Shale gas cowboys could ‘lose’ toxic water without checks, warns engineer

Shale gas water lifecycle. Image: Cuadrilla Resources

Shale gas water lifecycle. Image: Cuadrilla Resources

Shale gas firms could find the temptation to save millions by falsely under-reporting volumes of ‘fracking’ flowback fluid too strong to resist without strong regulation, according to a Lancashire-based engineer familiar with the industry.

To extract natural gas from shale rock a technique called hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is used. Millions of gallons of fluid comprising water, sand and chemicals are piped underground at high pressure to create fissures to release the gas.

Approximately 25-75% of the fluid is returned to the surface. Called flowback fluid, it typically contains extremely high levels of sodium and chloride; naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) like radium; hydrocarbons such as benzene; and trace elements of mercury, arsenic and lead; as well as the chemical additives used in fracking.

The high mineral content means flowback fluid is expected to be trucked to industrial water works for treatment and disposal. Operators must declare to the Environment Agency (EA) the volume of flowback water returned.

But Mike Hill, a Lancashire-based chartered engineer with working knowledge of fracking, said the EA does not verify the declared volumes of flowback water. “Through Freedom of Information requests I discovered the EA is not verifying the quantity of flowback fluid and their sampling visits will be announced two weeks in advance. In effect they are not regulating.”

Carte blanche to cut corners

Hill said without strong regulation shale gas firms would be given carte blanche to cut corners. “There could be 20 million gallons of flowback per ten-well pad. To lose a certain volume of this water along the way could potentially save an exploration company several millions of pounds in trucking, treatment and disposal costs.”

At present only a handful of firms, including Cuadrilla Resources, Coastal Oil & Gas and Dart Energy, hold shale gas licenses and only Cuadrilla has conducted hydraulic fracturing. When completed, however, the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s (DECC) 14th Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing Round could see dozens of firms hold exploratory shale gas licenses across large swathes of Britain.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Cuadrilla Resources or any other company, but Hill said there would be a “huge temptation” for other shale gas operators and their sub-contractors to minimize costs.

“I’ve worked in hydraulic fracturing for some very large oil and gas companies and I know what it can do,” he said. “And I know how these companies will behave if they know for sure that they are not going to be inspected. What’s to stop the water disappearing in a river, lake or a field?

“Drivers on the motorway know the speed limit is 70mph, but equally they know there are no policemen and no speed cameras. There is always the temptation to speed.”

The EA said the storage and disposal of flowback fluid is likely to require a permit with strict conditions attached. A spokesman said: “We would ensure these conditions are adhered to via monitoring, auditing and sampling. Like any other industry, false reporting would be an offence which could lead to prosecution.”

Fracking is currently on hold after Cuadrilla Resources was found to have caused earth tremors of magnitude 2.3 and 1.5 in April and May 2011. However, DECC is expected to give a green light to shale gas companies to resume exploratory shale gas fracking in the coming days.

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