The lack of disposal wells in places like Pennsylvania, along with tightening regulations for waste disposal, has led the industry to start reusing fracking fluids.
Photo of trucks storing frackwater in Pennsylvania, courtesy of Skytruth
However, the high concentrations of dissolved salts, frack chemicals, and formation minerals found in flowback and produced water make it difficult to re-use, even as frack fluid. Therefore the water has to be treated before it is reused, an expensive process that rarely returns it to standards of cleanliness found in fresh water. As Larry Ryan, global manager for water treatment at Halliburton admits, “The goal is to reuse waste water, not to use the technology to make potable or drinking water.”
Thus, even when it is recycled, the water used for fracking must be disposed of. “No one wants to admit it, but at some point, even with reuse of this water, you have to confront the disposal question,” a water management industry executive told the New York Times.
Because it is usually cheaper and easier to acquire fresh water, the oil and gas industry only recycles a small portion of fracking fluid. As one industry survey concluded, “the costs and logistics of managing both fresh and flowback water in shale gas plays are problematic,” and the viability of new recycling technologies depends upon a variety of factors, including regulations, the availability of both water and waste disposal capacity. (Patrick Horner et al., “Shale Gas Water Treatment Value Chain - A Review of Technologies, including Case Studies,” SPE, 30 October-2 November 2011, Denver, Colorado)
The New York Times found that of a total 680 million gallons of wastewater produced in the Marcellus shale in a year and a half period ending in December of 2012, well operators reported recycling 320 million gallons. However, the remaining 360 million gallons of wastewater were sent to treatment plants that discharge their treated water in to rivers. According to theNew York Times, “Those 260 million gallons would fill more than 28,800 tanker trucks, a line of which would stretch from about New York City to Richmond, Va.”