Monday, October 15, 2012

Hydraulic fracturing wastewater and #chemjobs

Whatever you think of hydraulic fracturing, there's one thing for certain -- there are probably a lot of new jobs in the field. From this week's Chemical and Engineering News article by Melody Baumgardner (emphasis mine):
There’s a lot of water to treat. Hydraulic fracturing requires between 3 million and 5 million gal of water per gas well. The water is combined with fracturing chemicals and a sand or ceramic proppant and then pumped into the horizontal branches of the well. The proppant props open fractures in the shale, allowing gas that has been trapped for eons to flow out. After fracking, roughly 35% of the water returns to the surface as flowback in the first weeks. Additional liquid known as produced water—a mix of fracking fluid and groundwater—comes up with the gas for most of the life of the well. 
Hydraulic fracturing got its start in western states, where oil and gas drillers pump untreated wastewater into nearby wells driven deep into porous rock. For decades, deep-well injection has been the first choice for disposal because of its low cost. But the Marcellus areas of Pennsylvania and West Virginia have a geology that is not suited to deep-well injection. To dispose of the water off-site would require around 40 truck trips every day for weeks or months. That is costly, and energy companies can literally wear out their welcome when using local roads. 
In contrast, the goals of wastewater treatment are to reuse, recycle, or reduce the water that comes out of the well. Chemical firms that specialize in water treatment such as Kemira and Ecolab’s Nalco unit; equipment makers including GE and Siemens; and service providers, both large and small, customize their offerings depending on the water’s contents and where it is destined to go. The main consideration in selecting technologies, all agree, is cost. 
With prices for natural gas at a historic low of less than $3.00 per thousand cu ft, energy firms are compelled to select the cheapest legal alternative. “My biggest competitor is a hole in the ground,” says Mark Wilson, marketing director for unconventional gas at GE Power & Water. “We are looking for more energy efficiency and lower capital costs.”
I think one of the few bright spots in the #chemjobs field has been Nalco, which has been hiring consistently over the last few years. Read the whole thing, especially if you're interested in learning about some of the actual environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing.


  1. There are production methods for oil that also place significant priority on waste-water treatment: SAGD, ASP/SP flooding (and other CEOR methods), and mining are notable examples.

    Reduced trucking costs, reduced oil loss to reinjection, lower footprint or faster reclamation of tailings ponds, and reduced dependence on freshwater all count among the reasons it makes sense for a producer to treat their produced water.

    With more and more tertiary recovery mechanisms being investigated for the sake of improved production, I doubt this part of the energy industry will be disappearing any time soon.

    (It's also quite an interesting field; water chemistry has a rather mature knowledge base, but crude oil still has many shadowy corners.)

  2. There has already been more news on this topic - Ecolab (now home to Nalco) has snapped up another specialty chemicals firm focused on upstream oil & gas markets. Champion Technologies also has water treatment chemistry. Two areas seem likely to grow in their need for chemists - separating hydrocarbons from water, and treating water that has other contaminants.
    Additionally, new chemistries for fracking fluids are sought - especially ones that are more benign and won't show up where they shouldn't. Here's the C&EN story:

  3. Don't forget about products needed to separate the water from the hydrocarbons once the hydrocarbons have been separated from the water! (Cue Elton John's "Circle of Life.")