The process — injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals into rock formations to release natural gas — uses vast amounts of it. A single well can use between 65,000 gallons and 13 million gallons of freshwater, according to the EPA. This has led to new regulations that focus on water conservation as well as an increased focus on treating and recycling fracking wastewater.
According to a new report from Navigant Research, revenue from fracking wastewater treatment and recycle systems in the United States is expected to grow at a grow at a compound annual growth rate of 30.3 percent to reach $3.8 billion by 2025. Analyst Anne Wrobetz, who authored the report, told Environmental Leader that advanced oxidation and reverse osmosis will emerge as the most popular treatment technologies.
About half of the freshwater used in fracking is recovered as “flowback,” or water that flows back to the surface along with natural gas. The process also yields produced water, which contains massive amounts of brine. This wastewater mixture is difficult and expensive to treat, which is why it is typically injected deep underground.
“Regulations are limiting deep well injection of produced water, currently very common in fracturing operations in the western United States,” Wrobetz says. “This leads to an increased emphasis on treating and recycling or otherwise disposing of produced and flowback waters. An increase in freshwater costs, as well as changes in certain water use laws, will make obtaining freshwater more difficult for fracking operators. This in turn will drive recycling of produced water.”
Additionally, natural gas wells are usually located in rural areas, far from freshwater sources and water treatment plants.
“This remoteness leaves a gap in both obtaining and disposing of water for fracturing,” Wrobetz says. “Wastewater recycle technologies reduce the need for transportation of water to and from the fracturing spreads.”
About 13 percent of flowback and produced water is currently recycled for reuse in fracking wells, according to the report. Navigant Research expects this percentage to grow as higher freshwater costs and increasing regulations push down the price of water treatment technologies. Recycled water not only reduces the amount — and cost of purchasing — of freshwater used; it also saves operators money on transporting millions of gallons of water to and from well sites.
While there are various technologies employed to treat fracking wastewater, Wrobetz says advanced oxidation (chemical treatments that eliminate organic compounds in wastewater) and reverse osmosis (cleaning wastewater by pushing it through a membrane) will lead the pack. “These are already used in some wastewater treatment systems today, and their presence in the public knowledge will lead to higher adoption rates,” she explains. “They are proven technologies, and many engineers know how they work.”
Another trend Navigant Research expects to take hold in fracking wastewater treatment is modular treatment systems, as opposed to more centralized treatment technologies.
“Modular treatment systems can more easily be transported to different shale plays,” Wrobetz says. “They also represent a much smaller capital investment. Since major oil and gas producers tend to operate in many different areas, it makes financial sense to have a system that can be utilized in different areas when production shifts. Centralized treatment plants do not offer the same flexibility.”
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