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Injecting a dose of new ideas

Could there be a better way to dispose of hydraulic fracturing wastewater in the near future?

Some people -- including a group studying the issue at North Dakota State University -- believe breakthroughs in the way the oil industry is able to deal with fracking's liquid byproduct could be close.

"Our perception and our premise for our current research is that, eventually, certain reverse osmosis technologies can be developed," said Robert Hearne, an associate professor in applied agribusiness and economics at North Dakota State University and an environmental resource economist. "These technologies would be able to filter the water so that it could be used as part of the water used for fracking new wells."

Fracking wastewater from the Bakken -- often referred to as "saltwater" -- is a mixture of fresh water, chemicals and certain solid particles that is leftover from the fracking process. Most of the wastewater is currently shot into deep underground injection wells, although North Dakota Department of Resources spokesperson Alison Ritter said about 20 percent of the leftover water is able to be reused by the industry.

"Typically, the first water that comes back up is in that 20 percent category that can be reused and the other 80 percent is placed into the injection well," Ritter said. "Most of the saltwater is injected into the Dakota Formation, which acts kind of like Mother Nature's sponge. The formation absorbs that water and it stays there forever."

Ritter said the capacity for the Dakota Formation to hold such deepwater injection wells is almost unlimited, but that research into finding easier -- and quite possibly cheaper in the long run -- methods other than injection are in the works.

"The important thing is that the wells themselves are constructed and maintained properly and we monitor that so that there isn't any migration of liquids from the well," Ritter said. "We know there are companies and researchers looking into finding new methods to treat the leftover water and that's highly encouraged. When you inject, the water's gone forever, but, if we can find a way to reuse a natural resource like water, of course we'd like to recycle it."

Ritter said one possible road block that could face industry and state leaders in North Dakota is the fact that fracking wastewater comes back to the surface very salty in the Bakken, which poses an added filtration issue. Ritter said Haliburton is one company looking into different ways to recycle fracking wastewater.

"There are some companies looking at the possibility of using the saltier water and saying 'maybe it doesn't have to be as fresh as we once thought,'" Ritter said. "Six or seven years ago, the thought of doing what they do now with horizontal drilling wasn't even there. There are people who are working every day to improve on this recycling concept. It would not surprise me at all if, five years from now, (fracking wastewater) is not an issue."

Energy Independence Partners Senior Vice President Jon Kallan said his company is in partnership with a Georgia-based company that has developed a modular system that can filter fracking wastewater on-site for eventual reuse.

"I think this is the future of fracking," Kallan said. "I think in part because there isn't as much regulatory pushback in North Dakota right now, that the market doesn't dictate something like this becoming widespread at this point. The mode of operation right now in North Dakota is to use injection wells, but policy changes or regulatory pressures could eventually change what the market dictates. It's different in different places."

One of the main motivations for the work Hearne and others are doing at NDSU was to limit the number of fracking-related trucks on roadways in western North Dakota, the abundance of which has caused safety and infrastructure concerns among many in the state.

"Most of us are excited about the employment opportunities and economic growth that the (oil) industry has brought to the region," Hearne said. "Many of us are also concerned about potential environmental and social issues that come with that. Any means of reducing the amount of truck transport in the Bakken would reduce dust, improve road safety and traffic conditions, and save drillers money."

As part of a thesis project taken on by NDSU student Qinqing Yin -- part of the same research Hearne is involved with -- three options were proposed for fracking wastewater disposal and reuse strategies for western North Dakota: disposal in deep wells, centralized treatment plants and onsite treatment plants. The latter two would focus on the recycling of wastewater while the first option would essentially be the status quo.

"My colleagues in civil engineering here at NDSU perceive that, eventually, some type of membrane treatment could be made available (in North Dakota)," Hearne said. "When the economic incentives are there, I believe some of these technologies will be developed. Currently, because of leasing rights issues, there is a big hurry to frack new wells in the Bakken."

Hearne added that the research "does not demonstrate that drillers are bad managers."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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