Cornell Really Reaching with Latest Attack on Flowback

Another week, another study from Cornell Univ. taking a swipe at responsible oil and gas development.  Nothing new there, of course. But this latest paper (which appears in this month’s Environmental Science & Technology newsletter) is noteworthy in its attack on the one component of the fracturing process that arguably has the best story to tell among all the other various segments – namely, the disposition of flowback water, which today is being treated, reused and recycled at record-breaking rates.

Break the latest Cornell paper down to its core constituents, and what the researchers basically argue is that flowback fluid can have the effect of indirectly contaminating groundwater – not by being dumped or spilled into drinking water (that would constitute a “direct” effect, obviously), but by being dumped or spilled directly onto the soil.

According to their research, the chemical composition of flowback water (they wrongly assume that all flowback is the same, but never mind) could create a situation in which the flowback interacts with the soil in a way that mobilizes salts, metals and minerals that would have otherwise remained attached to the dirt. Newly liberated, these molecules (colloids, actually) could then find their way down into groundwater, and, eventually, they argue, contaminate it.

The upshot? The researchers argue that wastewater spills are bad, and can lead to adverse impacts on surface and ground water.  And while that conclusion isn’t exactly earthshattering, it does happen to be true. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the paper appears to be based on assumptions of things that happen (and don’t) that don’t (and do) actually take place in real life. Like, for instance:

The researchers’ apparent belief that wastewater, once accidentally spilled, remains unaddressed and unremediated forever – with no efforts made to clean-up and/or replace the affected area.

In fact, the exact opposite is true. As directed by federal law, every operator institutes a Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure Plan at the wellsite to help address, neutralize and remediate any size of accidental release or spillage that may take place.  As part of that plan, any soil that comes into contact with flowback is removed and replaced with clean topsoil — containing any spill that take may place, and  taking positive and affirmative steps to protect groundwater.

The researchers’ mistaken understanding of how wastewater is treated prior to reuse, either in an oil or gas context, or in a land application.

Unfortunately, the researchers seem to be of the view that once flowback water returns to the surface, most of it is basically shipped out and used for other commercial considerations, allowing that fluid to interact with soil and create the mobilization-of-solids-and-salts phenomenon they discuss at length in the paper.

Of course, while there are a couple of states that do allow for the land application of (treated!) flowback water, the vast majority of flowback is either recycled and reused in a downhole oil and gas context, or placed into Class II Injection wells monitored by the EPA — where 90 percent of all flowback is disposed.  In the case of land applications, the researchers at Cornell incorrectly assume flowback is used without any meaningful controls in place.

But that’s not the view of the federal government. In a report issued a couple years back by the U.S. Department of the Interior, the agency heralded the use of treated wastewater as a viable new source of usable water for West – and pointed out that rigorous treatment standards are put into place to make it beneficial for agriculture use. From that report:

“Produced water is a waste byproduct of the oil and gas industry; however, with appropriate treatment and application to beneficial use, produced water can serve as a new water supply in the Western United States.”

With the proper treatment and application, other areas have found it to be useful in an agricultural context as well.

“Land farming of drilling fluids in Oklahoma showed no effects on soil productivity, the capacity of the soil to support healthy plant growth with maintaining the quality of the soil to support future use, in some cases productivity was improved due to the presence of trace mineral content in the fluids (Bates, 1988).”

In term of negative environmental impacts, again — actual experience tells a different story.

“Studies have shown that land application of drilling muds, cuttings, and wastes associated with natural gas production can be accomplished at minimal or no impact to the environment, if the application is properly managed and administered. Land application of flowback has been used as a method of disposal and tertiary treatment in Alberta, Canada and other gas producing states in the U.S. for several years (Alberta Environment, 2009).”

While it may be easy to get certain results in a modeling study in a lab, it is important to understand how those applications take place in the real world.  The two scenarios modeled out by the Cornell researchers ignore how flowback is handled, managed and used in a real-world context, which, in this case, is directly relevant to the validity of their final conclusions.

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