By Eli Gruber, President & CEO Ecologix Environmental Systems
Illinois recently joined the ranks of states that have introduced legislation to regulate how hydraulic fracturing is carried out. Whether you cheer or jeer these new rules seems to once again depend heavily on which side of the fence you sit on. Environmentalists claiming that regulations don’t go far enough fall on one side with drillers who say that the laws are too restrictive to allow them to do their jobs effectively on the other seem to be standard fare with this type of legislation.
The bottom line for Illinois is that fracking is coming one way or another, and without some kind of legislative framework, fracking operations would begin in earnest completely unregulated. Thus, interested parties joined forces and hammered out a compromise. The bad news is, this law may not be adequate enough to serve as a model to other states. While making some progress, Illinois’ law does precious little to address a key concern of fracking: water management.
The 123-page legislation sets out guidelines for well construction, chemical disclosure, analytical reporting, and other important measures. What it fails to do is establish any guidelines for wastewater treatment, instead only briefly mentioning that recycling water for fracking is permissible. If you consider that managing wastewater produced by fracking is the primary concern of both environmentalists and drillers themselves, the lack of specific guidelines for managing it represents a fairly massive failure of the legislation to make significant environmental impact.
Instead of establishing benchmarks for wastewater treatment and reuse, the law focuses on regulating proper water disposal. It requires flowback water to be stored in tanks, but also includes an exception allowing for storage in open-lined pits when actual flowback water exceeds the amount anticipated. It goes on to specify what types of disposal techniques are allowed for this water, listing guidelines for allowable injection wells where the water is buried deep underground. While this is better than no regulation at all, it is short-sighted in that disposal of flowback water into injection wells permanently traps it and effectively removes it from the ecosystem, causing an overall net deficit to the fresh water supply.
A viable well generally calls for several millions of gallons of water for each frac. When you multiply that number by thousands of wells and consider that some can be fracked multiple times, it’s easy to realize that the amount of water used quickly skyrockets and just throwing it all away is a substantial problem, even when done safely. It is amazing, then, that this legislation does not require or even encourage recycling of wastewater despite the fact that effective and inexpensive methods of doing so exist. In many cases, recycling water can actually prove less expensive than disposing of it and will not deplete precious fresh water resources.
In order to fully understand this, you have to understand how water is used in hydraulic fracturing. The millions of gallons needed for each frac are purchased from local suppliers; this water typically originates from aquifers and is suitable for a number of uses, including agriculture and, with some level of purification, human consumption. This water is then trucked to wells where it is augmented with chemicals and proppants to create frac fluid. Since wells are frequently located in remote regions, the water often travels great distances in tanker trucks, which cause a fair amount of wear and tear on local roadways.
Once used to frac the well, most of this fluid makes its way back to the surface in what the industry has termed, flowback water. In order to be properly disposed of, flowback water is hauled to disposal wells and buried deep underground. Like water points of origin, these injection wells are often located many miles away from frac sites, sometimes across state borders, and the water must once again travel via tanker truck.
Compounding this problem is that even after all of the flowback has surfaced, active wells continue to produce bound water that is naturally occurring at the depths where the fracking occurs. This highly saline brine water, called produced water, is disposed of using the same methods as flowback.
The issues presented by both flowback and produced water can be solved by implementing water treatment plans. Mobile water treatment equipment can be set up at or near frac sites and eliminate the need to use trucks to transport water. Onsite treatment facilities require minimal water transport, and when installed near a concentrated area of wells, temporary water pipelines can easily be set up to displace tanker trucks in the job of transporting water. The environmental impact of treating and recycling water is doubled because not only does treating water keep it in the cycle and out of injection wells, it also keeps drillers from having to rely solely on fresh water from local sources.
Additionally, the inclusion of produced water for new fracs increases the productivity of the well. The salinity of brine water acts as a clay stabilizer and keeps the formation from swelling, which means that the fissures created by the fracking process are kept open to allow for free flowing oil and gas. Using recycled brine water results in a higher yield at a lower cost, and again leaves fresh water resources relatively untouched.
Like any regulation, it’s unsurprising that the Illinois legislation fails to appease either side fully. What is surprising is that what Illinois governor Pat Quinn calls “the strongest environmental regulations in the nation” fails to create any meaningful guidelines for the simplest and most effective solution to the biggest environmental concern related to fracking. Simply granting permission to treat and recycle frac water does not go nearly far enough. A more environmentally conscious approach might have included incentives for recycling flowback and produced water, and penalties for fresh water usage.
This article was originally published at Environmental Leader on July 2, 2013. View the source article here.