Monday, June 25, 2012

Who wants fracking waste? Jersey latest to decline

Where will waste from Marcellus wells go? Scratch New Jersey off the list, if Gov. Christie signs a bill passed this afternoon by the legislature.

As Frank Brill reports on his EnviroPolitics Blog, the New Jersey Senate this afternoon approved A-575, a bill that would ban bringing fracking-related waste water – called flowback --- for treatment, storage or disposal in the Garden State. It wasn’t close. The bill passed the Senate 30-5 after last week clearing the Assembly by a measure of 56-19-4. It now goes to Republican Governor Chris Christie.

Finding answers regarding what to do with growing volumes of waste regurgitated from a growing number of shale gas wells in the northeast, produced mostly in Pennsylvania as of now, appears to be a process of elimination. When the shale gas rush began in Pennsylvania in 2007, haulers simply pumped it into rivers through the nearest sewage treatment plants. That stopped in 2010 after state regulators, apparently ignorant of its impact on downstream water supplies until it began polluting them, learned conventional sewage plants lacked the equipment and know how to deal with the millions of gallons of brine, heavy metals, and proprietary chemical solutions produced with each fracking operation. The state passed legislation preventing municipal plants from legally accepting fracking waste, but not regulating what should be done with it.

The industry is now turning to emerging technology, while counting on enterprise and free markets to solve the problem of turning waste into a commodity. Firms like Salt Water Solutions are cropping up that will take the waste and recycle it and its constituents – a process made less onerous due to the fact that flowback is exempt form hazardous waste laws that govern waste from other industry.

Flowback, which includes rich concentrations of brine, is also being trucked to Ohio, where it is injected into deep, empty wells, a process that has been linked to minor earthquakes. While policy being drafted to allow shale gas drilling in New York is purportedly addressing how and if flowback will be disposed of in the Empire State, some communities, such as Niagara Falls, are taking no chances. The small city at the center of controversy related to a bustling waste disposal industry in the Rust Belt dating to Love Canal recently passed a resolution banning the import of fracking waste to the city’s chemical waste repositories.

The conundrum of treating fracking waste is exacerbated by the fact that companies don’t have to report what’s in it, exactly, although the New York State DEC lists several hundred chemical compounds, most of them toxic, typically used in fracking recipes that are pumped into well bores to stimulate production. Given the anti-regulatory mood of the country, and specifically shale gas producing states like Pennsylvania, the fracking waste question may become a problem for the next generation to solve. If shale gas becomes the country’s fuel of choice, the problem will not be a small one. In Pennsylvania, about 4,000 wells – each producing several million gallons of mostly unregulated toxic waste -- have been drilled and fracked, and the shale gas play is still in its infancy. If it develops along its potential, you can expect 60,000 wells or more within several decades in Pennsylvania alone, and tens of thousands more in the other four Mid Atlantic and northeaster states with shale gas reserves.

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