More than 92 billion gallons of water were used for hydraulic fracturing between Jan. 1, 2011 and Feb. 28, 2013, according to a March 2015 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report analyzing data in FracFocus, a listing of voluntarily reported fracking information. Water was the base fluid in more than 93 percent of the database disclosures, with the median amount of water per well around 1.5 million gallons. The highest volume of water used to frack a single well reached almost 7.2 million gallons. In the meantime, a total of 279 counties in 11 western states had earned drought disaster designations as of March 25, 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
For the hydraulic fracturing industry, pressure to drastically decrease water use is at an all-time high. New regulations for fracking on U.S. public lands have already been enacted and the potential for more is probable. The good news is that serious efforts are being made to address the issue and a number of technologies are already available to reduce fracking’s freshwater footprint.
Mark Stanley, president and founder of RecyClean, noticed the need for something new while working with frack pumping and chemical services in 2009. “The shale plays were using these massive amounts of water and I thought to myself, ‘Well gee, this is something that’s going to be a problem for the industry coming up,’ ”he says. “So I started to see it from the pumping side of the business and started looking for technologies that would work so that we could start reusing the water.”
By 2012, he had launched RecyClean, a business built on recycling frack flowback to reduce reliance on newly acquired freshwater for fracking. “What it does is it gives you cleaner water that’s completely acceptable for reuse again,” Stanley says.
The recycling of flowback is carried out through 8.5-foot wide by 20-foot long Hydro-Pods, which look like shipping containers. The portable units take frack wastewater through two stages of treatment. The first stage grabs oxygen from the atmosphere, concentrates it and feeds it into an ozone generator. The ozone breaks down all of the organics that are in the water. The second stage, electrical coagulation, binds the solids in the flowback and separates them from the water. The water starts in a storage tank, filters through the Hydro-Pods and flows into another storage tank once cleaned.
Stanley says the system can treat gel, slick water, produced water and drilling waste for use in fracking again. Depending on how high in salinity the initial water is, customers have the option of running the water through the Hydro-Pods as many times as necessary. The flow rate is about 125 to 150 gallons per minute and the system is about 95 percent efficient in completely removing the need for newly acquired water, he says.
Aside from the key benefit of lowering the reliance on freshwater for fracking, Stanley says RecyClean can cut costs. “They don’t have to deal with nearly as much trucking as with fresh water. … The economic benefit depends on how far away they have to haul to a disposal well and how much the disposal company will charge them for it, but they can actually save money by treating and not having to pay to dispose of it.”
In March 2015, Themark Corporation, RecyClean’s parent company, received the Water Management Company of the Year Award at the third annual Rocky Mountain Oil & Gas Awards in Denver for its Hydro-Pod technology. “It made me feel very good because it validated what we’ve been saying and performing with these systems,” Stanley says.
Another company, OriginOil, also offers a treatment method for frack flowback and produced water called OriginClear. At its core is the company’s proprietary technology, Electro Water Separation or EWS.
In two hardware phases, EWS accomplishes three end results: electro-coagulation, electroflotation and, through their combined action, electro-oxidation. This multi-stage, inline process achieves virtual clarity by removing the oil, suspended solids, bacteria and other contaminants. The oily mat floats to the top of the water where it can be raked off and can be returned to the knockout tank for recycling
“EWS does the heavy lifting so all the downstream processes can work much more efficiently,” says Bill Charneski, president of OriginOil’s oil and gas division. “That way, you can process huge volumes of contaminated water for a reasonable cost.”
OriginClear packages EWS with pre- and post-conditioning equipment that effectively reduces target contaminants to very low or undetectable levels, as third party testing of the company’s Bakersfield field pilot has shown.
OriginClear can be a precursor to any downstream process, which means the recycling technology isn’t solely limited to reuse for fracking. Water can also be treated for agriculture, reservoir recharge, fracking and even drinking water.
With EWS established as the first step in treatment, OriginOil helps users integrate later phase treatment processes that are designed to meet specific client needs. According to Charneski, those more personalized technologies are created with design partners like Dow Chemical and TriSep that have membrane technologies.
What clients come to OriginOil for largely depends on their region. “In southern California, there’s basically no fracking going on and so the interest there is to replace freshwater because freshwater’s very scarce because of the drought. … Whereas in Texas, for instance, the desire is to create new frack water and not have to use freshwater for fracking,” Charneski says.
In addition to helping the fracking industry pull less from freshwater sources, OriginOil’s recycling concept opens the door to replenishing. “Competing with communities and agriculture for water creates a public relations problem for the industry,” says Riggs Eckelberry, OriginOil president and CEO. “I think they’re realizing this, to go, ‘Look. Here’s some water. We got some water out of the ground. Use it for your crops.’ It goes beyond public relations to being a good neighbor – and that is a winning role for the oil and gas industry.”
Recycling isn’t the only technology available to address the high volumes of water used for conventional fracking operations. Replacing water as a base fluid with something else is another viable alternative and Ferus Inc. offers two substitutes: carbon dioxide and nitrogen.
The two gases aren’t at all new to the hydraulic fracturing industry. It isn’t unusual for them to be used as frack fluid additives to energize water based fluids. What’s relevant and beneficial to water sustainability is the ability to use carbon dioxide and nitrogen in foamed fluid systems.
Foamed systems at Ferus are typically 70 to 80 percent nitrogen, carbon dioxide, or both. “So you’re reducing your freshwater requirement by at least 70 to 80 percent,” says Murray Reynolds, director of technical services at Ferus. The company works with hydraulic fracturing companies and operators to supply nitrogen, carbon dioxide or a mix for frack fluid systems, along with onsite logistics for specific well sites.
Reynolds says that foamed fluid systems have been around for some time and that they’re typically used solely to boost well production potential, but that’s changing. “With water issues becoming more apparent in certain areas, we are starting to see more demand in some areas due to water supply issues or water disposal issues,” Reynolds says. “I would say as far as people inquiring about water savings by using foam fluids, it’s really only the last two or three or four years that we’ve had any interest in that area.”
One of the best advantages of foam systems, aside from water sustainability, is their ability to carry proppant effectively and efficiently, Reynolds says. With higher viscosities than water based fluids, he says, they’re better able to assist oil or gas in filling the fractures to the top as it flows out. “I think that’s one of the reasons why you see head-to-head, even smaller foamed fracks will often outperform much larger slick water fracks once the well is in production,” Reynolds says.
Improved production and decreased water use are also being combined at General Electric (GE). Its oil and gas division is researching a chilled form of carbon dioxide that could be used as a substitute for water in frack fluid. “It won’t be 100 percent CO2, but we would like to have a very high percentage of CO2. An initial target of the program is water reduction in the 24 to 45 percent range,” says Michael Ming, general manager of the GE Global Research Oil & Gas Technology Center.
The collaborative effort between GE and Statoil, a multinational oil and gas operator, is exclusively aimed at exploring carbon dioxide as an alternative to water for hydraulic fracturing. Carbon dioxide was selected as the first test option due to desirable flowback capabilities. Ming says it’s too early to tell if the results will prove successful, but if and when they do, commercialization efforts are likely.
Commercialization of such technologies can be challenging, but at a time when operations are slowing, markets like this one see potential.
At the height of the boom, Stanley says, it was hard to get the fracking industry to pay attention to products like his because operators were too busy making money. Reynolds calls that “manufacturing mode,” when the focus on production is so strong that no real time is made for innovation. “As a result, there’s inefficiency, there’s water wastage. Downtimes like we’re currently having are good times for people to properly review what they’re doing and possibly optimize their fracturing procedures,” he says.
The sooner the industry embraces water-saving methods as the norm, the better, according to Stanley. “If you clean it up yourself as an industry and develop it as a best standard practice, it’s much better than having the government come in and legislate what you have to do.”