In May of this year, the International Energy Agency issued a report that made an economic case for the adoption of safer drilling practices in gas production facilitated by hydraulic fracturing, i.e., fracking. Could safer practices actually be cheaper in the long run? The agency’s argument is based on limiting chances of water or air pollution, while producing transparency that solicits public confidence.

In this context, what does safer actually mean? One major concern is treating flowback water from fracking operations, which involves the consideration of several factors. Is it safe for the environment? Is it safe for the well’s productivity? Is it safe for the operators?

Currently, the most common way of dealing with flowback water is to dispose of it in drywells, which requires hauling it long distances – upward of 200 miles round trip. Not only has this approach proven to cause earthquake tremors in Ohio and elsewhere, it also results in an unsafe depletion of aquifer water, especially in arid areas – a strain on the environment.

Another common option is to pass the flowback water through bag filters in order to capture large solids, and then re-inject it into the next fracking operation. Unfortunately, this simplistic method does not remove colloidal solids, lubricants, chemicals, calcium, magnesium or dissolved metals, which is unsafe for the wellbeing of the well.

A third approach is to oxidize the flowback water by injecting ozone into it before re-injecting the water. Though this results in the appearance of clear water, and arguably inoculates some of the harmful chemicals and bacteria, as in the previous method, none of the suspended solids and chemicals are physically removed prior to injection. Therefore, there is the risk of clogging fracking crevices, resulting in diminished well capacity. Further, there has been at least one fatality as a result of operator overexposure to ozone, a known toxic substance that is unsafe for human contact.

With the environmental, productivity and operator safety concerns troubling these common approaches to handling flowback water, many energy companies are looking toward more innovative methods of wastewater treatment. For example, Ecologix’s Integrated Treatment System, designed specifically for the oil and gas industry, eliminates both dependence on injection wells and off-site processing plants, and is able to remove and neutralize harmful contaminants in wastewater at the well site itself.

Any movement toward safer and more environmentally friendly practices also will have a positive effect on the sustained growth of the industry. Often, the mainstream media paints players in the oil and gas industry as environmentally irresponsible, socially unconscious, and cash-driven, going as far as they can to pillage and plunder the earth, while maintaining licensure. This negative press ultimately shapes the general public’s outlook on the industry, and acts as a catalyst to the adoption of industry-stifling government regulations.

Many of the major concerns of these negative media campaigns (strained water resources, surface water pollution, ground water contamination, earthquakes) can be mitigated by better wastewater practices such as treating flowback water and recycling it through an extended series of wells directly. Changing the public image of the industry can provide it with a much-needed social and legal license to maintain natural gas exploration and production well into the future.