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Fracking Industry Moves to Recycling Wastewater

The fracking boom happened so quickly that nobody had any time to deal with the consequences. Not only did politicians not anticipate regulations, allowing the industry to operate in a kind of free-fire zone, but the industry didn’t recognize the massive amounts of limited resources they would need to continue fracking in the future. Specifically, they didn’t estimate the water needs.

Fracking requires enormous amounts of water. To frack 35,000 wells for one year, you need roughly 70 billion to 140 billion gallons of water, the amount used by all the citizens of any of the largest cities in America, like Chicago. There’s a limit to how much water will be available over time without just wresting it away from drinking supplies and other human needs, short of draining the oceans (hey, there’s one way to combat sea level rise, just skim it all for fracking!). And a lot of fracking takes place in remote areas without access to that much water without trucking it in. So it has just dawned on the industry that they might want to try to recycle their wastewater:

Companies are racing to find ways to recycle the water used in hydraulic fracturing, chasing an emerging market that could be worth billions of dollars.

From energy industry giants Halliburton Corp. and Schlumberger Ltd. to smaller outfits such as Ecologix Environmental Systems LLC, companies are pursing technologies to reuse the “frack water” that comes out of wells after hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”—the process of using highly pressured water and chemicals to coax oil and gas out of shale-rock formations.

While the recycled water can’t currently be cleaned up enough for drinking or growing crops, it can be cleaned of chemicals and rock debris and reused to frack additional wells, which could sharply cut the costs that energy companies face securing and disposing of water.

So frackers make water so toxic that it has no other possible use, and then years later they figure out that maybe they should recycle it and limit the amount of additional water they contaminate. Seems like the cart went way before the horse here.

The level of recycling will depend on the accessibility of the water. If water remains abundant, it could cost less to simply inject wastewater underground rather than re-treat it (though this depends, sometimes the injection wells are hundreds of miles from the fracking site, and injection wells have been targeted for causing earthquakes, among other ecological idiosyncrasies). This poses a danger to underground aquifers and the water used for drinking in much of the United States, but you know, costs. To save costs, companies have also experimented with using different materials to fracture the rock, including compressed air.

If frackers want to come around to recycling, well great, I guess. But it’s a reminder that industry will only take on environmental imperatives when they have a compelling fiscal reason to do so. Only rising water prices and limit on supply will lead to this transition.

We see with this how a disruptive new industry makes and destroys markets. All of a sudden there’s a need for a fracking water recycling industry and an injection well industry.

Photo by ERIO under Creative Commons license.

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David Dayen

David Dayen