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James Stafford

James Stafford

James Stafford is the Editor of Oilprice.com

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Recycling: The Future of Fracking

The “hydraulic” part of the fracking equation means buying a lot of water and then paying to get rid of it once it’s been tainted. So figuring out how to help companies recycle frack water is an emerging business opportunity that could be worth countless billions. But we’re not there quite yet—it still costs more to use recycled frack water in shale plays where water is plentiful and disposal wells numerous. Right now if you look at plays where there aren’t enough disposal wells, frack water recycling is becoming the norm. At the same time, the price gap is closing, gradually, for recycling in arid areas where water is harder to come by.  We’re eyeing the companies who are poised to take advantage of what will certainly be the future of fracking

But before we take you through the companies who are hedging their bets on the profits to be made on recycling frack water, let’s take a look at the costs and the latest technological advancements.  

The background to this story takes us back to the Barnett shale in Texas, where the shale boom really started off. At that time, water was fairly affordable and operators could pretty easily get rid of the chemical-laden frack water in disposal wells. So obtaining and getting rid of frack water hasn’t been a huge problem—but it is an expensive one.

Recycling frack water is still a relatively new idea—more so, recycling frack water for use as drinking water. 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.

In Texas, where hydraulic fracturing uses up around 50% of water in some counties, recycling for fracking re-sue could have a significant impact. In Colorado, where fracking accounts for only about one-tenth of a percent of all water consumed, the impact is less significant, but recycling is still a major issue here.

Companies are coming under increasing pressure to recycle their frack water, especially in key shale boom areas that are dry and drought-prone—like Eagle Ford and the Permian Basin.

A University of Texas 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.   

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 we’re convinced that recycling is on trend to become the standard, and we’re looking particularly to Texas and Colorado for growth in this sector.

But while Texas and Colorado are the expected growth areas, frack water recycling is already thriving in the Marcellus shale, where about 90% of the water that flows back from wells is recycled. Why? There aren’t enough disposal wells here and it’s too expensive to truck the frack water elsewhere to be buried.

The Cost Comparison

On average, it costs around (or upwards of) $1 million per well for water and frack water disposal. For a horizontal well, we’re talking about 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.

Let’s look at Colorado, where frack water recycling is undergoing a rather strenuous debate right now. Here, oil and gas companies produce about 15 billion gallons of frack wastewater a year. That waste water is injected into super-deep wells, dumped into shallow pits, stored in evaporative ponds or discharged into waterways only partially treated.

Recycling frack water into fresh water is expensive in Colorado. Estimates put it at about three times more expensive than buying new water (17 cents a barrel) and disposing of the contaminated version (about 70 cents a barrel).  

But this is the long-term goal—getting fresh water out of frack water. Right now, we’re more concerned with recycling water just enough so it can be re-used in the fracking process—cutting down significantly on the amount of water used by oil and gas companies.

The price comparison is this (using Colorado as an example): It costs about $5 a barrel to recycle frack water into fresh drinking water; it costs about $2 a barrel to recycle it for re-use in fracking. This is still more than the 70 cents a barrel its costs to bury frack wastewater, but the gap is closing in and we can also reduce the money spend on water if we reuse it.

But that’s Colorado, where there are plenty of disposal wells to use. Let’s try Pennsylvania, where there aren’t enough disposal wells and frack water has to be trucked to Ohio, or North Dakota. Here frack water recycling can save companies around $370,000 per well in the Marcellus shale, and around $70,000 in North Dakota’s Bakken.

In Texas, the price comparison gap is pretty much closed: it costs about the same price to recycle as it does to keep using new fresh water and disposing of it.

This is the immediate future, and it’s already taken off, with much fracking being done using at least some recycled water.

Encana is doing this. Halliburton is doing it for Exxon Mobil in New Mexico.

High Sierras is treating about 84,000 gallons a day from Weld County wells for re-use in the fracking process. The state of Colorado saw its first successful fracking this year with recycled frack water by Noble Energy, with tech from High Sierra Water Services. It was dubbed a “milestone” for fracking, with High Sierra calling it the real future of horizontal drilling.

You would be amazed if you saw the sludge High Sierras turns into clear water that may not be good enough for drinking, but it is good enough for fracking.

The companies that will be most likely to latch on to this will be those who have the hardest time getting new fresh water supplies—like Texas and Colorado.

Perhaps the most encouraging news recently has come from Halliburton, which claims that its frack water recycling tech has saved Exxon Mobil $70,000-$100,000 per well in Eddy County, NM, with no loss of production.

But a regulatory push wouldn’t hurt, and both state and federal regulators are increasingly leaning towards ways to incentivize frack water recycling. Recently, the Texas Railroad Commission adopted new rules encouraging frack water recycling by removing the need for operators to obtain recycling permits if they plan to recycle on their own land or if they plan to transfer the recycled frack water to another operator.    

A defining moment for frack water recycling could come in 2014, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the federal government will release new rules for disposal and treatment of oil and gas industry wastewater “based on best available technologies that are economically achievable”.

Where We Stand with the Tech

First things first: Frack water can be recycled for re-use in fracking—recycling to obtain drinkable water is a more involved process, so for now this is more about using less water and saving on acquisition and disposal costs. To recycle for re-use in fracking, the process involves just removing enough contaminants (salts, metals, etc) to ensure that it doesn’t upset the chemical balance when re-used in the fracking process.

Everything can’t be recycled, though. On average, up to 80% of the frack water that comes back out of wells can be recycled, but in the case of Barnett, only about one-third of the water comes back out. So we’re not cutting out the need for new water entirely—we’re just cutting down significantly, in some places more than others. However, there are some places in Oklahoma and Texas where FTS International says it uses up to 100% of the frack water that flows back out of a well.

Fracking water

That’s not to say that there aren’t designs to turn frack water into fresh water. It’s in the works, but it’s early days for that and the public isn’t really ready to bet on this. High Sierras has noted that it hopes to eventually release treated frack water back into Colorado’s surface waters—but eventually is the operative word here. There would be a mountain of regulatory hurdles to overcome to get to this point.

Near Midland, Texas, ThermoEnergy and STW Resources have just completed a successful pilot test of ThermoEnergy’s the TurboFrac system, processing frack water with a 72% fresh water recovery rate. This is ThermoEnergy’s Controlled Atmosphere Separation Technology (CAST) process, which has been deployed at some 80 industrial sites.  

Ecana has a permit to release its recycled frack wastewater into the surface waterways in Colorado, but its first experiment in this was unsuccessful, so the permit has never been used. Ecana tried the reverse-osmosis filtration system, hoping to discharge the water to the surface, but it was unsuccessful. Instead, it is focusing right now on recycling for re-use in fracking. For fresh water, it’s back to the drawing board.

But there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about. But we do know that researchers are trying to develop better membranes to filter liquid waste and that a lot of money is being spent on new filtration technology ideas.

Poised to Profit on Recycling


Halliburton in July partnered up with Nuverra Environmental Solutions to advance the treatment and recycling of frack water in the Bakken Shale. Halliburton offers the H20 Forward service for frack water re-use and recycling. The company is now proposing to modify a waste disposal plant under construction in Weld County to make way for a commercial water-recycling facility that would be able to supply groundwater for municipal, industrial and irrigation uses.

Baker Hughes

Baker Hughes has really stormed the frack water recycling scene, with its H2PrO system that only hit the market a year and a half ago. It wasn’t a great debut—at first. But that changed quickly. The company says its recycling system is saving customers 30-50% in places where they would otherwise have to truck frack water to dispose of it, namely Pennsylvania and North Dakota.  

Fountain Quail Water Management

Right now, this is the biggest recycler of frack water in the Barnett shale, in Texas, and is set to put up two more systems in the Permian Basin. All told, the company is eyeing $5 million yearly for starters, for its frack water recycling business.

That would represent a big boost for Fountain Quail, which was hit hard by the collapse in natural-gas prices after 2008, said Brent Halldorson, chief operating officer of the Roanoke, Texas, company, which has about 40 employees. The company operates nine freshwater distilling units and one filtering unit, which produces clean saltwater.

Bosque Systems

This company has seen the opportunity here and is set up to take advantage of the need for frack water recycling because was already involved in wastewater-disposal wells for the oil and gas industry. Bosque thinks demand for frack water recycling will soar because it’s a service that makes operations cheaper for drillers, so it’s preparing for the onslaught now. The company has only been in operation for seven years, and right now it’s got disposal wells in the Barnett shale, in Texas. But it is eyeing operations well beyond this.

FTS International

This Forth Worth, Texas-based company is proving to be one of the biggest providers of hydraulic-fracturing services in the US—so frack water recycling is a logical expansion. FTS touts its Aquacor units, which can recycle up to 630,000 gallons a day of frack water. FTS is eyeing three recycling systems for the Barnett shale, Texas, this year.


This water treatment company acquired Fluid Recovery Services earlier this year, and the combined force hopes to corner the recycling market for the Marcellus and Utica shales. The acquisition gives Aquatech two additional central water management facilities, for five in total in Pennsylvania.

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