Recycling Frack Fluids Growing Alternative to Injection Wells

Nov 19, 2013

State lawmakers say they’re starting to broaden their focus of the state’s water resources from not just protecting it, but also managing it.

During a legislative interim meeting in Charleston, legislators considered the thoughts of scientists and industry leaders regarding waste water management in the natural gas sector.

“Fresh water is becoming more and more of an issue not just here in West Virginia and Appalachia, but throughout the country and throughout the world. It’s becoming scarcer,” said Senate Majority Leader John Unger as he began the discussion during a meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on state Water Resources. 

Senator John Unger chaired the Legislative Oversight Commission on state Water Resources.
Credit Ashton Marra

“I think we’ve been blessed with this water resource because we do have an abundance of it, but it’s also finite, it’s not infinite and we want to leverage it for economic development. So, we want to be able to utilize this to be able to attract companies into our state and to better manage it.”

Even though water isn’t the main attraction for industry in the state, drilling for natural gas in northern West Virginia depends on the availability of the resource.

According to recent research, each Marcellus well in West Virginia requires the injection of about 5 million gallons of water.

Water is mixed with various chemicals, pressurized, and pumped down into wells to release the gas from the Marcellus shale during the fracking process, making water a critical component.

“There will never be a well drilled in the Appalachian basin without water management,” Rick Zickefoose, vice president of operations for GreenHunter Water, told the committee.

“You’ve got to have water, you’ve got to manage the water, you’ve got to know where you’re going to get it to begin with and know what to do with it when it’s done.”

And when it is done, that’s when GreenHunter’s work begins.

The company trucks used frack water from drilling sites in West Virginia and Ohio to one of their 5 disposal wells in West Virginia, Ohio or Kentucky, or one of their holding facilities to await injection.

Zickefoose said they inject around 75,000 barrels of the waste water a week, or about 750 truck loads, but now, the company wants to diversify their waste water management methods.

Vice President of Operations for GreenHunter Water Rick Zickefoose testifies before the commission.
Credit Ashton Marra

“We are taking the steps to go into the water recycling arena,” Zickefoose said.

Water use data collected by the state Department of Environmental Protection reveals that of the 5 million gallons of water injected into each well, only about 8 percent returns to the surface as waste water, or flowback. New recycling practices adopted in the state are diverting about 75 percent of that waste for reuse.

Zickefoose said simply providing the service of processing waste water for reuse isn’t enough for the industry to make the full transition away from fresh water, at least not yet.

Today, oil and gas companies rely on injection wells to dispose of waste water as sanctioned by the state because of something Zickefoose referred to as “cradle to grave regulations.” Basically, the regulations make companies accountable for water from the second they collect it at the fresh water source until it is disposed of at the injection well.

But Melissa Pagen, water treatment specialist for GreenHunter, said they can offer an alternative.

“They drop off their product. We have a tank cleaning on site so they can clean the inside of the tank because that’s regulation. Then they can take water that we’ve already treated,” she said. “That’s taking one extra truck off the road that would have to take water to frack with that we’re providing for free.”

Free treated water, recycled from the used water dropped of by previous trucks. On top of that, trucks that plan to load up with the treated water get a discount on the waste water they drop off.

But Pagen said there is hesitation from the industry on mixing their water with that of other companies at the recycling site and still having the liability if something should happen.

Zickefoose said whether it’s through regulations or a shift in the industry, he still believes the recycling technology his company can offer will be utilized in the near future. So confident, in fact, GreenHunter has already bought a site in Wheeling to build a holding facility and recycling center.

Dr. Ben Stout, a professor of Biology at Wheeling Jesuit University, has been outspoken against the new site because of its location only a mile and a half upstream from the city’s drinking water intake location on the Ohio River.

Dr. Ben Stout, professor of biology at Wheeling Jesuit University.
Credit Ashton Marra

Stout maintained should an accident occur, it jeopardizes not only the water source for the citizens of Wheeling, but also for millions of other people in cities in West Virginia and other states downstream. He also raised concerns about the additional truck traffic brought into the residential area where the facility would be located.

Stout, however, is a proponent of the recycling program.

“The waste stream is the Achilles’ heal of the industry and so the limit to production is eventually going to be the limit to how fast you can clean up after yourself,” he said.

“So, I think GreenHunter is right on. I support them and I hope they can develop the kind of technologies and processes that would really work.”

Technologies and a process that would really work, he adds, in the proper locations.

Zickefoose also detailed for the committee what he felt were positives that could come from barging frack water down the Ohio River.

The U.S. Coast Guard is seeking public comments on a proposal that would allow barges to transport shale gas wastewater to injection well sites instead of in trucks.

Zickefoose said one barge could transport more then 40,000 barrels of water compared to the 100 barrels in a single truck, significantly reducing traffic, wear and tear on infrastructure and pollution.

Stout, who again said he was in favor of GreenHunter’s exploration of recycling technology, said barging is not a better option.

He said when moving the waste water from one transportation container to another; they have to be vented releasing harmful chemicals in to the atmosphere. Stout maintained transferring the liquids from the site to the barge to trucks to the injection wells means more venting and more chemicals being released into the atmosphere.