The Wall Street Journal - September 11, 2011, 4:33 p.m. ET
In Fracking's Wake
Some companies love that dirty water, because it means more money for cleaning it up
The growing volume of dirty water produced in shale-gas drilling has triggered a gold rush among water-treatment companies.
Energy companies increasingly are drilling for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In this process, water mixed with sand and chemicals is pumped into a well under high pressure; the mixture fractures the rock, allowing the gas to escape. Huge amounts of water are used, and about 10% to 40% of it emerges after a frack job, laced with a variety of contaminants.
Even as the volume of dirty water grows, the traditional methods of disposal are narrowing. Several states are considering or have recently imposed limits on wastewater disposal underground or in streams. Meanwhile, record drought in some drilling areas is making access to fresh water for drilling more difficult, costly and unpopular.
The net result: "For the first time there's a strong driver for technology" to clean up the wastewater from mines so it can be reused, says Laura Shenkar, founder of the Artemis Project, a water-technology consulting firm. Dozens of water-treatment companies have started up in the past year or so, and many of the more established companies are adapting their techniques for use in the shale-gas industry. How many of those companies the market can support remains to be seen.
Plenty of Options
Companies are using several different approaches to shale-gas wastewater treatment.
Do It Yourself
One potential drag on the use of all these technologies: Some drillers have started to simply reuse their wastewater without fully treating it. But it isn't clear how much of a factor that will be. Many technology companies and some researchers argue that there is a limit to such recycling because it doesn't clean the water enough for it to be used repeatedly and still be effective. The particles in dirty water can damage equipment and block the release of gas from the shale.
"When I learned in early 2010 that they were going to recycle, I thought they were going to do a real heavy-duty treatment" before reusing the water, says John Veil, who analyzed water treatment for the oil and gas industry for many years at the Argonne National Laboratory, and now does so at his own consulting firm. "They are not. All they are doing is getting out the big sand grains in a [filtering] process as simple as pouring the water through pantyhose."
Ms. Chernova is a special writer for Dow Jones VentureWire in New York. She can be reached at email@example.com.