion gallons of water to be sourced, injected and treated, says F3 Fusion.
 
Due to the range of potential contaminants and the high volumes involved, water from fracking cannot normally be sent to municipal waste water treatment systems. This water is normally drained into ponds and then trucked to a treatment facility which is expensive and a source of friction with local residents and municipalities whose roads are not suited to such traffic.
 
Dr. Roshan Jachuck, R3 Fusion’s President and CTO, said this challenge “highlights the critical nexus and interdependence of water and energy”.
 
“By offering a solution to a major environmental concern, one of the largest domestic energy resources may become accessible. The ability of our technology to significantly impact the purification, reuse, recycling, remediation, and desalination of a wide range of water sources is exciting”, he added.
 
The system is capable of high volume, energy efficient separation of pure water from a wide range of fluids including briny solutions, industrial waste streams, frac-water, completion fluids in oil and gas drilling, and many others, according to F3 Fusion.
 
Another benefit is it does not require chemicals or membranes to achieve water separation and has already been scaled to a commercial level. Highly contaminated fluids with up to 80,000 ppm total dissolved solids have been purified using the SPaCeR™ technology.
 
Cashing in

The technological concept is not new. R3 Fusion is one of dozens of new companies flooding the market in an attempt to make the most of the resource. H.E.D. Environmental Systems, for example, since 2009 has been manufacturing a fluid processing technology designed to manage produced water and/or contaminated fluids on-site.

Another company, Ecosphere Technologies Inc. claims to be one of the dominant providers of water treatment for the shale-gas industry. The company says its technology has enabled oil and gas customers to recycle and reuse over 1 billion gallons of water on about 500 oil and natural gas wells in major shale areas across the country.

Siemens is another company jumping on the fracking-bandwagon. Last year the Japanese technology giant pioneered a wastewater treatment system which aims to streamline the way in which fracking water is recycled by reducing the net amount of waste to be disposed of and by making the process more efficient.

Evidence of the economic success of the technologies was laid bare in March when ThermoEnergy Corporation, a diversified technologies company engaged in the market, announced revenue increased 94 per cent to USD 5.6 million for the fiscal year ended 31 December 2011. Gross profit increased to USD 04,000 from USD 75,000 in 2010 because of the new products, it said.

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