Shale Rush

Jan. 17, 2012

Assessing impacts of hydraulic fracturing

About the author:

Thomas L. Smith, P.E., BCEE, DWRE, LEED AP, is chief technical officer of Green and Sustainable Services LLC. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or 940.597.3723.

Elizabeth Lisican is managing editor of Industrial Water & Wastes Digest. Lisican can be reached at [email protected] or 847.391.1012.


In response to widespread concern over the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is planning on establishing standards for the wastewater discharges associated with natural gas operations. Here Thomas L. Smith, chief technical officer of Green and Sustainable Services LLC, discusses “fracking” with Industrial Water & Wastes Digest Managing Editor Elizabeth Lisican.

Elizabeth Lisican: The EPA is announcing a schedule to develop standards for wastewater discharges produced by natural gas extraction from underground coalbed and shale formations. What can the hydraulic fracturing industry do to help prepare for these new standards?

Thomas L. Smith: Due to growing public concern regarding water pollution associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations the EPA is giving consideration to setting federal standards for wastewater discharges from natural gas operations. The hydrofracturing industry should provide information and feedback to the government on technical advancements and lessons learned regarding gas production from underground shale formations and coalbeds. This sharing of information from fracking operations would be advantageous to the federal government because there is not a comprehensive set of standards at the national level regarding regulations and disposal of wastewater from natural gas production.  

U.S. shale gas exploration has increased because unconventional natural gas sources are now economically viable due to advances in horizontal drilling and hydrofracturing technologies. Frac operations utilize large volumes of water. The industry must look at the viability of treating and reusing the wastewater (flow-back and co-produced water), assuming the treatment is economical, efficient and safe for the environment.

Lisican: The EPA also is in the midst of a national study of whether fracking has polluted groundwater and drinking water, and its potential future impacts. What are your thoughts?

Smith:  The EPA is looking at the influence the hydraulic fracturing operation has on groundwater and surface water to assess any impact. The EPA’s initial findings are expected to be publicized sometime in 2012, and the formal report is expected sometime in 2014. Do we need more national rules regarding frac operations, or continue to allow the process to be regulated at the state level? The long-term outcome could result in the EPA adopting national regulations aimed at protecting public drinking water supplies.

Generally, the industry water needs can be grouped into two categories: drilling and completion, including fracturing operations; and production operations. The demand for treatment and associated beneficial reuse of hydraulic fracture flow-back water, production water and other wastewater streams generated in the oil and gas field is growing at a rapid rate.

Lisican: What are the concerns that people should have? What is legitimate, and what is hyped up?

Smith: Shale gas is an incredible resource to the nation, but it also poses great challenges. Benefits include the ability to have a large volume of gas reserves, a cleaner energy source than coal or oil, the creation of many long-term jobs, mineral owners’ share in bonuses and royalties, and everyone benefits from cash infusion into the economy.

Challenges are: The volume of freshwater used to hydraulically fracture wells (frac jobs often require millions of gallons of water per well), environmental compliance and impact, damage to roads by heavy-duty tanker trucks and the impact on air quality from vehicle emissions, as well as traffic safety and congestion concerns. Wastewater treatment needs to be more economical and efficient. Producers face high risk and liability regarding hydraulic fracture flow-back water and produced water treatment and its beneficial reuse. Therefore, emerging technology development is needed to help reduce this risk and liability.

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