As rig counts decrease, wastewater floods the industry

In July, when the Shale Alliance For Energy Research released its outlook on the future of oil and gas wastewater, the so-called crossover point for this region was supposed to come in nine years.

That’s the point at which the volume of wastewater produced from shale gas extraction outpaces the industry’s ability to reuse it to drill and frack more wells. It was an academic estimate.

“It’s a whole lot shorter in the real world,” said Stephen Hughes, design engineering manager at Tetra Tech, a California-based water engineering and consulting firm.

He spoke at a Gas Technology Institute Conference in October, as companies were starting to lay down rigs and hinting at anemic capital budgets for 2016. At that time, Mr. Hughes said the more realistic crossover point for this region might be closer to five years.

But that was three months ago, before oil slid below $30 per barrel and natural gas companies — fairly or not — went along for the downhill ride.

Shale wells produce water first in a gush, when the fracking fluids pumped underground to stimulate gas flow come back up the well bore, and then in more of a trickle over a longer period, as the salty brine that lives underground comes to the surface along with oil and gas.

Oil and gas operators, particularly in Pennsylvania, have been able to recycle the majority of their so-called flowback and produced water by using it to drill and frack new wells.

But with drilling and fracking activity down drastically — Consol Energy Inc. said it won’t drill any new wells in 2016, for example — more attention is turning to how to dispose of this water.

“We’re all of a sudden becoming very popular,” said Mike Broeker, president and CEO of Epiphany Water Solutions, a Lawrenceville-based maker of solar-powered water treatment units.

“Now that the drilling has dropped off anywhere between 75 percent to 100 percent, there is this completely unexpected and unplanned-for tsunami of produced water that the operators are having to deal with,” he said.

Mr. Broeker said the company has seen a huge increase in its sales pipeline. It has five of its mobile units in the field and plans to manufacture up to 100 more by the end of the year.

“The slowdown is not good for the industry, but it puts a spotlight on what we’re doing,” said Brian Kalt, President of Fairmont Brine, which runs a centralized wastewater treatment plant in West Virginia.

According to Mr. Kalt, the limiting factor isn’t just that there are fewer opportunities to reuse this water but also that companies are moving away from deep well injection, a practice frequently linked to small earthquakes in states such as Oklahoma and Ohio.

In Pennsylvania, there has been no evidence of wastewater injection wells causing the earth to move, but there are fewer than a dozen such wells in the state and getting a new one permitted is an onerous process.  

For Mr. Kalt and other industry experts, all signs point to the need for large wastewater treatment plants that can clean the water and return it back into the environment.

There is only one such plant permitted to discharge treated frack water in Pennsylvania, but it’s possible that others created to treat water for reuse will try to convert their permits to discharge by adding different technology to their systems.

Perhaps in anticipation of that, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is doing a study to characterize oil and gas wastewater submitted to centralized wastewater treatment plants. The EPA issues effluent guidelines, dictating what constituents can be present in water discharged to rivers and streams and in what concentrations.

“We’re seeing a lot more wastewater going to centralized waste treatment (plants) from oil and gas operations,” said Jesse Pritts, a civil engineer with the EPA who is leading the study. “When we wrote those regulations, they weren’t really designed with oil and gas wastewater in mind.”

The EPA is in the second year of the study and Mr. Pritts anticipates publishing findings and recommendations at the end of the year. The findings are likely to address elements such as chlorides, bromides, radium, strontium and others inherent to oil and gas operations.

“We just know there’s a whole host of different additives in the fracturing process,” he said.

Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455.

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