The Fracking Industry’s Water Nightmare: Injection Wells Damage Production Wells, Rising Disposal Costs Will Increase Industry Losses

Yves here. This important story on fracking seems not to have gotten the attention it warrants.

By Justin Mikulka, a freelance writer, audio and video producer living in Trumansburg, NY. Originally published at DeSmog Blog

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has clearly documented the multiple risks — despite repeated dismissals from the oil and gas industry — that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) poses to drinking water supplies. However, the tables may be turning: Water itself now poses a risk to the already failing financial model of the American fracking industry, and that is something the industry won’t be able to ignore.

The U.S. is setting new oil production records as horizontal drilling and fracking open up shale deposits in places like North Dakota and Texas.

Fracking is based on the “hydraulic” process of using pressurized liquid to shatter shale rock to let the oil and gas inside escape. And while that liquid is a mixture of many hazardous chemicals, it is mostly water. And acquiring that water and then properly disposing of the toxic wastewater produced by fracking is becoming a big and expensive problem for the industry.

Gabriel Collins is a fellow in energy and the environment at Rice University, and in August he gave a presentation at the Produced Water Society Permian Basin 2018 event in Midland, Texas. There, Collins presented a business case for starting a large water processing company to service the fracking industry.

One sign that the fracking industry is becoming concerned about water is that there are now societies and conferences dedicated to the topic of “produced water.” Produced water is the term for the toxic water that is “produced” over the life of a fracked oil or gas well.

In a story by Bloomberg News, Collins said he didn’t believe investors were aware of the risks that water poses to the fracking industry in the Permian Basin.

“[Investors] aren’t as well apprised of some of the other risks and challenges that could be just as material, if not more so,” he told Bloomberg News. “I’d put water right at the top of that list.”

Why should water top the list of potential financial challenges facing the fracking industry? According to a study by Wood MacKenzie and reported by the Wall Street Journal, the costs of water disposal for the fracking industry could add another $6 per barrel of oil produced.

For the U.S. shale oil and gas industry, which has consistently lost money over the past decade, adding another $6 per barrel in costs represents a grim outlook.

Fracking Wastewater: Old Problem Getting Much Bigger

A new Duke University study concluded that from 2011 to 2016 the amount of water used to frack oil and gas wells rose 770 percent. But the amount of toxic wastewater produced in that same time period rose 1,440 percent.

The industry has to do something with all of that wastewater, and that costs money. To save costs on wastewater disposal, the fracking industry has taken many approaches in the past — almost all of which put the environment at risk.

Some of the industry’s efforts to get rid of wastewater at low costs have included dumping it into rivers, watering crops, de-icing roads, dumping it into the Gulf of Mexico, letting it evaporate, injecting it into drinking water aquifers, and sending it to municipal water treatment facilities not equipped to handle that type of waste. And those were just some of the “legal” ways of dealing with it. They don’t include any illegal dumping that also occurred.

In 2012 InsideClimate News reported evidence of illegal dumping of drilling and fracking waste in North Dakota, and in 2014 reported similar illegal wastewater dumping in Texas.

Dealing with toxic wastewater has always been a problem for the fracking industry, sometimes leading to illegal workarounds. A big unanswered question for the shale companies doing the fracking is whether they can ever properly handle the amount of toxic wastewater they are producing, whatever the cost is.

Where Will It All Go?

A 2015 Washington Post story about fracking wastewater disposal highlights the main issue in one sentence: “Currently there is no way to treat, store, and release the billions of gallons of wastewater at the surface.”

Instead of addressing this glaring issue, the industry “solution” has been to pump the toxic water back into the ground in what are known as injection wells. And while the long-term risks of this practice aren’t known, it is widely credited for the large increase in earthquakes in the areas where it is done.

But as the amount of fracking wastewater continues to increase and more of it is injected into underground wells, what will that mean for the resulting earthquakes? And what will the industry (or the communities where it operates) do about them?

While fracking pioneer and billionaire Harold Hamm, at least, would prefer to ignore the earthquake issue, injection wells present another problem which his industry does care very much about. By trying to drill and frack as many oil and gas wells as possible in a productive area, the newer wells seem to be damaging the existing producing wells via a process known as “frac hits.”

And the same thing is now happening with the wastewater injection wells.

Andrew Hunter, a drilling engineer for Guidon Energy, recently explained how injection wells can damage the producing wells, saying the situation is “getting worse.”

He also added another point that may be of interest to investors.

“I think people are afraid to talk about this problem,” Hunter said during a Houston conference focused on water. “We’re trying to get the word out to let everyone know how serious this is.”

In sum: The shale industry’s preferred solution for disposing of its huge amounts of wastewater also damages existing oil and gas production infrastructure. While also causing earthquakes. Not exactly a sustainable option, and one of the reasons for growing opposition to wastewater injection wells.

Of course, without the injection wells, the fracking industry would have to slow down or stop oil and gas production — so injection wells will stay in use.

If You Can’t Make Money, Change the Rules

In September 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump addressed a group of fracking executives, explaining his position on regulation.

“I think probably no other business has been affected by regulation than your business,” Trump said. “Federal regulations remain a major restriction to shale production.”

However, the major restriction to shale production is the fact that the industry prepetually loses money. While dealing with wastewater is an expensive area for the industry, it isn’t the only one.

The Trump administration is working to loosen federal rules governing the fracking industry, which will be a boon for industry finances and a disaster for the climate and environment.

Recently, the EPA proposed rolling back regulations requiring the fossil fuel industry to monitor and fix methane leaks (a major greenhouse gas) — with big savings expected. In Texas the industry currently flares off $1 million a day of methane, greatly contributing to air pollution, because it says there aren’t enough pipelines to take the natural gas to market.

Why is this allowed? Because properly capturing the methane would cost the industry money and slow down production.

This is similar to the approach that North Dakota used toward regulations over the amount of radioactivity allowed in fracking waste. The state simply loosened the rules (and bumped up the radioactivity allowed in waste disposal) to make it easier for the oil companies working within its borders, which could then stop trucking their waste to states with higher limits.

And, of course, the Trump administration is looking at ways to roll back fracking wastewater regulations.

There is no way for the shale industry to deal with the financial issues it faces — including its water crisis — without changing the existing rules.

The headline of a recent Dallas News story on the fracking water crisis in the Permian Basin referred to it as a “Disposal nightmare.” And while the article was referring to the logistical and financial nightmare for the fracking industry — which it most definitely is — there’s another nightmare.

The industry currently has no feasible way to dispose of its wastewater using environmentally safe methods … and yet it pushes on full speed ahead.

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  1. Steve H.

    My Master’s specialties were Water Resources and Hazardous Materials Management. Fracking boomed after I was out of the direct loop, so the following statement is based on informed understanding and not specific data.

    Fracking fluid is a way to dump toxic waste. The worse the better.

    1. redleg

      It actually does work- it makes oil and gas extraction possible in reservoirs too tight for standard extraction methods (which also have waste, water issues).
      The fraud is that all of the problems are externalities- specific actions that cause general problems (consequences to be borne by others)- wastewater, earthquakes, freshwater depletion, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.
      IOW- this is a symptom of a pervasive systemic disease called markets.

      1. jsn

        Not even. This does not serve a market, it can only exist because of massive public subsidies.

        The oil industry gets all kinds of tax breaks, breaks on environmental law, direct and indirect subsidy and Fracking still can’t turn a profit.

        The US industry is our version of China’s SOEs, a communisim for the rich, paid for by the poor: the opposite of a market.

        1. witters

          “a communisim for the rich, paid for by the poor: the opposite of a market.”

          So you are saying a real market is paid for by the rich and communism for the poor?

          1. jsn


            In a market things are produced to fulfill a monetary demand. If something cannot be produced profitably it is not produced.

            Fracked gas cannot be produced at a profit. It is politics that causes it to be produced.

            Particular rich people have used the power their riches give them to bribe into existence conditions in which they get richer while putting producers into unsustainable debt. This unloads both the environmental and money cost on society while the rich are shielded from cost and risk.

        2. redleg

          Yes- It’s a symptom of a systemic problem. Gresham’s Dynamic, bad money driving out good, through policy.

          Fracking does temporarily increase the yield of oil and gas weeks in tight formations, long enough to sell shares and sometimes longer. But it requires cheap credit, and pushes the consequences into the public. It would be a reasonable way to boost production in a major emergency (such as WW3), but instead it’s being used to produce oil and gas for export.
          But cost(s) aside, which the oil/gas companies are allowed to ignore, it does increase the yield of wells.

          Personally, I think that what the producers have been doing, excluding all and sundry public costs and fracking yield declines over time (Chesapeake being a glaring example), is fraud. That fraud is in addition to the pollution and fresh water mining.
          But all of these problems are political ones.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    This is the primary reason fracking has stalled in Europe – the EU Water Framework Directive is a huge obstacle for the industry. This sets ongoing targets for all EU countries to imporive ground and surface water bodies collectively. They tried to bypass it in Poland by simply ignoring it, although for other reasons the Polish industry was a bust before it even got going.

    This actually has a Brexit component – Ireland has banned fracking, but there are substantial gas bearing rock bodies under the border. The UK is, of course, enthusiastic about exploiting them. But most of the ground and surface water bodies are shared across the border (they nearly all drain into the Republic).

    I suspect its also a reason why fracking doesn’t seem to have built up momentum in China – they have lots of potential reserves. But there is a lot of water stress in much of inland China and it may be that this is seen as a limiting factor. The coal industry has pretty much cornered the market in destroying Chinese water reserves.

    1. HotFlash

      But most of the ground and surface water bodies are shared across the border (they nearly all drain into the Republic).

      Ah, so it’s now become “Poison thy Neighbour”. And there’s money to be made, so bet on it happening.

      Sorry — must be the Cynic-O’s I had for breakfast.

      1. M Quinlan

        Also various mining companies are trying to get at the gold reserves. However both Miners and Roughnecks need their knees. It was know as bandit country for a reason,

  3. Darius

    I can see a future where they just dump the wastewater into streams. People who matter will buy more bottled water.

    1. JEHR

      Your future is actually the present and a lot of bottled water comes from the tap and that tap water may come from the stream above-mentioned.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      The the fracking waste water needs to be turned into a product. With the right name and a fancy bottle it could be sold to the wealthy as a mineral water for mixing with gin to make “fancy name here” drinks. Bottled and marketed differently it could be effective against dandruff when used as a shampoo supplement. Any health issues caused would boost the GDP with increased medical spending.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Artisanal, locally-sourced toxic waste, each type with its own terroir.. and since it contains carbon, it’s “organic.”

        Yeah, baby, I’m all in…

  4. redleg

    I’ve been saying for years (check my comment history) that a decisive case against fracking can and should be made by only using what comes out of a well instead of the single-minded focus on what goes in.

    Saltwater, petroleum, etc. is discharged at the wellhead, and oil/gas, contaminated water into the overlying strata. If the wastewater problem can be solved, then frack away. But removing salt in particular from water is really expensive, so requiring treatment of effluent will stop the whole industry until such treatment can be financed. There’s no need to know what chemicals are in fracking fluid to stop fracking at all, even though that’s where all of the outrage had been directed so far.

    It’s about time that this gets press.

    1. JEHR

      In my province, fracking has not been allowed as many urban areas rely on well water. I vote Green so that we can keep companies from ever fracking here.

      1. Wukchumni

        We were driving in western Colorado along the Colorado River in some stretches, and saw fracking wells hundreds of feet away from the river, and I thought to myself, nothing good could come of this.

    2. Synoia

      But removing salt in particular from water is really expensive

      Purifying any polluted water is really expensive. The nature of the pollutants is a major concern because now one has to dispose of concentrated pollutants.

      Making potable water from seawater with Reverse Osmosis produces a poison, brine.

  5. fries

    No mention is made of fracking’s increasing and significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas (CH4) contains a fraction of the carbon contained in coal (essentially pure carbon C). By producing natural gas at such a low cost, fracking is allowing the rapid replacement of coal-fired electricity plants with highly efficient natural gas plants – with the benefits of far lower emissions and electricity prices. This effect is widespread in Texas already.

    1. redleg

      Combustion increases greenhouse gas emissions. Methane and other hydrocarbons in the ground plus solid carbon materials (coal, carbonate rock, biomass) do not contribute to the greenhouse effect. They must be released as gas to trap solar energy.

    2. Lord Koos

      I read that with fracking, it takes 4 gallons of oil to get 5 gallons out of the ground. Doesn’t sound too carbon-neutral to me.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        At some point EROI (Energy return On Investment) will rule, but until then its full speed ahead.

        As a previous comment points out, given their fundamental economic marginality, those resources should be banked unless needed for an emergency. To pollute the land and hydro-scape, while losing money selling oil and gas for export, is criminally irresponsible.

    3. blennylips

      > No mention is made of fracking’s increasing and significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

      Go on, pull the other one while you’re at it.

      Hand wave, point to anything you want. Fact remains greenhouse gas emissions are rising exponentially and our mix of fossil/renewable energy use has not changed in decades.

      Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Growth Rate

      – “On the contrary, the rate of growth is itself growing, having now reached about 2.3 ppm/y the highest growth rate ever seen in modern times. This is not just a “business as usual” scenario, it is worse than that, we’re actually moving backward”

      Reddit’ed article:

  6. Ape

    What the hell is wrong with Americans?

    This is primarily driven in the US, which does not have the highest energy costs. It’s not an economical rationality driving this behavior like in China.

    It’s the failure of will among most Americans to even try to defend themselves.

  7. TJ

    310 million pounds of water can be turned into steam from $1 m of methane gas. $3.30 per mm BTU, 1080 BTU required to raise (pure, not saline) hot water (from 100 F) to steam. It doesn’t seem economical to use the flares to distill water. Do I have the math wrong? $1m to boil away 310 x 10^6 pounds (140 million liters?) Raising them water temp releases more methane and small organics.

    Why aren’t the Saudi’s doing this rather than costly ocean desalination?

    for scale – 275 million liters of coca-cola consumed worldwide daily.

  8. Olivia Pearson

    I had no idea that produced water is the term for toxic water that is produced over time in a fracked oil or gas well. I think that with this kind of dangerous water being present in water system, it would be important to have a good produced water treatment system that can help improve the quality of the water so that it can be used safely. Where my cousin lives, toxic water has become extremely problematic, and he wants to make sure that his family stay as safe and healthy as possible. I’ll have to recommend that he find a produced water treatment service in his area that can help the community have clean, pure water.

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