The Huffington Post just published a story on August 15 entitled “Fracking Water Use Skyrockets, Creating 1,440 Percent More Toxic Wastewater.”

See the whole story HERE.

I do applaud HuffPost for taking on this story.  It’s tough for most mainstream consumer media to get this issue right – and HuffPost has fallen into the same factual trap that the media usually does – about the re-injection of wastewater.  But more on that later.  Let’s first look at what reporter Alexander Kaufman got right…

Yes, “they” are drilling much more. Of course they are. The population of the planet is bursting and every mouth needs to be fed, housed, clothed, medicated and allowed to enjoy recreation – all with items made with petroleum products. A writer in 2016 listed 6,000 different types of products made from petroleum products before he stopped, exhausted.  Story HERE.

Yes, it is totally believable that 770 percent more water may have been used in fracking operations in 2016 than in 2011.

The asset (oil & gas resources) has become increasingly more difficult to access.  It probably does take a lot more water to get the resource out of the ground today than it did even five years ago.

Yes, the EPA issued a finding in late 2016 that fracking operations could contaminate community water resources — although only anecdotal  evidence says that this has happened already.  The important part of the EPA report was that the potential for contamination exists, and could be growing. But, responsible workers for most oil companies in the U.S. know they and their families have to drink the water too, and so far have been pretty good about taking steps to prevent intrusion into groundwater resources.

And, yes, it does make you wonder about the use of water for fracking when the American West is literally on fire and our water resources are drying up.  (For Colorado we’re not just talking about short-term drought. Research done at the University of Colorado reveals that the state is moving toward permanent “aridification.”  See IX Water blog post from 10 July 2018.

But, can we please get all the facts straight?

Kaufman writes, “Fracking also produces huge volumes of wastewater laced with cancer-causing chemicals, salts and naturally-occurring radioactive material that can cause earthquakes and contaminate aquifers when pumped underground.”

Well, no …

It’s not the fracking per se that is causing earthquakes.  This first step in the process – the injection of the fracking fluid/water to prop open the fissures in the ground where the petroleum resource is hiding has not been proven to cause earthquakes.  It’s the activity that happens after the fracking, after the well is up and producing that has been accused of causing earthquakes.

After the fracking fluid has been injected, it is recovered, so the petroleum resource can then come up. Mixed in that petroleum resource is plenty of naturally occurring ground water.  The oil operations company takes this oil/water mix that comes up and separates the useable petroleum product from the water.  Operators can get anywhere from 1 barrel to 50 barrels of water for every barrel of petroleum resource that they harvest. This means there is a lot of water left over.  This water is called “produced water.”

Isn’t that great?  Hey, the operators have got all this leftover water!  They can give it to the farmers nearby. Woo-Hoo! Happy days are here again!

Well, no …

It turns out produced water has lots of dissolved nasties in it — things that don’t get captured when the oil and water are initially separated — And, because these nasties are dissolved in the water, and its extremely difficult to separate them from the water.

While produced water contains salt, it’s not the major concern.  Salt is not a problem. Salt mixed with other contaminants is THE problem. Companies can do many things with salty water aka “brine.”  Salty water can be used at the well pad for fracking. It can be sprayed on roads to keep the dust down. If the salt content is not too high, it can be used for irrigation for certain crops and for certain types of livestock watering.

But, salty produced water cannot be used for these things unless the organic hydrocarbons (including BTEX) and dissolved metals are removed first.  And, all produced water contains organic hydrocarbons in addition to salt. These are the nasties referred to earlier.

BTEX is a group of the compounds (Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, and Xylene) proven to cause cancer, nerve damage, and birth defects.  It’s not something you want to give your cows, or your crops, or have floating around the dust after the water from road-spraying operations has dried up. You don’t want BTEX in anything.

Operators and the oil companies that employ them know this.  The petrochemical engineers know this. The Chief Financial Officer knows this. The intern delivering lunch knows this (well, maybe not the intern.)

That’s why they don’t give their produced water away or sell it.  (Water rights is a whole other topic.)  For the most part, it gets safely trucked away from the well site and then re-injected back into the ground somewhere, often many miles away.  And, this re-injection of produced water is what can cause formations to shift, creating earthquakes – not the fracking fluid. If you shoot a huge amount of water into the ground (millions of barrels per year) something’s going to give.

Aside from potentially causing earthquakes, the trucking and re-injection of produced water is expensive.  It’s a big problem for the profit margin  of most oil & gas companies, and accounts for about 98% of the waste in the industry generated from drill site to your gas tank. Trucking and re-injecting produced water can cost from $2.50 to $10 per barrel.  Paying for hundreds of thousands of barrels of water, day after day, adds up to some serious costs.  In addition, we living things on the surface are not enjoying the use of that water.

What is the option here?

Treating (cleaning) the water of the BTEX, metals, and other contaminants such as NORM (naturally-occurring radioactive material) so it can be used makes the most sense.  Technology is being perfected every day to make this possible. IX Power Clean Water’s system, pioneered at Los Alamos National Laboratory, can clean water for re-use for 17 cents to 47 cents per barrel.  This water can then be recycled for O&G operations, and used for livestock, crops, and recreational purposes, and even by communities (depending upon the amount of salt left in it.)

Such a solution to the growing problem of produced water management not only saves oil & gas companies money, it provides a new “found” source of water at a time when we need it, particularly in the western U.S.

We need to take a look at the whole story when it comes to fracking.  Yes, a lot of water is being used to drill new wells, but there’s also an opportunity to create “new found” water made possible by cleaning the oil & gas industry’s produced water.

— post by Deborah Deal