The growing volume of dirty water produced in shale-gas drilling has triggered a gold rush among water-treatment companies. With the public backlash against fracking growing (link), Food & Water Watch shows that private water companies profit as well from the expansion in hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, while simultaneously downplaying its myriad environmental, public health and economic risks (link).
In Fracking’s Wake: Some companies love that dirty water, because it means more money for cleaning it up
A Fracking Bonanza
Energy companies increasingly are drilling for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In this process, millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and 600 different chemicals are pumped into a well under high pressure; the mixture fractures the rock, allowing the gas to escape. From the huge amounts of water used, about 10% to 40% of it emerges after a frack job, laced with a variety of poisonous substances. These include not only the fracking chemicals, but also harmful natural contaminants carried to the surface, like radioactive materials.
Even as the volume of dirty water grows, the traditional methods of disposal are narrowing. Several states are considering or have recently imposed limits on wastewater treatment in public facilities or disposal underground or in streams. Meanwhile, record drought in some drilling areas is making access to fresh water for drilling more difficult, costly and unpopular.
The net result: “For the first time there’s a strong driver for technology” to clean up the wastewater from mines so it can be reused, says Laura Shenkar, founder of the Artemis Project, a water-technology consulting firm. Dozens of water-treatment companies have started up in the past year or so, and many of the more established companies are adapting their techniques for use in the shale-gas industry. How many of those companies the market can support remains to be seen. As well, do regulations require the drilling companies to properly clean up their operations? To date, the answer is no.
Water Industry Promotion of Shale Gas
Food and Water Watch (read the report) found in the first half of 2011, American Water sold 115 million gallons of water to a dozen gas-drilling companies, making $702,000 in revenue. The company also discounted the price of the water for drillers, charging them an average of 45 percent less for water than residential customers. Similarly, in September 2011, Aqua America agreed to invest $12 million to build and operate an 18-mile pipeline to supply fresh water to Marcellus Shale gas producers. These companies are also expanding service to areas of the U.S. with active shale gas plays such a Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas.
They also found investor-owned utilities may also be complicit in obscuring the potential dangers of shale gas development. Tests conducted by companies such as Pennsylvania American Water on water supplies near plants that treat fracking wastewater were used by some pro-drilling advocates to inappropriately suggest municipal treatment of fracking wastewater was safe. It does not appear that the company has made an effort to correct these misstatements by pro-drilling advocates.
“Shale gas development squanders and pollutes water, so a potential multi-billion dollar market is now emerging to address the industry’s insatiable thirst,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “Investor-owned water utilities are providing services to the shale gas industry in order to justify costly new treatment plants and other projects that allow them to raise rates and boost profits.”
In polluting drinking water, shale gas development can also generate new customers for investor-owned utilities. When the process pollutes one source of water, those customers may be forced to obtain their water from a system owned by a private utility.
In Dimock, Pa., the local water supply has been so compromised by shale gas development that eleven local families there can no longer drink from their wells. On November 30, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection granted Cabot Oil & Gas’s request to stop providing an alterative water supply to the families, leaving some homes without access to safe water, and prompting some activists to truck water to Dimock from New York City’s watershed. American Water has agreed to provide potable water in the interim but will charge these households the same amount as their other residential customers, without supplying such services as piping the water to the homes or customer support.
Today, the future of Dimock’s water supply remains unclear. Late last year, the state Department of Environmental Protection authorized a $12 million grant to American Water to connect the township to the company’s nearby water system in Montrose. American Water is the dominant water provider in the area, and there is no publicly operated water system from which residents of Dimock can reasonably obtain water.
Private Companies See Money in Fracking Wastewater
Companies are using several different approaches to shale-gas wastewater treatment.
Ecosphere Technologies Inc., based in Stuart, Fla., is one of the dominant providers of water treatment for the shale-gas industry, according to Lux Research, a technology research and consulting firm. The company’s technology avoids the use of chemicals typically employed to treat wastewater.
Ecosphere’s process forces dirty water through pipes where ozone breaks down contaminants with the help of sound waves, electrically charged particles and changes in pressure. No waste is created in the process, because while the technology renders contaminants harmless it doesn’t filter anything out.
Another strong competitor for new business, according to Lux analyst Brent Giles, is WaterTectonics Inc., based in Everett, Wash. The company uses a process called electric coagulation, in which an electric charge forces contaminant particles into clumps that can be removed after they either rise to the surface of the water or sink to the bottom. The process avoids the use of chemicals, but it does produce waste that has to be disposed of.
Another company, Altela Inc., based in Albuquerque, N.M., earned a spot on Artemis Project’s 2011 list of the 50 most innovative water-technology companies in the U.S. Its technology mimics rainmaking. Wastewater is heated to the point of evaporation, which produces clean water in the form of vapor, leaving contaminant particles behind. The vapor is then condensed back into liquid form.
The basic process, called thermal distillation, isn’t new, but Altela has found a way to make it more efficient, by capturing the heat generated by condensation and using it for evaporation. Ned Godshall, the company’s chief executive, says Altela’s method uses a third of the energy typically required for conventional thermal distillation.
Poisoned Water Remains: Limits to Water Recycling
One potential drag on the use of all these technologies: Some drillers have started to simply reuse their wastewater without fully treating it. But it isn’t clear how much of a factor that will be. Many technology companies and some researchers argue that there is a limit to such recycling because it doesn’t clean the water enough for it to be used repeatedly and still be effective. The particles in dirty water can damage equipment and block the release of gas from the shale.
“When I learned in early 2010 that they were going to recycle, I thought they were going to do a real heavy-duty treatment” before reusing the water, says John Veil, who analyzed water treatment for the oil and gas industry for many years at the Argonne National Laboratory, and now does so at his own consulting firm. “They are not. All they are doing is getting out the big sand grains in a [filtering] process as simple as pouring the water through pantyhose.”
Ms. Chernova is a special writer for Dow Jones VentureWire in New York. She can be reached at [email protected].