The 'Killer App' for Fracking

 | Jun 20, 2014 | 10:00 AM EDT
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Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink ... Samuel Coleridge could have been thinking about hydraulic fracturing when he wrote that line. As has been widely reported, it takes between three and six million gallons of water to frack a well. 

Some of that water returns to the surface soon after the well is drilled in the form of "flowback," which also includes frack fluid. There is also "production" water which, over the life of the well, comes out of the rock formation along with the hydrocarbons.

One of the arguments against unconventional shale drilling is the amount of water used in a frack. I'll assume a midpoint of the three-six million gallon range for my calculations here. First we have to remember that 4.5 million gallons of water is just over 100,000 barrels. The EIA estimates the average well in the Eagle Ford shale in Texas will have an estimated ultimate recovery of 168,000 barrels of oil over a 30-year lifespan.

But even that math overstates the impact of fracking a well on the water supply. Remember that the three-six million gallon figure is a gross figure, and excludes the impact of both flowback and production water. A well will flow back 15%-40% of the water used in the frack in the initial stages of production. So, conservatively, you can knock 1.25 million gallons from that "headline" figure of 4.5 million gallons to get to a net impact of 3.25 million gallons for a typical frack job.

Also, excluding production water from the calculation hides a key point: over the life of a well, the ratio of production water-to-oil increases. Industry estimates range from 5:1 to 8:1 for water-to-oil ratios and older wells can go as high as 50:1.

Thus, a typical well will produce more water than hydrocarbons over its lifetime, and the hyper-focus on the amount needed just for the initial frack is misleading.

The water coming out of a 10,000-foot well is millions of years old, as are the hydrocarbons and silt that come up with it. That water would never have been captured by a residential well system. Production water is a net addition to the watershed, a fact not noted by those perpetuating bogus "fracking causes droughts" scare tactics.

The average household uses 146,000 gallons of water per year, so the initial water impact from one frack job represents the average annual water use of about 22 households. That well will produce hydrocarbons (and water) for decades, in amounts that support the energy needs of tens of thousands of households.

So, that dragon is slain, but disposing of the water that is used in the fracking process is still a very relevant issue.

The production and flowback waters are salty and need to be cleared of total dissolved solids (TDS) and residual hydrocarbons before they can be re-used. Reducing the TDS levels to those acceptable for potability is possible, but expensive. A much better solution is to re-use production water in future frack jobs. High TDS levels can cause well-plugging, though, so the water needs a scrubbing before it can be sent back down the hole.

On-site recycling is possible, but not usually cost-effective, so the wastewater is often trucked from the well to an off-site disposal or recycling facility. That leads to the number one complaint about unconventional drilling in affected municipalities: the trucks.

Informed locals laugh off ridiculous YouTube videos of flaming faucets and fictitious claims of widespread water contamination and water table depletion. But nobody likes large trucks rumbling around rural roads, especially during high traffic times like school dismissal. Local trucking firms have had difficulty retaining talented CDL drivers, and untalented drivers have caused accidents on roads not built to handle heavy volumes of large trucks.

Thus, I believe the "killer app" in the water management for unconventional drilling business is going to be the one which most effectively removes trucks from the roads.

I'll mention two water management plays in my next column, one which readers of my columns will know, GreenHunter Resources (GRH) and one that is new, HII Technologies (HIIT).

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