Dirty Water

One of the most challenging environmental problems associated with drilling is disposing of its wastewater, which is typically laced with heavy metals, chemicals and hydrocarbons. Usually the waste is collected in open, dirt-brimmed waste pits where it sits until it’s hauled off to treatment facilities or injection wells. In the meantime, the fluids can evaporate or seep into the earth, or overflow if rain or snow overfills the pit.

A 1992 Congressional report found that one of “the greatest opportunities” to prevent this type of pollution is something called a closed loop system, a series of pipes that gathers the waste as it comes out of a gas well, separates some of the water for reuse, and confines the concentrated leftovers in a steel tank. According to EPA findings quoted in the report, closed loop systems can reduce the volume of drilling fluids – and the chemicals used — by more than 90 percent. Because the waste is enclosed, chemicals can’t evaporate, fluids are less likely to spill and permanent pits aren’t needed.

Closed loop systems are rarely required in state regulations, but they are increasingly used, in part because they can save money for the companies that use them.

A 2001 case study by the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates gas drilling in Texas, focused on a small gas producer that tested such a system. Building the pipes and tanks cost the company more initially, according to the report, but the company – which it did not name – didn’t have to construct a waste pit, remediate the land when it finished drilling, haul its toxic materials to a disposal site or pay the slew of environmental fees levied by the state. According to the Railroad Commission, the company saved at least $10,000 for each gas well that was connected to the closed loop system. At that rate, the savings from the use of such a system on all the roughly 4,500 wells in Sublette County could tally $45 million.

Yet the industry continues to fight laws that would lead to increased use of closed loop systems.

In 2008 New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration passed some of the nation’s strongest rules prohibiting the use of unlined waste pits and thereby encouraging the use of a closed-loop system as an alternative. The regulation was inspired by a study that found that leaks or seepage from waste pits had contaminated water supplies in some 400 cases.

The industry mounted a public relations, lobbying, and legal war to stop the law, claiming that it would weigh down business with excessive costs that would ultimately result in lost jobs. In early 2009, Richardson relented and directed his administration to relax several of the rule’s requirements and timelines.

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  1. From Mary Sweeney
    December 14, 2009 4:27 pm EST
    While developing so-called “green” fracking fluids may indeed be a help, many problems with shale gas drilling would still remain. For example, no matter what sort of fracking fluid is used, naturally occurring radioactive materials that are normally buried deep beneath the surface of the earth will still be brought to the surface as the fluid returns out of the wellbore.

    Further, even if truck traffic is reduced, the huge number of gas wells, access roads, pipelines (for gas and water), and compressor stations required will leave the landscape forever scarred.

    For those who are not living in a shale area, please understand that they are not talking about putting these wells just in the wide open spaces. In NY state there really are very few “wide open spaces.” NY state law has negated local communities’ ability to zone these gas wells out of residential areas. The setbacks from private wells, waterways, homes, and municipal water wells are very small. In order to get an appreciable amount of gas from the shale, they will need thousands and thousands of gas wells—enough to turn upstate NY and much of PA into a huge gas factory in which the residents will be treated like so much expendable collateral damage.

    Many of us who have lived here for years and years, faithfully paying our mortgages and taxes, feel that we no longer have control of our own property. This is a huge land grab, and it’s not about energy independence, it’s about money. If this country were serious about energy independence, we would have a serious conservation plan in place and we would be seriously working on sustainable, clean energy sources like wind and solar. Instead, our homes and lives are being destroyed in order to produce more fossil fuel energy which will largely be used to run inefficient appliances and heat poorly insulated homes. No one—not even the most optimistic gas drilling advocate—says this gas will last forever. But we are going to spend a tremendous amount of money getting the gas out of the ground and cleaning up the resulting mess. And shale gas will never be cheap: the wells are expensive, the water disposal is expensive, and the wells deplete rapidly, so they will need a huge number of wells to recover an appreciable amount of gas. All of that money could be much better spent developing a clean, sustainable, 21st-century approach to energy production and use.

  2. From EnvtMemo
    December 15, 2009 1:56 pm EST
    I’ve commented at EnvironmentMemo on this article. While there’s a lot of good information in the article, there’s a lot of industry PR that needs challenging, as well. Diesel fuel was taken out of the mix because of severe problems it caused, and it was not exempted from regulation in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, so they basically had to stop using it. That they used it to begin with does not augur well.

    They are spinning some things they would be doing anyway, in an attempt to avoid having to do what they really have to do: commit to using only benign compounds for fracking.