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Fracking’s Biggest Problem May Be What to Do with Wastewater

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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frackingOf all the troubles with fracking, the biggest—and growing—challenge seems to be what to do with all those millions of gallons of water contaminated with frack chemicals, leached minerals and salts.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of drilling sideways into subterranean shale and blasting it open with millions of gallons of water to release natural gas. The process has spread from Texas to Arkansas to Pennsylvania and criticism on the water front, thus far, has tended to focus on whether industry discloses the kinds of chemicals it uses mixed up in those millions of gallons of H2O.

Now the sustainability think tank Pacific Institute, in a report released on June 21 on water issues of fracking, says fracking’s water woes aren’t confined to just the precise chemicals involved but extend to ensuring wells don’t permit aquifer contamination or whether freshwater is plentiful enough to support the industrial process. There are also the human health and environmental concerns about wastewater spills.

Then there’s the hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater. The most common means of disposal—pumping the water underground—can cause earthquakes by raising the subsurface pressure—a greater risk than that from fracking in the first place.

The report, which Pacific Institute hopes will separate “the frack from the fiction,” also finds looming conflicts—and in some cases already existing battles—over water use for fracking and water use for agriculture. After all, fracking in Texas’s Eagle Ford Shale has used up to 13 million gallons of water per well, and even the least intense wells require at least 2.3 million gallons, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This is no small matter because hydraulic fracturing is expected to help boost natural gas production by nearly 30 percent by 2035. Nearly 80 percent of that 21 trillion cubic feet of future natural gas produced per year will be from shale and other “unconventional” sources, according to the estimates of the U.S. Energy Information Administration. To fulfill that energy prophecy with fracking will require some smart thinking about water.

Image: Ft. Worth fracking © David Biello


David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. FracMaster 3:22 pm 06/22/2012

    First it was that fracing was contaminating the near surface water. Then it was the amount of gas leaking. Now it is the wastewater. How much water is used to water golf courses. The amount of water used in fracing is a tiny fraction of that water. The amount of water injected in disposal formations is a tiny fraction of the amount of water that is already there. The chemicals are not that dangerous especially at the concentrations used.

    Don’t confuse me with the facts I already know it is bad therefore the facts are an oil company conspiracy.

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  2. 2. SgeneO1023 4:04 pm 06/22/2012

    I think the main issue is that the companies producing the nat gas must be required to pay the cost of recycling the water. To place the burden elsewhere or to attempt to deny the problem is futile.

    Yes fracking has problems. Yes we have yet to discover all of them. But the benefits outweigh the costs by a wide margin. Besides they will have to employ more scientists like me to solve the problems rather than paying some people in the Middle East who hate us to sell us dirty fuel.

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  3. 3. Cramer 7:39 pm 06/22/2012

    Did I read the comments from FracMaster correctly? He does not want to bother analyzing any facts because some facts might be bogus? His gut tells him golf courses use more water than fracking, so that’s all that matters? Maybe he is correct, but golf courses do not remove water from the natural water cycle as is done in waste water injection (I am not defending golf course water use, but much more fresh water from rivers flows into bodies of salt water).

    Should we be making policies from gut emotions? Or doing science purely with gut emotions? It seems many people lack the analytical skills needed to make prudent decisions. Yes, it takes a lot of work to find the truth, but the truth exists (whether it’s determining the nature of dark energy and dark matter or knowing the real risks of fracking and the amount of actual water used vs the amount of water used for golf courses).

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  4. 4. shorewood 9:35 pm 06/22/2012

    Check Gasfrac Energy Services [GSFVF].

    Instead of using water to fracture the shale, it uses LPG, which is recovered and re-used.


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  5. 5. singing flea 3:49 am 06/24/2012

    The chemicals used in the fracking process must be pretty horrific if the industry steadfastly refuses to disclose the formula and nobody in opposition to the process can obtain a sample to test on their own. Why the secrecy, why the protection and why the obfuscation? I smell a vast conspiracy.

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  6. 6. Eco_steve 6:23 am 06/24/2012

    Las vegas is looking for water to waste. Why not pump the fracked water to them? In this day and age, recycling is the key to sustainable development….

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  7. 7. bungay lad 8:12 am 06/29/2012

    No one should be allowed to draw water from any source and dispose of it in any contaminated state. If you dirty it you clean it. Yes we need the Natural Gas, but the cost of producing it must be included in the selling price. That means cleaning up the water and whatever resources are used to obtain it.

    Water is a very finite resource we don’t need to be taking a limited supply, contaminating it then injecting it into the ground. That is a recipe for pure folly!

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  8. 8. Doug Sheridan 2:20 am 11/20/2012

    EnergyPoint Research wrote a piece about risks associated with the handling of water a couple months back. Rather than recount it’s points in this forum, here’s the link…

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