(For other shale gas stories, double click on [ID:nN19217571])
* Drillers must cope with disposing tainted water
* Closed-loop system seen as part of the solution
By Edith Honan
BINGHAMTON, New York, Feb 19 (Reuters) - 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 matter.[ID:nN18198199]
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 York state.
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 said.
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. Northeast.
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)