Energy companies are also struggling with how to get rid of the tainted water that comes out of fractured wells; the fluid, which contains a mix of chemicals and salts, must be taken to a licensed disposal facility.
Energy industry giants Hallibrton Corporation and Schlumberger Ltd. to smaller outfits such as Ecologix Environmental Systems LLC, companies are pursing technologies to reuse the "frack water" that comes out of wells after hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking"—the process of using highly pressured water and chemicals to coax oil and gas out of shale-rock formations. The interest in water recycling is also creating opportunities for small companies such as Select Energy Services LLC. Ecologix, an Alpharetta, Ga., recycling company, claims its service can cost as much as 80% less than injecting wastewater into a disposal well.
The recycled water can be cleaned of chemicals and rock debris and reused to frack additional wells, which could sharply cut the costs that energy companies face securing and disposing of water. Some companies are finding it is still cheaper in many parts of the U.S. to inject the wastewater deep underground instead of cleaning it, which has slowed adoption of recycling technology.
It takes between 70 billion to 140 billion gallons of water to frack 35,000 wells a year, the industry's current pace, according to a 2011 report by the Environmental Protection Agency. That is about the same amount consumed every year by Chicago or Houston—and the price tag for securing that much water can be substantial.
Companies are researching moving away from using water entirely to fracture rock, with efforts aimed at using propane gel and even compressed air. Moving away from liquids entirely, however, is still several years away—if early laboratory work can be successfully applied in the field.
While the cost of getting rid of the millions of gallons varies from state to state, it can be substantial. There are less than 10 working injection wells in Pennsylvania, so most of its wastewater is carried by trucks into Ohio. These injection wells are controversial after being linked by some scientists and state officials to minor earthquakes. The injected liquids are essentially thought to lubricate faults and accelerate movement that causes tremors. Ohio only recently began issuing permits for new injection wells, after imposing rules to prevent tremors.
In the Northeast, oil companies have to pay up to $8 per 42-gallon barrel to contractors to haul wastewater for disposal elsewhere. Operators have reported recycling—which eliminates the cost of disposal and the cost of acquiring fresh water for fracking—can cut costs by as much as $2 per barrel in some areas when done on site, which could equate to a $200,000 savings over the lifetime of a typical well.
Chesapeake Energy Corporation has begun recycling 100% of the water it retrieves from wells in northern Pennsylvania. In addition to cutting the company's costs, recycling reduces the number of trucks on the road ferrying clean water to drilling sites, a sore point for local residents.
After a well is fracked, contractors typically clean the water that flows back out of the well by filtering it or adding a chemical that attracts small solid particles, making it easier to remove these contaminants. Some companies treat water at the well, while others bring it to a facility built nearby.
Fourteen percent of water used to frack a well in central Pennsylvania is now recycled, up from less than 1% two years ago, according to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which monitors water usage. (WSJ, 1/18/2012)