Not all shale is created equal.
That means flowback — the watery mix filled with sediment, chemicals, metals and salt that returns to the surface after hydraulic fracturing — isn’t all the same, either.
“Each shale will have different waste fluids,” said David Yoxtheimer, a hydrogeologist with Penn State University’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. “Different shale will have different chemical qualities.”
Those qualities usually depend on what was originally in the shale when it was deposited.
“Generally you’re going to have high total dissolved solids content,” Mr. Yoxtheimer said. “That could range, even within different formations of the same shale, from an average of 50,000 milligrams per liter to well over 100,000.”
The fact that there are differences in flowback compositions isn’t news to Chance Richie. He’s the president and owner of Shalewater Solutions, a wastewater management company in Bridgeport, W.Va.
“I’ve treated water all over Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and I can tell you the water you get back in Williamsport, Pa., is different than in the water in southeastern Ohio,” Mr. Richie said.
Shalewater Solutions, which is looking to work with oil and gas operators in southwestern Pennsylvania, has an answer for that problem. The company uses chemicals and a closed-loop tank system to clean frack water based on customer needs or the composition of the flowback.
Its main client is Denver-based Antero Resources.
“Every customer has different requirements for the water because this water interacts with frack fluids, and everyone designs their water different,” Mr. Richie said. “We’re kind of a black box technology. We’re going into our customers and specifically designing our system around their needs.”
Most unconventional wells require roughly 5 million gallons of water to frack, but depending on which shale formation a company is fracking, the amount of flowback generated can be different.
For instance, Utica drillers usually get 8 percent to 10 percent of their water back while Marcellus drillers get 15 percent.
“The Utica in particular we get a lot more liquid hydrocarbon with the flowback, so we’ve adjusted our chemistry accordingly,” Mr. Richie said.
Even the same shale can give an operator different types of flowback, according to Mr. Yoxtheimer. To deal with those differences, Shalewater Solutions does hourly testing and sampling of the wastewater and logs those samples to study trends over time.
“We have somebody on site all the time,” Mr. Richie said. “We can adjust the amount of chemistry on the fly to deal with the amount of water we’re getting back.”
The company treats flowback at active well sites and at its treatment facility in Wilsonburg, W.Va.
“When we get this water back, it’s a dark brown, almost black color,” Mr. Richie said. “It has a high bacteria count, various types of metals and dissolved solids.
“What we do is almost eliminate the solids and certain types of metals that are in the water. When we give it back to the customer, it looks like a bottle of [water]. The only difference is it has salt in it.”
After it is treated, the flowback is then separated into two categories: the clean water that will be used for another fracking job and a solid material that goes to a landfill.
“It looks like mud cake that you could pick up in your hands,” Mr. Richie said of the waste.
Companies such as Shalewater Solutions have sprung up as more oil and gas companies turn to recycling and reusing flowback for their fracking needs. About 88 percent of the wastewater generated during fracking in Pennsylvania is recycled or reused, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
From 2008 to 2013, the flowback generated from water pulled from the Susquehanna River to frack wells within the Susquehanna River Basin replaced 2.1 billion gallons of fresh water that would have been needed to perform those same frack jobs, according to Paula Ballaron, a spokeswoman with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.
Recycling flowback is more environmentally-friendly and does not require as much energy as other forms of treatment, Mr. Richie and Mr. Yoxtheimer said. It also means less use of disposal wells.
“As that water comes back, the materials coming out of that water are being ultimately managed and being placed in a landfill,” Mr. Richie said. “You’re keeping more trucks off the road that would haul fresh water. You’re not sourcing as much fresh water from streams. You have better control of that waste stream, so you don’t have water sitting in pits for long periods of time.”
The price and amount of treatment needed to safely frack a well is often a deciding factor when it comes to the level of cleanliness in the water, both Mr. Richie and Mr. Yoxtheimer said.
“What we’ve seen is the industry kind of tailors their treatment for their own unique approach,” said Mr. Yoxtheimer. “Some companies use a more minimal approach, run it through a filter to knock out the solids, and some companies have gone to the other extreme and treat it back to drinking water standards.
“If you’re doing less treatment, you’re going to have a lower cost, but might run the risk of having some negative down hole chemical reaction that could plug up the fractures. If you use a more expensive method, you reduce that down hole risk,” he said.
Shalewater Solutions tries to meet clients in the middle.
“There’s a wide range of treatment technologies out there,” Mr. Richie said. “There’s bulk filtration, where you’re getting a decrease in solids, all the way up to distillation, where we can turn that into water that can be discharged into a river or stream. Our product lies somewhere in the middle between cost and complexity.”
In addition to disposing of the solids from its processes, Mr. Richie’s company also disposes of waste generated by the drilling and completion process at well sites, such as drill clippings and mud. The company often takes the waste to landfills that its clients use or recommend.
“We have to do that as part of our process, so we just kind of found it’s a good business for us to be in,” Mr. Richie said.
The company saw a 120 percent increase in revenue during its first year and has seen a 20 percent to 30 percent increase each year since 2011.
“I didn’t expect it to get as big as it’s gotten,” Mr. Richie said. “The company really started as a consulting operation and expanded rapidly from three employees to 120 where we’re at today.”
Madasyn Czebiniak: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1269. Twitter: @PG_Czebiniak