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Tracers Developed for Tracking Frack Fluids

DrillingA team of US and French scientists have developed geochemical tracers that can identify hydraulic fracturing flowback fluids that have been spilled or released into the environment, giving oil and gas drillers a new tool for monitoring water quality near their operations.

The tracers have been field-tested at a spill site in West Virginia and downstream from an oil and gas brine wastewater treatment plant in Pennsylvania.

The scientists published their peer-reviewed findings today in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Their study, which was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is the first to report on the development of the boron and lithium tracers.

According to Avner Vengosh, who co-led the research, by characterizing the isotopic and geochemical fingerprints of enriched boron and lithium in flowback water from hydraulic fracturing, fracking fluids in the environment can be distinguished from wastewater coming from other sources, including conventional oil and gas wells.

While it’s possible to identify fracking fluid in spilled or discharged flowback by tracing synthetic organic compounds added to the fluid before it’s injected down a well, the proprietary nature of these chemicals, combined with their instability in the environment, limits the usefulness of such tracers, according to Vengosh.

By contrast, the new boron and lithium tracers remain stable in the environment.

The fracking process is increasingly coming under public and governmental scrutiny. Earlier this month, ExxonMobil released a report for its shareholders that outlines how it manages risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, and in May, a draft EPA memo leaked to DeSmogBlog.com detailed stricter standards for hydraulic fracturing permitting and made clear that fracking wastewater discharges are covered under the Clean Water Act.

Photo Credit: Drilling via Shutterstock

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