Pennsylvania drilling wastes might overwhelm Ohio injection wells

Note: The conclusion of the article below – that industry just needs to learn how to better treat fracking wastewater – misses the point.  We don’t need to accept that boosting domestic energy production will create environmental costs; instead, we must accept that a drastic reduction in consumption of energy in the US (and globally) is needed.  Shipping wastewater to the Gulf Coast will put communities at risk in a region where environmental racism runs rampant.  The only solution to avoid water contamination is to stop fracking, and keep all remaining gas reserves in the ground.

-The GJEP Team

By Bob Downing, January 22, 2013.  Source: Akron Beacon Journal

Photo: Mladen Antonov  /  AFP - Getty Images

Photo: Mladen Antonov / AFP – Getty Images

The volume of drilling wastes from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale is growing and threatening to overwhelm existing waste-handling infrastructure in Ohio and other states, according to a study released Tuesday.

Ohio’s 179 injection wells for disposing of briny waste might not be sufficient for the Pennsylvania waste, plus wastes from Ohio’s developing Utica shale, said Brian Lutz, assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Kent State University, who led the analysis while he was a postdoctoral research associate at Duke University.

The volume of Marcellus wastewater has grown 570 percent from 2004 to 2011 due to increased shale gas production in Pennsylvania, Lutz said.

“The overall volume of water that now has to be transported and treated is immense,” he said. “It threatens to overwhelm the region’s wastewater-disposal infrastructure capacity.”

The wastes in play include flow-back water, produced immediately after hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, plus brine, or production water, generated after the fracking is done and the well goes into production. Such wastes generally are similar with a few key differences.

The liquid wastes can contain significant amounts of salts and total dissolved solids; low-level radiation and toxic heavy metals picked up from underground rocks; oils and grease; leftover toxic chemicals used in fracking; and certain volatile organic compounds, including benzene.

Pennsylvania has about 6,400 Marcellus shale wells that have been drilled and another 3,500 that have been permitted. In comparison, Ohio has about 500 wells permitted in the Utica shale, of which 200 have been drilled.

Lutz said Pennsylvania generated about 20 million barrels (each holding 42 gallons) of wastewater in 2011. About 7 million barrels were shipped to Ohio injection wells.

Ohio is projecting that its injection wells handled nearly 14 million barrels in 2012, up from 12.8 million barrels in 2011. (Final figures have not been compiled). More than half of that volume came from Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Pennsylvania has five permitted and operating injection wells. Some of the state’s wastewater is recycled; some goes to special plants for treatment.

Ohio cannot ban such wastes because they are interstate commerce protected under the U.S. Constitution. It is unknown exactly how much injection capacity the state can handle.

“This is the reality of increasing domestic natural gas production,” said Martin Doyle, a professor of river science at Duke. “There are significant trade-offs and environmental impacts whether you rely on conventional gas or shale gas.”

Lutz reported that Marcellus shale horizontal wells that have been fracked are producing less wastewater per unit of gas than conventional wells would produce.

Fracked natural gas wells in the Marcellus shale produce only about 35 percent as much wastewater per unit of gas recovered as conventional wells, according to the analysis that appears in the journal Water Resources Research.

“We found that on average, shale gas wells produced about 10 times the amount of wastewater as conventional wells, but they also produced about 30 times more natural gas,” said Lutz, who only recently came to Kent State. “That surprised us, given the popular perception that hydraulic fracturing creates disproportionate amounts of wastewater.”

There have been proposals to ship the brine waste via barge down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to injection wells on the Gulf Coast, he said.

The researchers at Kent State and Duke analyzed gas production and wastewater generation for 2,189 gas wells in Pennsylvania, using data reported by the industry to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Doyle said the researchers were surprised that drillers classified most of the wastewater as brine, not fracking flow-back water.

“A lot of attention, to date, has focused on chemicals in the flow-back that comes out of a well following hydraulic fracturing,” he said. “However, the amount of brine produced — which contains high levels of salts and other natural pollutants from shale rock — has received less attention, even though it is no less important.”

Studies have shown that brine can be as difficult to treat as many of the chemicals used in fracking fluids, he said.

What’s needed are better ways to recycle and to treat wastewater, two options that are being developed, Doyle said.

Many of the challenges facing shale development also would occur if conventional vertical-only drilling were expanding, Lutz said.

“We have to accept the reality that any effort to substantially boost domestic energy production will present environmental costs,” he said.

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Filed under Climate Change, Ending the Era of Extreme Energy, False Solutions to Climate Change, Hydrofracking, Waste, Water

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