Issue 2, 2018

Wastewater from hydraulic fracturing in the UK: assessing the viability and cost of management


The safe and effective management of wastewaters from unconventional hydrocarbon production using the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process poses a major challenge. Exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbons, such as shale gas, remains controversial in the UK primarily due to concerns surrounding the hydraulic fracturing process required to extract the resource. The key issue of how waste fluids produced by hydraulic fracturing in the UK will be safely managed has yet to be adequately addressed, and the capacity for the specialist treatment required is currently uncertain. To address this critical knowledge gap we review, for the first time, the available management options for these waste fluids in the UK. We find that these are limited in comparison to the options available in the U.S., due to uncertainty surrounding whether wastewater injection wells will be permitted in the UK. Consequently, it is highly probable that these fluids will need to be treated and safely disposed of at the surface. In order to constrain the composition of wastewater which will require treatment in the UK, we analyse the only existing data set of returned waters from hydraulic fracturing (n = 31). We supplement this with measurements of wastewater from UK conventional onshore hydrocarbon (n = 3), and offshore hydrocarbon (n = 14), operations which produce water from similar formations as those currently targeted for shale gas exploration. Comparison of this limited UK data to the more extensive unconventional production dataset from the United States (n = 3092) provides confidence in our projected UK wastewater compositions. We find that the high level of salinity and concentration of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) in UK wastewaters will be problematic to treat for disposal into a freshwater environment. We use our data compilation to estimate costs of treating such wastewaters in a number of relevant scenarios. We find that the projected salinity in FP waters from UK hydraulic fracturing operations can be treated at a cost of between $2701 (∼£2000) and $1 376 093 (∼£1 047 000) per well, requiring between 2 and 26% of expected revenue. Additional costs, specific to the UK of up to £163 450 per well, will be incurred due to the legislative requirement for disposal of NORM concentrated sludge in permitted landfill sites. We find that existing capacity to receive NORM waste at currently permitted UK treatment facilities is limited, and that this will pose management problems if wastewaters are generated from multiple unconventional wells simultaneously.

Graphical abstract: Wastewater from hydraulic fracturing in the UK: assessing the viability and cost of management

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Article type
07 Nov 2017
27 Nov 2017
First published
30 Nov 2017
This article is Open Access
Creative Commons BY license

Environ. Sci.: Water Res. Technol., 2018,4, 325-335

Wastewater from hydraulic fracturing in the UK: assessing the viability and cost of management

M. C. O'Donnell, S. M. V. Gilfillan, K. Edlmann and C. I. McDermott, Environ. Sci.: Water Res. Technol., 2018, 4, 325 DOI: 10.1039/C7EW00474E

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