This is a guest post by Keily Miller, Research Associate at the Baker Institute Energy Forum.
July was a rough month for the shale gas industry. Marcellus shale wells faced permit suspensions for the withdrawal of water from nearby streams, the media issued reports that various toxic chemicals released during production were migrating to America’s water supplies, and the DEP evaluated claims that methane gas had migrated into aquifers as a result of the fracking process.
Recognizing that an inability to abate environmental concerns could be commercially devastating, particularly if production activities are dramatically curtailed, industry is seeking ways to address these concerns head-on.
To wit, the shale gas industry is offering up “greener” practices in an attempt to head off efforts by environmental groups to shut down hydro-fracking altogether. While it remains unclear whether this “green revolution” will satisfy regulators and the public, innovation does appear to be on the horizon. The main event consists of efforts to conserve water. The process of fracking uses an average of approximately 4 million gallons of water per well. The toxicity of “flowback” – the water that returns to the surface during production – ranges from 0.05%-0.5% depending on the chemical composition of the fracking fluid. Operators are increasingly recycling water used for fracking, reducing requirements for precious water resources. Hydrogeologist David Yoxtheimer has found that Marcellus shale operators reuse around two thirds of their water during a 30 day period. At the same time, companies in the region found that recycled water contains dissolved chemicals and metals that can increase effectiveness in fracturing shale formations.
Levels of treatment necessary to reuse flowback are controversial, and they also vary depending on the region. In the Marcellus shale, for example, researchers are testing whether chemicals from abandoned coal mines can be used to produce barium sulfate, which could cheaply and effectively treat the water. Moreover, industry is making efforts to reduce their environmental footprint by using “green” chemical additives – chemical compounds found in everyday household products – in fracking fluids. By developing the technology to create “greener” flowback, companies can calm environmentalists’ fears while reducing the costs of chemical additives, water treatment, and transportation associated with water disposal.
Fracking techniques that reduce the amount of water required in an operation, such as the use of super-critical nitrogen or liquified petroleum gases (LPGs), are also being tested and developed. Furthermore, companies are increasing the use of sophisticated well monitoring equipment that allows operators to know in real time whether fracking fluids could plausibly migrate to regions where water contamination poses a risk, such that operations can be shut down immediately.
Given the geopolitical and environmental advantages created by unconventional gas, regulators and researchers should step up their focus on the development and promotion of technology that will make these types of environmental concerns obsolete. Increasing R&D may mean driving up unit costs of production in the immediate term. Over the long term, however, innovations in recycling and treatment efficiency could thrust water concerns out of the picture entirely. Since water concerns currently threaten to overshadow shale gas recoverability in major energy-consuming nations across the globe, the impact of such innovations would be far-reaching.