Saturday, December 7, 2013

10% or 90% - How much fracking waste is recycled? Loose definitions give industry lots of leeway

Shale wastewater released from a treatment plant in Josephine, Pa.
Bloomberg reporters David Wethe and Peter Ward recently shed a little light on a critical aspect of the shale gas boom – wastewater disposal. Their article last week explains how recycling – once pitched as a market-based panacea for dealing with 21-billion barrels of brine, solvents, metals, and radioactive elements produced annually from domestic oil and gas production – is less of a hit with investors than anticipated. The reason: technological limits.

The article, Fracking Bonanza Eludes Wastewater Recycling Investors, frames the issue in a quote by Mark Kidder, head of an oilfield unit for Schlumberger: “We’ve spent millions and millions of dollars evaluating virtually every available and reasonable-looking technology out there, always hoping we’d find the silver bullet … At this point, we found nothing.”

News outlets looking for accessible material are not likely to find much, either, in the way of simplicity in the fracking waste story. It’s an area clouded by confusion, noise, and lack of baseline reporting standards and enforcement. There is no easy measure to gauge the problem’s impact -- a hallmark of good journalism and one of the first calculations reporters tend to make in considering a subject. But there are still ways to get at this story, and the financially oriented Bloomberg uses an approach that carries the most weight with its readers – economic analysis. Wethe and Ward cite these benchmarks:

Of the $31 billion spent each year on managing water resources in U.S. and Canadian oilfields, $2.8 billion, or less than 10 percent, is spent on recycling, according to PacWest Consulting Partners LLC... 
In Pennsylvania last year, operators cleaned and reused 85 percent of fracking and produced water because state rules, as well as geology, makes water disposal more expensive there. In most other regions, where disposal wells are more plentiful, recycling amounts to 10 percent or less, according to PacWest estimates.

Interesting, to be sure. But the article does not explain the vast discrepancies in other reports attempting to quantify the extent of frack water recycling in the oil patch, or why the PacWest estimates are any truer than other numbers cited by experts, media, and interested parties. Several notable examples come to mind:

The Wall Street Journal, citing figures from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, reported that 14 percent of frack water in central Pennsylvania was recycled as of November, 2012.

A report in October of this year by San Jose State University and Earthworks, an environmental group, found that about one third of Pennsylvania fracking waste is “reused” and about half is discharged into rivers and streams either through brine/industrial waste treatment plants or municipal sewage treatment plants. The report also found that only about 8 percent of injected fracking solution water is reclaimed from wells in Pennsylvania to begin with, which suggests that many production wells become long-term repositories for unrecovered waste.

Energy In Depth, the industry public relations arm, claims that the industry “reused” or “recycled” 90 percent of flowback water in the last half of 2013.

Adding to this confusion is the problem of definition. “Recycled,” much like “all natural,” is one of those marketing idioms that invites abuse by those seeking to paint something green. Colleen Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, explained to me this week that the agency in fact does not make a distinction between “reuse” and “recycling” and that “recycling” generally applies to fracking waste that undergoes some sort of treatment. The “recycled” label therefore applies to flowback from shale gas production wells that has been treated and discharged into a river, even if it contains unscreened or unrecovered hazards, such as total dissolved solids, solvents, metals, and radionuclides. Lacking a good-faith statutory definition, the “recycled” label suggests a certain environmental stewardship while in fact allowing the industry convenient options for waste disposal – whether actually reusing it, discharging it, or injecting it in the ground.

As with much of the industry (which is exempt from both federal Safe Drinking Water Act and hazardous waste disposal laws) the fracking-waste reporting “system,” varying in form and rigor from state to state, offers the illusion of transparency while obscuring actual practices. Operators in Pennsylvania and other states are required to report their waste production and disposal on a database that is available on the Internet. But there is little or no oversight, let alone enforcement. Perhaps the biggest telltale sign of a problem is a disclaimer on the DEP website that visitors must agree to before viewing the agency’s files. The DEP notes that the data is self-reported, unchecked, unverified, and possibly incomplete.

DEP makes no claims, promises or guarantees regarding the accuracy, completeness or timeliness of the operators’ data that DEP is required to post. 
DEP expressly disclaims any liability for errors or omissions related to the production data contained within these reports. No warranty of any kind is given by DEP with respect to the production data contained within these reports posted on its website.

Are we expected to trust this data, even when the DEP clearly doesn’t?

The shale gas boom is taking shape in an age where free market interests are strong and the will to regulate is relatively weak. Rather than looking to government reporting data that is inconsistent, unreliable, or non-existent, the Bloomberg report tackles the recycling analysis in a way that hits home with investors – by gauging economic feasibility rather than regulatory compliance. That’s fair and good, yet there are additional ways to get at this story, and many of them are taking shape in the Ivory Tower rather than the newsroom.

A research team led by Sheila Olmstead of the University of Texas measured water quality changes at thousands of points downstream from waste treatment plants and drilling sites for more than a decade. In a paper published in the National Academy of Sciences early this year, the team found a trend of elevated chlorine concentrations – a marker of fracking pollution -- downstream of waste water treatment facilities, but not downstream of drilling sites. As New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin notes in Dot Earth, the findings suggest that spills and leaks at specific sites are not statistically visible, but impacts of poorly processed wastewater are. In other words, we should be aware of the “cumulative impacts,” or the toll taken in water quality over time as shale gas development becomes more commonplace, even in areas previously untouched by mineral extraction.

Salts are a telltale marker of waste -- known as “flowback” – that is regurgitated from natural gas wells after they are stimulated with hydraulic fracturing fluids. Studies, including one by the USGS in 2011, show that radioactive levels tend to correspond with total dissolved solids (TDS). TDS is a measure of concentration of salts and other impurities dissolved in water that tends to fluctuate depending on operators' production and disposal schedules. They are not visible to the naked eye, and they are flags for water problems, including radioactivity.

SU grad student Sunshyne Hummel works on groundwater study
The Olmstead team is one example of a burgeoning field of study focused on fracking and water quality. (There are many others, including one featured in this report I wrote for Syracuse University Magazine.) Yet the subject could use much more reporting than it gets in the mainstream press. The problem is, it requires a level of commitment and investigative wherewithal beyond the reach of many beat reporters working in an age where resources are scarce, staffs are small and growing smaller, and deadlines are more pressing as ever due to Internet immediacy. Instances that do make it to mainstream media outlets often originate with press-releases from NGOs, universities, or government agencies regarding events that are too conspicuous to ignore, including the following examples from Pennsylvania:

Waste Treatment Corp., a plant on the Allegheny River in Warren County, Pa. has been operating under a state permit that sets no limit on the amount of total dissolved solids and chlorides it can send to the river from oil and gas and other waste streams. Late last month, the DEP negotiated an order with the company that allows the plant to send a monthly average of 176,000 pounds per day of total dissolved solids into the river on an interim basis for two more years. The company has until January 2016 to trim the salt discharge to a monthly average of 888 pounds per day of total dissolved solids. As part of the proposed agreement with the state, the company agreed to a $25,000 fine.  Waste Treatment Corp. still faces a law suit filed by Clean Water Action, an environmental group, in U.S. District Court. The group claims that the plant is illegally discharging fracking wastewater containing high levels of salts, heavy metals and radioactive compounds into the Allegheny River.

Samples collected in Blacklick Creek downstream from discharges from the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility, in Indiana County, found radium levels 200 times greater than samples upstream and background sediments. The levels exceed thresholds for radioactive waste disposal and pose “potential environmental risks of radium bioaccumulation in localized areas of shale gas wastewater disposal,” according to a peer reviewed study by Duke University scholars studying the impact for shale waste.

Last summer, the DEP revoked the permit of Aquatic Synthesis Unlimited after numerous spills and violations at the plant, built on an old rodeo site about 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The plant had problems from the beginning, when it started construction in December 2011 without first getting a permit from the DEP. As the demand for wastewater treatment grew, the DEP issued a conditional permit in April 2012 that allowed the plant to accept flowback, but soon the facility was inundated. It treated some of the wastewater it had on site in July and August last year, but in September it was cited by the DEP for moving wastewater off-site for injection into deep wells, in violation of its permit.

One of the most mysterious and troubling frack-water-treatment messes involves one of the highest-profile and promising plants. Minuteman, a service company in Milton Pa. that handles fracking waste, was heralded by Governor Tom Corbett as “an American success story.” Corbett made a personal visit to showcase the plant as part of a pitch to promote job-creation incentives in February, 2012. Owner Brian Bolus (who happened to be a $10,000 contributor to Corbett’s campaign) began the company in 1991 and built it into a $5 million operation with 200 trucks and 158 employees. In what remains an unexplained turn of events, the FBI, accompanied by agents from the DEP, the IRS, and various local agencies including the Milton Sewer Authority raided the plant in May. Federal agents bound some Minuteman workers in plastic cuffs, also handcuffed Bolus' wife Karen in front of their son, interviewed incoming waste truckers and left with a huge haul of boxes of documents.

Minuteman issued a statement that characterized the probe as "baseless," and a result of unfounded complaints from "disgruntled" employees speaking to the AG's office. There have been no follow-up reports since the event late last spring. Dennis Fisher, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, refused to comment on the status of the investigation or address any of my questions about it.

Of course, there are hundreds of treatment plants profitably treating or “recycling” frack wastewater throughout the Commonwealth without undue attention or incident. (You can view a video of one here by Kirsi Jansa, a Finnish journalist, who takes viewers on a tour of Reserved Environmental Services.)  Many, undoubtedly, follow “best practices” – a term that refers to standards set and policed by industry rather than government. But in the absence of clearly defined federal standards, enforcement, or even a more precise definition of “recycling,” it’s hard to know where the bar is set and who is actually meeting it.


  1. The DEP rep may assume a 1 billion year water cycle. US EPA prepared a discussion on the issue of water recycle and reuse. (The linked discussion below on water is from US EPA region 9 so maybe PA DEP has a different definition.) Note: region 9 is out west and PA is in region 3.

    1. Thanks for digging this out, Michael. The EPA definition of "recycle" here illustrates the broad and imprecise application of the term which, as James Barth notes in his comment below, works to the advantage of the industry.

  2. Nice report Tom. I had no idea that the term "recycled" was applied to the flowback waste that was "treated" and then dumped into rivers, streams etc, in PA. Thanks.

    I thought it referred to flowback waste that was treated to the point of being reusable in a subsequent frac job, often trucked to a huge holding impoundment such as the Worstell in Washington County, until used again. Those numbers have always been remarkably small.

    When one realizes that barely 10 to 20% of the frac fluid injected returns back to the surface (according to Cabot spokesperson, Ken Komorowski, circa 2009-10), leaving the lion's share of 80 to 90% down hole, one can see why there is little difference between an injection disposal well, and a frac'ed well.

    Reports for the first half of 2012, on the massive amounts of Marcellus flowback that was trucked to Ohio for injection, also undercut the EID claims concerning "reuse" of the treated flowback.

    The facts, as you report, that there is rampant confusion as to the definition of recycled flowback, as well as utterly unreliable data on the subject, all play to the industry's advantage, until you come along, and point out truth on the subject. Thanks again.

    1. See my response to Michael's comment above. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

    2. Tom--I'd like to echo what James Barth said. I've been following the shale gas issue for years now, and I have seen some very dubious claims for very high levels of "recycling", but I had no idea that the term "recycled" was ever applied to flowback from shale gas production wells that has been treated and discharged into a river! In retrospect, I am not surprised that the industry has its own, special definition of the word "recycle." (Reminds me of the hazardous waste disposal issue and the "Class II" injection wells.) Perhaps from now on we should ask industry reps to define their terms before they start making any claims about anything.

      Thank you so much for your great reporting.

  3. Along those lines, below is a summary of a recent report that conducts the first Water Footprint Assessment (methodology) on a Marcellus Shale-gas well and finds a larger water footprint than earlier studies. This is the first time all water-related impacts are calculated, meaning that the water footprint accounts for both water and fluid injections for fracturing AS WELL AS wastewater handling (e.g., flowback, produced, brine) and its disposal (recycling, deep well injection, wastewater treatment).

    Fracking's Water Footprint in Marcellus Shale Larger Than Previously Thought

    The authors are very precise and explicit when it comes to the use of terminology, which diverges from the oil and gas industry and takes a more comprehensive and ecosystem services approach. They also note the poorly kept and incomplete state government data sets (WV, PA) in their findings.

  4. It's up to the readers if they will believe the data or not. Good info.

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  6. This is a great blog, usually I don't post comments on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so!

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