Solutions Part II: Cleaning up Produced Drilling Wastewater

In my last post, I discussed the solutions that innovative drilling and technology companies are using to reduce water consumption for fracking projects. These technologies are easier to build economies of scale because almost all fracking sites across the country can use similar technologies, once and if it is proven. However, in my research, it was interesting to learn that the wastewater treatment for drilling projects is a much tougher issue to tackle. There is no universal solution to treat drilling wastewater because the geology and chemical makeup of the produced water varies widely across sites and formations. But that has not stopped savvy businesses from creating innovative technologies to address this issue.

As we have seen, there are technologies that can recycle the produced drilling water and use it for further drilling operations. Treating this wastewater to make it suitable for later industrial or human consumption poses a much greater challenge. Why? Well there are a few reasons. First, the wastewater treatment technology industry is extremely fragmented. According to a November, 2013 article in USA Today on the subject, the treatment industry remains fragmented because each area of the country requires much different treatment technologies. The geology and water chemistry of the Marcellus Shale, for example, may require much different technology than drillers in the Permian Basin would need. As such, this barrier has thwarted many companies’ efforts to create a “one size fits all” technology. Second, economics and regulations also play a role in thwarting large-scale attempts to create water treatment solutions. A report from CAP Resources estimates that disposing of drilling water by injecting it deep underground costs $1-3 per barrel. The average wastewater treatment technology costs between $2 and $6 per barrel. In areas of the country that have more lax water treatment regulations, drillers will use the least expensive option.

But these challenges have not stopped some innovative technologies from advancing. A report  from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows how General Electric has created a treatment technology that works like desalination. The process called membrane distillation uses heat and decreased pressure to separate water vapor from the salt and other chemicals used in the fracking process. While this technology may not work everywhere, MIT researchers believe that this technology may be useful in places like the Eagle Ford shale in Texas where water remains scarce.

Some companies plan to adapt existing technologies to use in applications for the drilling industry. For example, Boston-based Oasys water initially planned to use its osmosis technology system for desalination plants. However, after slower progress in that field, the company decided to adapt its technology to work in fracking applications. A start-up company called Clean Membranes created a filtration system that can produce extremely clean water. To test its product, the company chose to focus on the drilling industry. Clean Membranes knew that there was demand for this type of product in drilling applications, and that the challenge of cleaning produced water could validate its product. I expect to see more of these products to come to market as the need for wastewater treatment on drilling sites becomes more acute. However, it will be a slow process. The companies creating this technology need up-front capital for research and development, and it takes time before their products reach the point of commercialization. But the examples above show that companies are making great strides towards creating adaptive solutions for wastewater treatment in the drilling industry.

So what’s the bottom line? Particularly in drought-parched areas of this country, drilling companies will have to do more to keep the process of drilling sustainable over the long-term. Both water recycling and treatment technologies are available, but the varying regulations and needs of each shale formation hinder the creation of a “one-size fits all” technology. However, as these technologies progress, we may continue to see technologies further reduce costs and fit drilling companies’ broader needs. For both the economic development of the US and the need to make fracking a more environmentally sustainable practice, I hope that these technologies continue to gain traction.

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About Jeff Simonetti

Jeff Simonetti is the Vice President of Public Affairs at the Capitol Core Group and provides project management, business development, and policy/lobbying expertise to a variety of federal, state and local clients. During his tenure at Capitol Core, Jeff has among other projects helped a renewable energy company to secure authorizing resolutions in cities across Southern California. Prior to joining Capitol Core Group, Jeff was a Vice President at the Kosmont Companies, a real estate and economic development consulting firm. At Kosmont, Jeff was the project lead for cities looking to implement financing strategies such as Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs) and other post-redevelopment funding mechanisms. He also was the project manager for the Economic Development element of the Fontana General Plan Update. Jeff gained significant state and local government affairs experience as the Government Affairs Director at the Building Industry Association (BIA) of Southern California’s Baldy View Chapter. During his tenure at the BIA, he helped to found the annual San Bernardino County Water Conference, an event that gathers over 400 elected officials and business leaders in the region to discuss the pressing water policy issues that affect the community.