Facing the challenge of toxic wastewater produced by oil and gas companies

Whilst there are no official stats for the amount of toxic wastewater produced by oil and gas companies in the UK, the US is known to produce 800 billion gallons each year.
Disposing of wastewater from uncoventional gas and oil techniques - including fracking - is one of the big challenges facing the UK.
Analysing wastewater is a challenge in itself and not least because it is often 10 times saltier than the ocean and adequate testing methods just don't exist

As World Water Week currently looks at the world's water issues in Stockholm, it's clear that much more research is needed into conserving and protecting water on a global scale.

One particular area where more research is clearly needed is into the impact and environmental costs of wastewater produced by oil and gas companies - how it is treated and what potential future risks surround it. And with the controversy surrounding fracking there is still much to understand.

In the UK there are significant knowledge gaps about how to best dispose of wastewater from unconventional oil and gas resources, in fact there is currently no data available about how much wastewater is currently produced from UK oil and gas companies.

This is perhaps an area where we can better learn something about both the risks and solutions from the US, which produces 800 billion gallons of toxic wastewater each year.

Wastewater poses a number of environmental risks and concerns, especially in the relatively new science of fracking. Increasingly flowback and produced water is being used as hydraulic fracturing fluid in the process of fracking. Constituents within this water include barium and strontium, various pollutants and additional unknown compounds which may have both a short and longer term impact on soil, and our drinking water.

Chloelle Danforth, a postdoctoral science fellow working with the US EDF (Environmental Defense Fund) Oil and Gas team to minimize the industry's impacts on water, states that most US wastewater is injected deep into the rock (deep well disposal) - something that isn't permitted in the UK.

Now a growing number of US operators are looking at alternative ways of discharging water or reusing it above ground. But a key concern is that very little is known about the likely consequences of this action.

The Environmental Defense Fund in collaboration with Columbia University and the University of Colorado is now working with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to find better ways to test for the multitude of chemicals and contaminants  that may be present in this wastewater.

Both the UK and the US see the management of wastewater as a priority for more research, something clearly demonstrated in a workshop held in November 2015 funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Environment, Sustainability and Energy Division of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), organised to explore the environmental impacts of unconventional oil and gas activity and to identify and address these vast knowledge gaps.

The report in the aftermath of the workshop raised the issue of stresses on water both in quality and quantity. It highlighted that the potential risks to water include subsurface migration, leaks and failures during transfer to the surface.

Analysing wastewater is a challenge in itself and not least because it is often 10 times saltier than the ocean and adequate testing methods just don't exist

It also confirmed that the truth is, the UK has very little experience with water use and contamination from unconventional oil and gas activity, although we have made significant progress in establishing environmental baseline monitoring programs.

James Bertin, of the UK's Environment Agency said that currently no figures are available as to the amount of wastewater produced by UK oil and gas companies, adding: "The disposal method for flow-back fluid will be agreed between the operator, their contractors and us. In general the available options include:


  • On-site treatment with re-use of water and disposal of remaining liquors and solids to a suitable licensed waste treatment and disposal facility or effluent discharge


  • Removal off site to a suitable licensed waste treatment and disposal facility.


He added: "If the fluid, which is a waste when it returns to the surface, can be treated to the point where it performs the same function as fresh injection fluid, then it would no longer be a waste product but could be used in well stimulation. We would need to assess any proposal to reuse flow back fluid in this way.

"There are now three facilities in England with permits that would allow for the treatment of this waste: Castle Environmental in Stoke, FCC at Knostrop and Bran Sands in Middlesbrough (Northumbrian Water).

"All of the industrial plants that will treat the flowback fluid will be regulated by the Environment Agency. Operators of these sites would be required to make the data available to us if we needed it as part of our regulatory work."

Cloelle Danforth writes in a report for EDF that existing methods of analysing wastewater are difficult, because it is often ten times saltier than the ocean and adequate testing for these solutions just doesn't exist. Without the correct research and knowledge it's therefore difficult to remove pollutants or understand their environmental risks.

With deep well disposal not permissible in the UK, there is a greater need for additional research for treatment and reuse of the flowback and produced water. Given the newness of fracking in the UK it is completely unknown how much wastewater would be produced and what the regulations would be surrounding it.

With World Water Week following the theme Water for Sustainable Growth, 3,000 people from over 120 countries have gathered in Stockholm to talk about what is listed by the World Economic Forum as one of the top global risks.

Opening the meeting, Torgny Holmgren, Executive Director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) said: "Without reliable access to water, almost no Sustainable Development Goal will be achieved. To make that happen, we must ensure water's centrality to the entire Agenda 2030. This will demonstrate the power water has as a connector.

"Water connects not only sectors, but also nations, communities and different actors. Water can be the unifying power, the enabler for progress in both Agenda 2030 and the Paris climate agreement".

Laura Briggs is The Ecologist News Reporter


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