Fracking’s Environmental Impacts: Recycled Fluid

The fracking industry sometimes points to recycling as a way of dealing with the huge amounts of toxic wastewater that fracking creates. However, fracking wastewater "recycling" does not return water to potability and is not occurring on a meaningful scale.

Hydraulic fracturing well near property reported to be contaminated in 2011 by fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing drilling process. Chesapeake Energy told the residents that the water is good, but the home owner disputes that assessment, stating that the water is orange and all his trees are dead and or dying. The well has since been shut down.

© Les Stone / Greenpeace

The fracking industry sometimes points to recycling as a way of dealing with the huge amounts of toxic wastewater that fracking creates. However, fracking wastewater “recycling” does not return water to potability and is not occurring on a meaningful scale.

trucks storing fracking water

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)

fracking well in Wyoming

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 the New 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.”

Agricultural Use in California

Wastewater from oil and gas production is used for agricultural irrigation in California. Water from oil and gas extraction is filtered, mixed with fresh water and sold to farmers. Chevron, one of the largest producers of wastewater in California, sells up to 21 million gallons of treated oil and gas wastewater to farmers every day.

As the Los Angeles Times revealed in 2015, “no one knows whether nuts, citrus or other crops grown with the recycled oil field water have been contaminated.” Elevated levels of chemicals toxic to humans have been found in treated water used for irrigation.

The program that monitors the use of wastewater in agriculture is more than 20 years old, and only recently began checking for fracking chemicals.

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