Fracking companies across the nation use a multitude of methods for disposing of the flowback water they produce. Dependent on each state’s regulations for disposal, energy companies often have three different methods to choose from; deep well injection, open air pits, or treatment and reuse of the water.
Deep Well Injection of Wastewater
Similar to the hydraulic fracturing process, deep well injection involves blasting of fluids deep into the earth’s core at tremendous pressures. Injection wells are structurally quite similar to natural gas wells with cement casings and pipe that run thousands of meters down into rock layers. Injection wells serve the purpose of disposal rather than acquiring gas. As gallons of flowback water or brine are collected from fracking wells every day, they are often transported to these deep injection wells which blast the water down with powerful force and then allow the water to seep into spaces left between the rock, well beneath Earth’s surface (Lustgarten 2012). This process is demonstrated in the following image as it outlines the process in Class II wells; the same ones into which fracking waste is injected. Well injection is a popular method in any area that is also home to fracking wells as it presents a relatively inexpensive route for dumping the hazardous waste that companies are no longer allowed to dump into surface water (EPA 2012). Well injection of flowback fluid is regulated more extensively than the fracking process itself, yet still allows for a wide margin of error.
The injection process came into use as an alternative to keeping liquid waste in surface ponds or dumping it into rivers and ponds. Yet waste injection initially was not regulated and resulted in hundreds of reports of toxic waste bubbling up in backyards and public areas. In 1980, to fix the problem, the EPA set up a classification system for wells and required that only certain types of wells could be used for waste injection and that those types could only be constructed in areas a minimum distance from drinking water sources (Hasemyer & Hirji 2014). This is now called the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program under the SDWA (Hammer et al. 2012). Regulations became even stricter in 1988, mandating that fracking companies had to be permitted and conduct numerous tests verifying that their waste would not travel near water supplies (Lustgarten 2012). Energy companies lobbied heavily against these strict regulations and eventually won when the Halliburton loophole was created in 2005, declaring all fracking waste non-hazardous (Drouin 2014).
Deep well injection is a favorable process for wastewater disposal in the fracking industry because it deals with waste in an “out of sight, out of mind” approach and is typically less expensive than other methods. The cost to transport wastewater from a fracking site for deep well injection is approximately $3-$7 per barrel and only increases with the distance it is transported (Easton 2015). At the rate which most fracturing wells are creating flowback, this can easily cost thousands of dollars over the course of a day for a single fracking site. While the cost appears extensive, it remains a cheaper option for disposal in comparison to recycling or treating the fluids. Although deep well injection appears to be a harmful option, the disposal of wastewater “has been and will remain a chronic problem because it is produced in such large quantities,” said Anthony Ingraffea, a research professor at Cornell University (Drouin 2014). Deep well injection is not the only existing solution for the immense amount of wastewater which needs to be disposed of.
Open Air Pits; Landfills for Wastewater
Soon after wells are injected and natural gas is obtained from the shale underneath, flowback fluid is collected and often sent through pipelines to bodies of water which would appear to be man-made ponds to the untrained eye. Yet upon closer inspection, these “ponds” contain a thick surface coating, noxious odors, and in many cases, no inner lining preventing the liquid from seeping into the ground below it. These “ponds” and reservoirs are open air pits and represent a large portion of where the fracking industry’s waste ends up (Hasemyer & Hirji 2014). Open air pits pose a serious threat to human and environmental health, particularly when they are not regulated.
In 2014, Clean Water Action, a national environmental organization, conducted research on open air pits in Center Valley, California, and found just how common and unregulated they are. The study found that wastewater from unlined pits had travelled over 4,000 feet toward major drinking water sources and only 20 of over 400 active pits had been inspected by the state (Grinberg 2014). Other states, such as Ohio have banned open air pits due to the air and water pollution they cause. Pennsylvania is currently working toward banning disposal pits for fracking wastewater, as the DEP states that “Open pits may only be used for temporary storage” and must have “a liner of minimum thickness and tested prior to use” (PA DEP 2014). Although this ban is evidence of some state governments requiring the industry to move toward safer methods of disposal, there still remain thousands of active and unregulated open pits full of toxic flowback fluid nationwide.
Treatment and Reuse: A Growing Yet Expensive Option
Another route to handle flowback fluid is through a wastewater treatment system. These exist in the form of both state- or publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) and privately owned centralized waste treatment facilities (CWTs), which are both regulated by the federal Clean Water Act (Hansen 2014). If the fluid that is treated at these plants is going to be released back into surface waters, the facilities must obtain permits from the EPA. Surface waters simply refers to any body of water including ponds, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. These permits for surface water release require the treatment facilities to report every instance of discharge, their method of treatment, and what type of waste will be discharged (Steinzor & Baizel 2015). In Pennsylvania, stricter regulations have been implemented and require each fracking company to outline its plans for maximizing reuse of its waste and impose new limits on contaminants from shale gas wastewater specifically (Hansen 2014). The treatment of fracking wastewater is potentially the industry’s best solution for dealing with disposal that currently exists.
Treatment at either type of facility remains an extensive and sometimes costly procedure depending on the quality of the wastewater. Treatment involves the removal of any solids and dissolved inorganic substances, desalination, and special procedures for any radioactive or carcinogenic materials (Hammer et al. 2012). Yet some form of treatment must be done for almost every method of disposal that exists. When flowback fluid is sent to be injected into class II wells it must first receive partial treatment to remove solids and minimize clogging risks. Recycling methods require some form of treatment as well to develop a water source which is clean enough to be used. Hence, no form of wastewater disposal from fracking can be successful without some treatment of the water.
The reuse and recycling of flowback fluid is a newer and more expensive method, yet is gaining in popularity and use among the fracking industry. To be reused or recycled, the wastewater must be treated initially and then combined with water to balance out the high salt concentrations (Easton 2015). Wastewater that is intended to be reused is not under federal regulation by the EPA, and therefore the states have sole responsibility for regulating it. Yet any water that is going to be reused for the intended purpose of fracking, only has to meet the requirements of the fracking company which is planning to use the water. Although the treatment process can be somewhat elaborate, this recycling provides energy companies with an on-site, replenishing, source of water for their operations.
The recycling method is a point on which both the fracking companies and anti-fracking campaigns agree is a step in the right direction. Economically, recycling of wastewater is not a feasible option for most companies due to the high cost of building pipelines, treatment equipment, and property rights (Rahm et al. 2013). Yet the recycling method continues to gain in use nationwide.
So why exactly are energy companies moving toward recycling and reuse methods when the other existing methods (deep well injection, open air pits) are simpler and less costly? Kevin Sunday from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) noted that “about 70% of flowback water gets reused…recycling has never been higher” (Schmidt 2013). One of many reasons for this is that the standards for surface discharge have become increasingly strict and driven the price of wastewater treatment up. A scarcity of injection wells has also driven fracking industries into methods of reuse and treatment as the transport of fluids to the closest well sites can be extremely costly. At a time where water scarcity is becoming an increasing problem in the United States, reuse of fracking fluids is rising in appeal for the fracking industry as the process itself requires an immense amount of water. Fracking companies that have employed wastewater recycling systems have been reported that “it may be more expensive than buying fresh water, but not by much” and that they worry about “how much water is left” on their land (Osborne 2014). Although it is a slowly building campaign for flowback fluid recycling, it is likely in the fracking industry’s and the environment’s best interest to pursue using this method. Once in place, the recycling systems are likely to reduce expenses and cause fracking to surpass coal and oil in terms of “clean” energy. Conclusion: