Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times
As drilling for natural gas started to climb sharply about 10 years ago, energy companies faced mounting criticism over an extraction process that involves pumping millions of gallons of water into the ground for each well and can leave significant amounts of hazardous contaminants in the water that comes back to the surface.
So, in a move hailed by industry as a major turning point, drilling companies started reusing and recycling the wastewater.
“Water recycling is a win-win,” one drilling company, Range Resources, says on its Web site. “It reduces fresh water demand and eliminates the need to dispose of the water.”
But the win-win comes with significant asterisks.
In Pennsylvania, for example, natural-gas companies recycled less than half of the wastewater they produced during the 18 months that ended in December, according to state records.
Nor has recycling eliminated environmental and health risks. Some methods can leave behind salts or sludge highly concentrated with radioactive material and other contaminants that can be dangerous to people and aquatic life if they get into waterways.
Some well operators are also selling their waste, rather than paying to dispose of it. Because it is so salty, they have found ready buyers in communities that spread it on roads for de-icing in the winter and for dust suppression in the summer. When ice melts or rain falls, the waste can run off roads and end up in the drinking supply.
Yet in Pennsylvania, where the number of drilling permits for gas wells has jumped markedly in the last several years, in part because the state sits on a large underground gas formation known as the Marcellus Shale, such waste remains exempt from federal and state oversight, even when turned into salts and spread on roads.
When Pennsylvania regulators tried to strengthen state oversight of how drilling wastewater is tracked, an industry coalition argued vehemently against it. Three of the top state officials at a meeting on the subject have since left the government — for the natural-gas industry.
One executive at a drilling wastewater recycling company said that for all the benefits of recycling, it was not a cure-all.
“No one wants to admit it, but at some point, even with reuse of this water, you have to confront the disposal question,” said Brent Halldorson, chief operating officer of Aqua-Pure/Fountain Quail Water Management, adding that the wastewater contains barium, strontium and radioactive elements that need to be removed.
Mr. Halldorson emphasized that he had not seen high radioactivity readings at the plant he operates in Williamsport, Pa. He said he firmly believed in the benefits of recycling — to reduce the waste produced and water used and to help promote a shift toward natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal for producing electricity. “But there still needs to be a candid discussion, and there needs to be accountability about where even the recycled wastewater is going,” he added.
Read the whole article, one in the ‘An Imperfect Solution’ series examining the risks of natural-gas drilling and efforts to regulate this rapidly growing industry.