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* Drillers must cope with disposing tainted water
* Closed-loop system seen as part of the solution
By Edith Honan
BINGHAMTON, New York, Feb 19 Technological
advances that have unlocked natural gas from shale rock deep
beneath the surface have outpaced advances in water waste
disposal, meaning that gas drilling could begin in New York
state before a waste disposal program is in place.
"There is a shortage of treatment facilities that can
handle this very salty water, so that's going to become a bit
of a bottleneck for the industry when they do start issuing
drilling permits," said hydrogeologist John Conrad, head of the
environmental consulting firm Conrad Geoscience Corp.
The booming shale gas business accounts for 15 to 20
percent of U.S. natural gas production and is seen increasing
fourfold over the next 15 years, providing a relatively clean
energy source for a country sensitive to its dependence on
foreign oil and looking for ways to reduce carbon emissions.
But millions of gallons of water are needed for each shale
gas well, leaving drillers to deal with the tainted waste
water. Some companies such as Chesapeake Energy (CHK.N) have
employed a "closed-loop" system that reuses water, which
experts and environmental critics see as part of the solution.
New York state, which sits on top part of the gas-rich
Marcellus Shale, has placed a virtual moratorium on high-volume
drilling while it completes an environmental review.
Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and
Commerce Committee is investigating the environmental and
public health impact of the drilling technique known as
hydraulic fracturing, and the Environmental Protection Agency
said it would start working with Congress to study the
In hydraulic fracturing, millions of gallons of water are
mixed with sand and diluted chemicals and blasted into shale
rock at a pressure high enough to break the rock and free the
trapped methane gas.
Environmentalists and people living near drilling
operations worry that the drilling process might contaminate
ground water, even when heavily diluted. They have also raised
concerns about benzene, arsenic and low-level radioactive
matter coming up from the shale.
The shale gas industry considers environmental opponents of
drilling misguided, saying drilling is heavily regulated and
that there has never been a documented case of ground water
contamination because of hydraulic fracturing.
"I know it doesn't make for very sexy or controversial news
but the plain truth is that processes that we have in place are
very protective and the evidence all points to that," said Paul
Hagemeier, vice president of regulatory compliance at
Chesapeake Energy (CHK.N), an Oklahoma City based company that
has the lease for one million acres (400,000 hectares) in New
Around a third of the millions of gallons of water used in
fracturing comes back to the surface where it is either reused,
stored on site or trucked to treatment plants.
Conrad said companies that can build crystallizer plants --
specialized waste treatment plants that distill salt out of
waste water -- are unwilling to make an investment in New York
until the state begins issuing drilling permits.
"The investment in these treatment plants won't happen
until there's somewhat of a guarantee of a return," Conrad
Chesapeake has begun using a closed-loop system in its
wells in neighboring Pennsylvania -- a technique that limits
fracturing fluid contact with the environment and allows the
backflow water to be reused.
The company says it plans to use that system in all of its
wells in New York.
Backflow water can be reused up to 12 times without the
need for treatment, Conrad said. It makes economic sense for
the industry because it limits the costs of moving the waste
off site and reduces the amount of water the company needs for
its next drilling operation.
In Pennsylvania, where the industry is rushing to exploit
the massive Marcellus shale formation, critics say there isn't
enough capacity to remove toxic chemicals from waste water. As
a result, some waste gets pumped into rivers and creeks with
little or no treatment, critics say. Some residents have
accused tank trucks of dumping waste water on rural roads.
"Without adequate laws in place, it's our experience at
Riverkeeper that midnight dumping will be an absolute
certainty. You see it all the time," said James Simpson, a
staff attorney at environmental group Riverkeeper.
Another option is to inject waste into wells that are no
longer in use. While this process is common in Gulf Coast
drilling sites, geologists say it is less viable in the U.S.
Earlier this month, Chesapeake withdrew an application to
store waste in Pulteney, in New York's Finger Lake region,
after community groups protested the plan.
"I've been consistent in my stance that it's more important
to get it right than to get it fast," Congressman Eric Massa,
who opposed the application, said in a statement. "Ultimately
if we don't stake the necessary steps to protect our land and
our water for the next generation, then we have nothing."
(Editing by Alan Elsner and Daniel Trotta)