We risk repeating US mistakes on fracking waste water – professor warns

Stuart HaszeldineA professor at Edinburgh University has called for more research on the risks of disposing of fracking flowback fluid by re-injection before it is used in the UK.

Stuart Haszeldine, a specialist in the geochemistry of fluids in sedimentary rocks, warned:

“Lessons from the US, where the process has been linked to induced local seismicity and environmental contamination due to poor well construction, have to be learned and not repeated.”

In an article published yesterday (22/1/2016), Professor Haszeldine and Edinburgh colleagues Megan O’Donnell and Stuart Gilfillan, said the disposal of large volumes of contaminated flowback fluids could soon be allowed in England and Wales.

And they warned:

“There is no established track record in the safe tratment of such waste water in the UK”

“If the UK is to dispose of high-volume flowback fluids from shale gas by using re-injection into geological formations, much further research into the potential risks of the process.”

The disposal of waste water from fracking is one of the most controversial aspects of the process. Opponents have argued that the alternative to re-injection – treatment at specialist facilities – will lead to increased traffic. There are also questions over whether the UK has suitable treatment works. An energy consultant argued this month (See Waste treatment causes an impasse for shale gas at the end of this post) that there were currently no treatment works in the UK willing or able to take fracking waste.

“Loophole” on flowback re-injection?

According to Professor Haszeldine and colleagues, new draft guidelines by the Environment Agency, issued in November 2015, show what they call “a significant shift towards the potential permitting and operational use of re-injection wells for the disposal of large volumes of contaminated flowback fluids in England and Wales”.

The Environment Agency’s Technical Guidance document, published in 2013, stated “Disposal of flowback fluid simply by re-injecting it into the shale strata is not permissible under groundwater protection legislation and isn’t considered further here”.

Under the new guidelines, the Environment Agency said it would “generally not permit the re-injection of flowback fluid for disposal into any formation”.

But the authors said the EA had created a loophole by stating: “Re-injection of flowback fluid for disposal is not necessarily prohibited and may be permissible where, for example, it is injected back into formations from which hydrocarbons have been extracted and will have no impact on the status of water bodies or pose any risk to groundwater.”

They said:

“The potential permitting of injection for flowback fluids in England and Wales is particularly concerning as there is a complete lack of research on the compositions of the waste water and potential chemical reactions in the subsurface.”

Conventional versus unconventional

The article acknowledged that 99.9% of produced water from UK conventional onshore oil and gas was re-injected in 2014-2015.

But it pointed to big differences between waste from conventional and unconventional operations.

The authors said that in conventional operations, the produced water is almost entirely formation water and this is re-injected into the same formation it came from. The volume of reinjected water is less than, or similar, to the volumes of pore space underground.

But in shale gas wells, flowback fluids would be re-injected into different geological formations. And the volumes would be larger because no oil or gas had been removed before re-injection. This could lead to increased pressure, release built-up stresses and produce an earthquake, the authors said.

They also argued that the chemical makeup of flowback fluids from fracking were very different to that of produced waters associated with conventional hydrocarbon extraction. Fracking flowback had the potential to contaminate groundwater, they said.


The authors said the seismic risk of re-injecting flowback fluid must be assessed and, if it were carried out in the UK, it must be carefully monitored. They added:

“We also strongly recommend that a research-based code of best practice, from which the regulators can adapt the legislation to reduce the risk of environmental contamination must be established before any flowback fluid re-injection permits are granted.”

UK failing to learn U.S. lessons on fracking waste water, Megan O’Donnell, Stuart Gilfillan and Stuart Haszeldine, 22/1/2016

Waste treatment causes an impasse for shale gas

An alternative to re-injection would be treatment but John Busby, an energy consultant, writing this month, said:

“There is currently no treatment works in the UK able and willing to take in fracking wastewater”.

He concluded:

“The lack of suitable water treatment facilities in the UK has created an impasse for fracking test drilling as there will be no means of disposing of the occurring wastewater.”

He said the only high volume hydraulic fracture carried out in the UK resulted in 8,000 cubic metres being taken to the United Utilities works at Daveyhulme in 300 tanker movements.

Fracking wastewater, John Busby, 14/1/2016

Updated 5/2/16 to amend quotes changed to the original article after publication.

6 replies »

  1. According to Colin Mackie at DECC (NuLeAF meeting June 2014) there are 3 facilities which could take the flowback materials BUT, given that offshore wells are being decommissioned, these are fast running out of room.

  2. Even in the USA, there are not the waste water plants that can effectively treat the ‘flow-back’, ‘produced’ water. Especially the radioactive waste, classed as NORM (normally occurring radioactive material): The ‘fracking’ waste water sent to Davyhulme, ended up being discharged into the Manchester Ship Canal:, in my opinion was the cause of the treatment plant going ‘sour’.

  3. Have to say I’m glad at last this issue of waste and water is being properly aired, as it is THE key driver for a global switch from oil and gas derivative into water energy conflicts that serve only investors and global machinators for the next millennia.

    Water basins are already massively compromised with only Scotland and West Wales slither coastline regions, having near normal freshwater supplies. Notice in Ryedale troutfarm became a casualty for a car park roll out…clever move……..pawn off the chess board…Groundwater interrelationships are still very poorly understood and there is NO MAP, NO MAP, of ALL groundwater, because this is impossible to deliver, so why pretend imaginary ill understood ” zones” definitions manage the water basins and groundwater basins enough to feed cavalier assumptions about how fracking will not cause any problems?

    There may already be massive pollution to groundwater due to chemical usage on agricultural land as well as the failed experiment with chemicals for bovine disease which saw thousands of cattle killed across rural regions….a major knight move for anyone watching this conglomerate game of chess….

    While FOE and other orgs prefer to call for veggie lifestyles this ignores the fact that highly dangerous chemicals used on cattle and agricultural land, not properly tested for long term effects, now pollute groundwater and farmland and nearby landscapes and freshwater supplies for generations to come. So why add fracking problems to the mix? A convenient scapegoat perhaps?

    However, the fracking waste from an hydrofracking mega rollout, has already shown the Water industry is ill equipped to cope with the issue, and probably has already put the environment at grave risk. The US found sewage treatment plants are not capable of treating fracking waste; disposal of fracking waste through them can encourage the formation of carcinogenic by-products during chlorination. The disposal of fracking wastewater remains a problem without a safe, viable solution. Overall, the number of well blowouts (unintentional releases of pressurized gases and fluids), spills, and cases of surface water contamination from waste pits and other sources has steadily grown. Meanwhile, the gas industry’s use of “gag orders,” non disclosure agreements, and settlements impede scientific study and stifle public awareness of the extent of these problems.

    The EA at NYCC meeting were worrying as they brushed problems connected to waste water disposal under the carpet. They have already told exploratories drillers to dispose of highly polluting waste water back into the ground on site. Sadly they are the public body which tells Yorkshire Water which waste water to process, and given they can’t even monitor and enforce regs on water over abstraction, it would seem there is great cause for concern.

    Incidentally North Yorks down to Harrogate is a massive spa region. Howardian Hills is AONB. Sadly one person connected to the latter didn’t know that fracking takes place over two lateral —as in horizontal, not vertical from drill, miles so WILL get fracked under their land……Worrying how little fact has been circulated to people dependant upon a pristine spa region. Castle taken off the board, a clever knight move……how will the Bishop respond?

  4. With 5.2 million homes at risk of flooding in England ( SOURCE, Flood defence spending in England – Parliament breifing paper 19th November 2014 )

    With two thirds of the UK insurance market either refusing cover, or placing special exemptions on the policies of homeowners who live in areas at risk of flooding with fracking sites in close proximity.
    Defra warning of the serious risk to human health from highly polluted fracking waste water.
    ( SOURCE, Independant Newspaper UK, 10th January 2016, headlined Householders Face Double Whammy If They Live Near A Planned Fracking Site )

    What does the fracking industry intend to do about this ???

  5. The frackers still defend their right to frack pointing to PEDL regs and saying they are safe….look at todays news 24th Jan. about sperm wales on the shores of Skegness, and the coincidence or not of EQ to North Sea oil drill on the exact same longitude, as in the past when large ocean mammals rolled up dead on our shores, and be confident that the oil drills and PEDL are NOT safe and are killing off our precious sea life wholesale….some evil people on this oil rich rat race and need to give up their evil gains to put right the damage to aquatic life forms they have rolled out whilst rolling to their offshore tax free havens….
    Stuff climate change duff stuff, and take a smell of the fishy business connected to UNSAFE destructive oil and PEDL red herring……and tell your MP to start doing something about the worst safety record regulations on the planet…..before all whales, orcas, dolphin pods and other aquatic life perish forever……DON’T EVER go to the propaganda site ”’ UK USGS EQ we will and wont tell you about ””’ either when cor relating UK EQ with massive sea life kill go here for the truth the government wont tell you, …. and watch how every time there is a small EQ manufactured on an offshore oil drill site it coincides with a massive sea life death on our shores

    How much more evil can our government get???????????????

  6. Mar g. Whales have been known to beach themselves for ages. Cause not known so why link it to drilling with no evidence? Makes you look like a loonie.

    A different take on this from DrJV who is a post doctoral geophysics researcher can be seen here. This is a highly technical subject but Dr JV makes it understandable. He is an expert at debunking poor science. Anyone concerned should at least read this.

Leave a Reply to mar g Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s