The hydraulic fracturing industry remains a high growth sector. But its use of water pre- and post-production has come under scrutiny as the world edges closer toward a global water crisis.
Traditional extraction and treatment technologies are gradually being substituted for innovative and advanced water treatment equipment. Innovative companies, with substantial investment in research and development, are developing more efficient means to clean and recycle drilling water on-site, as well as engineering more environmentally friendly drilling solutions.
The average natural gas well requires approximately three to five million gallons of water for both drilling and fracking, depending on the geological makeup of the drilling site. Though these volumes of water seem substantial, in comparison to water consumption for agricultural purposes, industrial activities, and recreational use, it’s moderate. Nonetheless, the International Energy Agency projects that water use for natural gas production will rise 86 percent by 2035. This upward trend of fracking and water use in energy production amplifies the need for continued research and development activities providing technologies for reducing the impact to water resources.
Protecting our water resources has become one of the largest environmental issues confronting the public and industry alike. Water recycling methods will be one of the main technological innovations to resolve the issue of water consumption in fracking. Water recycling technology will reduce consumption and further decrease industry’s environmental footprint. With unconventional gas from shale slowly replacing conventional energy, the increase in water demand will challenge industry to research and engineer more efficient water use technologies, thus solving challenges to water use, treatment, and disposal.
Though some environmental groups and non-governmental organizations are advocating for the ban of fracking, water use and treatment technologies should help in alleviating some of the concerns.
Most companies involved in fracking activities truck water off-site to water-treatment facilities. With the advent of new technologies and the goal of reducing their environmental footprint, oil and gas companies are treating water on-site with ultraviolet light and ozone to kill bacteria found in water; thereby, eliminating the needs for biocides and other chemicals. In addition, companies are making use of desalination technologies to treat water, which has the potential of reducing water treatment costs and will efficiently remove pollutants.
Other entities are investing in water impacts and treatments. The Desert Research Institute, with funding provided by Noble Energy, is conducting an “Aquifer Quality Assessment (AQUA) Program to analyze the potential for subsurface migration of hydraulic fracturing fluids within the hydrographic basin.” According to the project goals, the final phase AQUA will “include the development of a computer model to determine the chemical migration potential following hydraulic fracturing,” thus providing some insight into potential impacts on water resources.
Though many companies focus on water management and treatment technologies, some companies are doing away with water use in fracking all-together. GASFRAC Energy Services Inc. engineered a waterless Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) gel, eliminating the need for water in fracking. The waterless LPG gel process creates minimal flaring and is arguably more sustainable, though some say there are certain tradeoffs, with higher safety risks with liquid propane and debate over the amount of water involved in production and liquefaction of propane.
Oil and gas companies need to work with service providers to improve fracking technologies, especially those which provide for more efficient use of water resources and provide better treatment of produced water. Concurrently, industry should continue to invest heavily in research and development activities that could reduce the use of water in fracking.
With the upsurge of fracking in the U.S. and abroad, companies are eager to demonstrate their obligation to the environment by devoting financial and human capital in new technologies to protect water resources. These forward-thinking methods to water management will prove valuable to other projects, both related to and distinct from energy development.
There remains a vast unexploited potential to improve energy efficiency, and water holds the answer. The answer to issues facing the water-energy nexus will reduce the stress on this essential resource, provide future energy security around the world, and simultaneously increase energy production while remaining environmentally sound. We need a balance in energy development and water use to solve this dilemma.
Bennett Resnik is a Juris Doctor candidate at Vermont Law School. He has worked in both public and private arenas, focusing on government relations, domestic public policy issues, as well as federal and state energy and environmental regulations.