23 Nov 2011

Notes from AWRA -- fracking

The American Water Resources Association's annual meeting in Albuquerque was great.

I had the opportunity to meet people in person that I'd "talked" to for several years: Michael Campana (President of the AWRA, aka Aquadoc @ WaterWired), Cynthia Barnett (author of Blue Revolution), John Fleck (journalist and blogger @ Inkstain), Charlie Fishman (author of The Big Thirst).

I also caught up with or met several guys active in water markets: Chris Corbin, Matt Payne, Taylor Shipman, and Scott Armstrong (post to come).

Most of the AWRA program was technical and scientific, devoted to river morphology, water treatment, models of climate change impacts, etc., so I had the opportunity to learn from the scientists and give some economist opinions.

I was very interested in the panel on hydraulic fracturing [search for "Session 35 PANEL"], in which several experts gave "the real scoop" on the situation in the country, with a particular emphasis on fracking near the Marcellus Shale. My take-away from that event was that the regulators were indeed on top of the industry. Everyone wanted fracking to happen (yielding energy) but nobody wanted accidents to happen.

A few facts: The average frack needs about 5-8 million gallons (92+ 15-24 af) and produces about 5-12% return flows (the rest of the water/fracking fluid stays underground). Frackers recycle water in to their next injection or sometimes pay to dispose of it by injection elsewhere, but they minimize water use because it's so expensive to procure, bring to the site and remove later. So far, there have been no big "pollution events" and there are water quality monitors all over the place.*

The biggest problems/confusion appear to come from the various overlapping regulations and jurisdictions -- some of them badly constructed by legislators. Regulators are trying to get the best results in these circumstances, but sometimes (e.g., "the Halliburton exemption" from the Clean Water Act) the regulations that politicians hand down -- and regulators are required to follow -- are not very useful. That said, regulations are changing as fast as possible, as people learn by doing.

The panel said that they were not worried so much about aquifer contamination (not true in some states) as industrial accidents. The most important goal was to have a good casing around the injection well, to ensure that the high pressure water doesn't go in unexpected directions. The trickiest problems were connected with the set-up and tear-down of drilling operations by crews in a hurry. Some of the sub-sub-sub contractors were cowboys, but their ultimate employers -- the energy majors -- had too much money on the line (via daily expenses, reputation, and fear of fines) to be sloppy.

The regulators said that bonding (financial guarantees against mistakes) was not as effective in promoting discipline as "cease operations" delays that would cost millions in wasted staff time and even greater losses in stock market valuations.

Coming soon: Bill McKibben and America's water vision.

* This article says they may not be measuring pollution correctly, but it's a bit naive. This one claims that fracking causes earthquakes. That's probably true for small ones (~3.0 on Richter Scale), but we are not looking at Fukushima II here.


KO said...

Who were the experts reporting the flowback frack water at 5-12%? The reason why I ask is that I note several different percentage returns from different sources. A couple examples:

Groundwater Availability study in the Barnett Shale for the Texas Water Development Board (2007: p. 131): http://rio.twdb.state.tx.us/RWPG/rpgm_rpts/0604830613_BarnetShale.pdf

Most used (flowback) water is currently hauled away to be injected into disposal wells with little recycling. It is estimated that approximately 30% of the frac water stays in the subsurface and that 70% flows back to the surface. About 30% of the injected water returns without too much of a quality decrease, whereas the remaining 40% is more degraded. It would seem less costly to treat the used water than to transport it to offsite disposal. In Wise County, it costs operators more than $40 per 1,000 gallons of water (~<$2/bbl) to transport and inject produced brine in saltwater-disposal facilities (Dave Burnet, Texas A&M, oral communication, 2004).

Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach (FAQs: “Wastewater”): http://www.marcellus.psu.edu/resources/faq.php#

Q:What happens to the wastewater (i.e. flowback water) associated with hydraulic fracturing operations?

A: Hydraulic fracturing is necessary for development of the Marcellus shale natural gas as this process opens up fractures in the shale which allow the natural gas to flow to the well. This operation involves injecting several million gallons of water, sand, and a small addition of chemical additives into the formation at high pressure. After the injection is completed, approximately 10-20 percent of the fluids (known as flowback) return to the surface via the well. Therefore, a 5-million gallon hydraulic fracture stimulation might return 500,000 to 1 million gallons of water.

David Zetland said...

@KO -- Frack numbers will vary with the rock (folks from PA and NY). I'd say that most any flowback number is possible. The key is that they are putting a LOT of attention on the flow back quality.

Wayne Bossert said...

David: Good report on the fracking. Be advised that 5 million gallons of water is 15.34 AF, while 8 million gallons is 24.55 AF. While not 92+ AF, it still is a significant amount of water. In Kansas fresh water is being used which is a 100% consumptively used. I'd like to see brackish water required to be used whenever possible. All flowback water in Kansas is deep injected so we don't have the treatment problems they do in parts of PA, but, I sometimes wonder about the condition of the old injection wells being used in KS. I'd like to see more mechanical integrity testing of these wells. Finally, fracking was first used in 1946 in Kansas and the KS Corporation Commission just reported to the KS Legislature about 6 weeks ago that KS has no regulations dealing specifically with the fracking process - the agency relies totally on their general oil and gas regulations that have been on the books since 1955 and in some cases earlier. I don't believe for a moment that the regulators are completely on top of this activity. Some of the KS regs are OK, but there are clearly new ones that should be considered by our state - first and foremost is the disclosure of all fracking chemicals being used, and then my list goes on from there. Fracking operations are clearly different in different shale formations, but the basic principles apply to them all.

Anonymous said...

“5-8 million gallons (92+ af)”

Did you mean to say 5-8 MG is more than 92 acre-feet??? If so, check your conversion math J

The gist of your take is exactly what our hydrogeologists have expressed to me. You’re right about the big guys sparing no expense. So they don’t kill the golden goose with stupid mistakes. They even pay our guys to do double blind analysis of things like isotope data (used to trace sources of things like methane). We get data without specific identifying info that they have had someone else already analyze. Some from the suspected trouble spots and others as control just to see if the experts agree and aren’t trying (or unconsciously) to tell them what they want to hear.

David Zetland said...

@WB -- thanks for the correction. Another reason for the metric system!

Note that "modern" fracking uses horizontal drilling -- something that has NOT been used for "years and years" -- as the industry claims. That technique, together with the variety of underground rock formations, means that everyone needs to be extra careful in approving and monitoring fracks.

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