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Frack-Water Recycling, an Emerging Market

Some 21 billion barrels of wastewater a year flows from oil and natural gas wells in the US, and while the market to recycle frack water has been slow to emerge, the potentially multi-billion-dollar arena is now starting to take off in earnest.

It takes between 70 billion to 140 billion gallons of water to frack 35,000 wells a year, the industry's current pace, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and while recycling frack water is still a relatively new idea, companies are coming under increasing pressure to do so, and Schlumberger predicts a strategic boom in the business.

Re-using treated frack water in the fracking process itself is growing on companies as it proves it can be economically viable, environmentally safer and in the long-term a hedge against dwindling water supplies.

Related article: Rising Slag Heaps of Petcoke in Midwest Arouse Environmental Concerns

In Texas, where hydraulic fracturing uses up around 50% of water in some counties, recycling for fracking re-use could have a significant impact.  

Schlumberger, an oilfield services company that has been a pioneer of frack water recycling, predicts that a million new wells will be fracked around the world between now and 2035, and reducing freshwater use "is no longer just an environmental issue—it has to be an issue of strategic importance”.  

Fracking operations require millions of gallons of relatively clean water. Each time a well is drilled, about 20 percent of the water eventually remerges, but it is jam-packed with contaminants from drilling chemicals and heavy metals picked up when the water hits oil.

Until recently, that water was dumped as waste, often into injection wells deep underground.

A University of Texas at Austin study, funded by the Texas Oil and Gas Association, concludes that the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing will level off starting in 2020 as water recycling technologies mature and the industry’s rapid growth rate cools.

The study also found that total water use for fracking in Texas rose by about 125% between 2008 and 2011, and that about one-fifth of the current total comes from recycled frack water—and this trend is growing.   

Related article: New Study Finds Higher Methane Emissions from Fracking

This year, we’re seeing a clear uptick in frack water recycling, both in terms of pilot programs and actual implementation. Right now, only about 2% of frack water is being reused, but new recycling technology continues to make the process more cost effective.

On average, it costs around (or upwards of) $1 million per well for water and frack water disposal. For a horizontal well, this means a minimum of 5 million gallons of water—so that’s 5 million gallons to acquire and then dispose of.

But determining cost comparisons depends on where you are, how much water is available and what the existing infrastructure is for disposing of frack water. So prices differ wildly from Colorado and Texas to Pennsylvania and North Dakota. In some venues, it pays to recycle, in others it costs, but the gaps are closing, according to Oil & Energy Insider.

By. Charles Kennedy

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