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Illinois Regulates Fracking, Leaves Water Recycling Unaddressed

gruber, eli, ecologixIllinois recently joined the ranks of states that have introduced legislation to regulate how hydraulic fracturing is carried out.  Whether you cheer or jeer these new rules seems to once again depend heavily on which side of the fence you sit on.  Environmentalists claiming that regulations don’t go far enough fall on one side with drillers who say that the laws are too restrictive to allow them to do their jobs effectively on the other seem to be standard fare with this type of legislation.

The bottom line for Illinois is that fracking is coming one way or another, and without some kind of legislative framework, fracking operations would begin in earnest completely unregulated.  Thus, interested parties joined forces and hammered out a compromise.  The bad news is, this law may not be adequate enough to serve as a model to other states. While making some progress, Illinois’ law does precious little to address a key concern of fracking:  water management.

The 123-page legislation sets out guidelines for well construction, chemical disclosure, analytical reporting, and other important measures.  What it fails to do is establish any guidelines for wastewater treatment, instead only briefly mentioning that recycling water for fracking is permissible.  If you consider that managing wastewater produced by fracking is the primary concern of both environmentalists and drillers themselves, the lack of specific guidelines for managing it represents a fairly massive failure of the legislation to make significant environmental impact.

Instead of establishing benchmarks for wastewater treatment and reuse, the law focuses on regulating proper water disposal.  It requires flowback water to be stored in tanks, but also includes an exception allowing for storage in open-lined pits when actual flowback water exceeds the amount anticipated.  It goes on to specify what types of disposal techniques are allowed for this water, listing guidelines for allowable injection wells where the water is buried deep underground.  While this is better than no regulation at all, it is short-sighted in that disposal of flowback water into injection wells permanently traps it and effectively removes it from the ecosystem, causing an overall net deficit to the fresh water supply.

A viable well generally calls for several millions of gallons of water for each frac.  When you multiply that number by thousands of wells and consider that some can be fracked multiple times, it’s easy to realize that the amount of water used quickly skyrockets and just throwing it all away is a substantial problem, even when done safely.  It is amazing, then, that this legislation does not require or even encourage recycling of wastewater despite the fact that effective and inexpensive methods of doing so exist.  In many cases, recycling water can actually prove less expensive than disposing of it and will not deplete precious fresh water resources.

In order to fully understand this, you have to understand how water is used in hydraulic fracturing.  The millions of gallons needed for each frac are purchased from local suppliers; this water typically originates from aquifers and is suitable for a number of uses, including agriculture and, with some level of purification, human consumption.  This water is then trucked to wells where it is augmented with chemicals and proppants to create frac fluid.  Since wells are frequently located in remote regions, the water often travels great distances in tanker trucks, which cause a fair amount of wear and tear on local roadways.

Once used to frac the well, most of this fluid makes its way back to the surface in what the industry has termed, flowback water.  In order to be properly disposed of, flowback water is hauled to disposal wells and buried deep underground.  Like water points of origin, these injection wells are often located many miles away from frac sites, sometimes across state borders, and the water must once again travel via tanker truck.

Compounding this problem is that even after all of the flowback has surfaced, active wells continue to produce bound water that is naturally occurring at the depths where the fracking occurs.  This highly saline brine water, called produced water, is disposed of using the same methods as flowback.

The issues presented by both flowback and produced water can be solved by implementing water treatment plans.  Mobile water treatment equipment can be set up at or near frac sites and eliminate the need to use trucks to transport water.  Onsite treatment facilities require minimal water transport, and when installed near a concentrated area of wells, temporary water pipelines can easily be set up to displace tanker trucks in the job of transporting water.  The environmental impact of treating and recycling water is doubled because not only does treating water keep it in the cycle and out of injection wells, it also keeps drillers from having to rely solely on fresh water from local sources.

Additionally, the inclusion of produced water for new fracs increases the productivity of the well. The salinity of brine water acts as a clay stabilizer and keeps the formation from swelling, which means that the fissures created by the fracking process are kept open to allow for free flowing oil and gas.  Using recycled brine water results in a higher yield at a lower cost, and again leaves fresh water resources relatively untouched.

Like any regulation, it’s unsurprising that the Illinois legislation fails to appease either side fully.  What is surprising is that what Illinois governor Pat Quinn calls “the strongest environmental regulations in the nation” fails to create any meaningful guidelines for the simplest and most effective solution to the biggest environmental concern related to fracking.  Simply granting permission to treat and recycle frac water does not go nearly far enough. A more environmentally conscious approach might have included incentives for recycling flowback and produced water, and penalties for fresh water usage.

Eli Gruber is President and CEO of Ecologix EnvironmentalSystems, an Alpharetta, GA-based wastewater treatment company specializing in industrial wastewater treatment. Ecologix has designed the patented and mobile Integrated Treatment System (ITS) platform for frac water management. Contact Eli at: egruber@ecologixsystems.com or (888) 326-2020. Ecologix Environmental Systems is a leading designer and manufacturer of wastewater treatment technologies for municipalities and industries including automotive, food and beverage, and oil & gas. Ecologix is your complete water management partner. Learn more at www.ecologixsystems.com. Follow Ecologix Environmental Systems on Twitter:@EcologixSystems.





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5 thoughts on “Illinois Regulates Fracking, Leaves Water Recycling Unaddressed

  1. Good observations Eli. I suppose industry (ie; “business”) will, for self interest alone, adopt water treatment and handling practices that you are recommending simply because they are most cost effective. It will be smart, cost efective and helpful innovation, not so much laws themselves, that will drive water management decisions. So then……us innovators have the ball.

  2. What fails to seem to catch the attention is any mention of issues with Radioactivity. Whether it is the radon not getting advertised as part of end product warning folks to cook not with the gas un-vented to prevent cancer or the nastier elements like R226 and others recently found because of fracking in a PA River sure to murder some innocent goodly citizen*s = projections I have seen as up to as high as some millions. As such the attempt to regulate in Ilinois certainly as the author not a good example for this nation I am totally agreed but so wouldn’t it be nicer to start throwing politicians, Fracking CEO’s, share holders in prison for lengthy jail terms following trials of course. http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/11/09/fracking-and-radioactivity/#.UcruK2rl14o.facebook

  3. It is short-sighted in that disposal of flowback water into injection wells permanently traps it and effectively removes it from the ecosystem, causing an overall net deficit to the fresh water supply.

    The millions of gallons needed for each frac are purchased from local suppliers; this water typically originates from aquifers


    When a water-bearing rock readily transmits water to wells and springs, it is called an aquifer. Wells can be drilled into the aquifers and water can be pumped out. Precipitation eventually adds water (recharge) into the porous rock of the aquifer. The rate of recharge is not the same for all aquifers, though, and that must be considered when pumping water from a well. Pumping too much water too fast draws down the water in the aquifer and eventually causes a well to yield less and less water and even run dry. In fact, pumping your well too fast can even cause your neighbor’s well to run dry if you both are pumping from the same aquifer.


    The USGS has performed several studies of the aquifer, to determine what is coming in (groundwater recharge from the surface), what is leaving (water pumped out and baseflow to streams), and what the net changes in storage are (rise, fall or no change — see figure above).

    Withdrawals from the Ogallala Aquifer for irrigation amounted to 26 km3 (21,000,000 acre·ft) in 2000. As of 2005, the total depletion since pre-development amounted to 253,000,000 acre feet (312 km3).[5] Some estimates indicate a remaining volume sufficient for as little as 25 years. Many farmers in the Texas High Plains, which rely particularly on the underground source, are now turning away from irrigated agriculture as they become aware of the hazards of overpumping.[6]


    “…That’s prime land,” he said not long ago, gesturing from his pickup at the stubby remains of last year’s crop. “I’ve raised 294 bushels of corn an acre there before, with water and the Lord’s help.” Now, he said, “it’s over.”

    “..And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains.”

    Accelerated decline in aquifer storage

    According to a 2013 report by research hydrologist, Leonard F. Konikow,[16] at the United States Geological Survey (USGC), the depletion between 2001–2008, inclusive, is about 32 percent of the cumulative depletion during the entire 20th century (Konikow 2013:22).”[16] In the United States, the biggest users of water from aquifers include agricultural irrigation and oil and coal extraction.[17]”Cumulative total groundwater depletion in the United States accelerated in the late 1940s and continued at an almost steady linear rate through the end of the century. In addition to widely recognized environmental consequences, groundwater depletion also adversely impacts the long-term sustainability of groundwater supplies to help meet the Nation’s water needs.”[16]


    The Eiffel Tower is sealed every seven years with 60 tons of paint. That’s why it’s still there. Everyone understands why. All steel rusts. So why are we burying steel pipes, filling them with billions of gallons of poisoned water, putting them under thousands of pounds of pressure, and expecting everything to work out to our advantage? All steel rusts. Doesn’t that single fact unhinge all the fracking science? Not to mention that natural is gas is the dirtiest fossil fuel when it comes to emitting methane in the atmosphere. Scientists agree that once the atmosphere hits CO2 concentrations of 450 ppm within 30 years “really bad things will start to happen including more dangerous storms, prolonged droughts, torrential rains and coastal flooding.”

    When the industry talks to you about fracking, ask them to explain how they fix the problems that come up … like rusty pipes filled with millions of gallons of toxic waste, under pressure, and underground. Ask them who is going to check the steel pipes in a few generations when all the fracking money is gone and the pipes are still down there in the dark getting rustier and rustier and rustier. Don’t be fooled. They are going to hand this problem back to you and you’re the one who will have to find the solution. Not them. They’re in it for the money and if you’ll sell your water cheap, they’ll certainly take that to the bank.

    Humans have never had this much power before–to poison billions of gallons of water at a time. Water has never been taken out of the hydrological cycle before. Water has never been used one more time and thrown “away” before. This is not the kind of change I’m willing to make.

    June 2013 was the 340th consecutive month of above-average global temperatures


    Here’s another recent story along those lines


    “The world has quietly transitioned into a situation where water, not land, has emerged as the principal constraint on expanding food supplies.”


    “Brown warned that many other countries may be on the verge of declining harvests.”


    Check out these Mollewide Plate Tectonics Maps showing global paleogeography for the past 600 million years. This is the playing field you should be considering when you start storing billions of gallons of poisoned water for eternity.


    “… Federal agencies have a critical role to play in helping the nation to understand our risks and to prepare for climate impacts. And sector-wide vulnerability assessments are a piece of the puzzle that helps decision-makers at all levels, from home-owners to CEOs to local planners.”


    Which leads us to the most important point: Water that gets fracked can never be cleaned up and used again. Fracking is the largest engineering projects humans have ever attempted. The scope is immense. The scale in terms of time, resources, and (catastrophic) results makes me wonder how any company make promises regarding fracking.

    Louis W. Allstadt, an executive vice president of Mobil Oil who ran the company’s exploration and production operations in the western hemisphere works against the fracking industry in his retirement. He describes the scale of the fracking problems we face:

    “The industry actually has a lot of very smart people working for it. As long as the box that they’re working in is manageable, they can do a very good job. I think that what you’ve got in fracking is ‘How do we work in a box this big,’ narrowly defining the problem, [he holds his hands a foot apart in front of him] when you’re really working in a huge box [he stretches his arms out wide] The real box is as big as the globe and the atmosphere. And they’re not seeing the consequences of moving outside the small box that they’re working in.

    … We’ll go on producing natural gas and keep the cost low by having the taxpayers pick up the cost of dealing with the consequences of global warming. Obama proposed some very positive steps toward developing alternative energies but he is not addressing the impact that methane has on global warming.

    … I think we have wasted a lot of time that should have gone into seriously looking into and developing alternative energies. And we need to stop wasting that time and get going on it. But the difficult part is that the industry talks about, well, this is a bridge fuel [that] will carry us until alternatives [are developed] but nobody is building them. It’s not a bridge unless you build the foundations for a bridge on the other side, and nobody’s building it.”


  5. Allstadt also says this:
    20, 30, 100 years down the road we don’t know how much methane is going to be making its way up. And if you do hundreds of thousands of wells, there’s a good chance you’re going to have a lot of methane coming up, exacerbating global warming. … That is what Tony Ingraffea is talking about as part of the problem. [Anthony Ingraffea, Dwight C. Baum professor of engineering at Cornell University, in 2011 co-authored a landmark study on the greenhouse-gas footprint of high-volume fracking.]
    What you [also] don’t know [is that] when you plug that well, how much is going to find its way to the surface without going up the well bore. And there are lots of good indications that plugging the
    well doesn’t really work long-term. There’s still some pressure down there even though it’s not enough pressure to be commercially produced. And sooner or later the steel casing there is going to rust out, and the cement sooner or later is going to crumble. We may have better cements now, we may have slightly better techniques of packing the cement and mud into the well bore to close it up, but even if nothing comes up through the fissures in the rock layers above, where it was fracked, those well bores will deteriorate over time. And there is at least one study showing that 100 percent of plugs installed in abandoned wells fail within 100 years and many of them much sooner.

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