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White Paper_Oil and Gas Production and Water Treatment Methods

Oil & Gas Water Treatment

State of Oil and Gas Production & Methods for Produced and Flowback Water Treatment


For over 60 years, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations have safely and successfully delivered the oil and natural gas needed to answer our nation's demand. In 2011, the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce reported that, "Hydraulic fracturing has opened access to vast domestic reserves of natural gas that could provide an important stepping stone to a clean energy future."i

The recent discovery of rich shale gas deposits, which can only be tapped by utilizing hydraulic fracturing, has positively transformed our energy outlook: we can now achieve energy independence and in the process, provide crucial jobs and revenue streams. The boom is on across the United States. The benefits are undeniable.

Energy independence

Over one-third of the natural gas produced today comes from shale production. Domestic oil production has increased 25% since 2008 and this trend is expected to continue, according to statistics generated by the Energy Information Administration. Our consumption of imported petroleum has dropped 30% since 2005.ii 
“We expect the U.S. will not need Middle East oil sometime soon. This has implications for international oil markets and beyond that,” said Fatih Birol, chief economist and director of global energy economics at the International Energy Agency.iii

Abundant jobs

IHS Inc., a Colorado-based think tank, issued reports showing that oil and gas production from shale generated over 1.75 million jobs in 2012 alone. Employment increases of more than 40% are predicted by 2015.iv This will benefit both producing states and those states that have not discovered or developed shale plays. Supplies related to the equipment and infrastructure needed to sustain the drilling and production activity represent billions of dollars of investment. 

Increased revenues

Analysts at IHS Inc. estimate that ramped up oil and gas production from unconventional sources provided around $60 billion in tax revenues in 2012. The federal government received half, and the remaining half was distributed at the state and local levels. At the current pace of development, these revenues should nearly double by 2020. Non-producing states will also provide tax revenues derived from supporting oil and gas activity: $12+ billion in 2012, increasing to an estimated $20 billion by 2020.v

Current (2012) and predicted state tax contributions (2020): Top 10 producing states, in 2012 dollars5


$M  2012

$M  2020




North Dakota





















New Mexico






Top 10 Total



Producing Total



US Total



The 2020 ranking is based on the 2012 ranking.

Source:  IHS, Inc.  America’s New Energy Future: The Unconventional Oil and Gas Revolution and the US Economy. Volume 2: State Economic Contributions, December 2012.         


Between 2000 and 2010, the estimates of shale gas reserves rose rapidly from a negligible 2% to 50% -- and ongoing technology improvements are expected to help us produce even more.vi  The rapid expansion of shale production into areas that had little or no experience with the industry understandably raised concerns about fracturing fluids, their composition and potential to contaminate water sources. Risks related to surface spills, chemical transport and worker safety also became the focus of attention. Arguments for and against further shale development are competing for public acceptance. While some groups advocate a total shutdown of fracking, most of those who have entered the debate are asking for more transparency, better documentation and assurance that fracking operations are executed according to proven, safe practices.

The high rate of success achieved in this country has helped promote shale development around the world. As the leader in producing this new sources of energy, the United States is responsible for establishing prudent methods for protecting our environment and communities and sustaining the compelling economic benefits. Other countries are likely to follow our lead in management strategies, including the methods we choose to demonstrate compliance with regulatory agencies, community ordinances and water quality standards.

Oil and gas operators are cooperating by supplying lists of frac fluid constituents and tracing chemical combinations back to their suppliers. They are unearthing more details about the frac fluid treatments that have been used for decades, though not on today's scale of production activities. Volume tracking and reporting protocols are being refined to meet these new conditions. The oil and gas industry has well-established procedures for managing drilling waste, and these methods are being applied the life cycle of the frac fluid. There is a growing focus on replacing potentially toxic contaminants with benign but equally effective treatments.   

In other words: the stage is being set to achieve the best results with the least impact on the environment and our communities.

Some fracking opponents may be surprised to learn that the restrictions they want are already in effect throughout the oil and gas industry. Truly damaging or dangerous oilfield incidents, such as the 2010 blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, are by far the exception. However, a catastrophic event can color public opinion, much in the same way that an airliner crash can make flying seem temporarily hazardous -- despite the fact that thousands of passengers reach their destinations in comfort and safety every day, and have done so for decades.

The stated mission of the Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org) is "to safeguard the Earth; its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends." To this end, they are actively engaged in the fracking debate and have published numerous articles implying that the risks have not been sufficiently investigated. They have posted a set of requirements that the industry must meet to ensure that fracking operations are conducted without harm, and these are summarized below:

  1. Prohibiting fracking on highly sensitive lands, including critical watersheds
  2. Limiting methane leaks to under one percent of production; using green completions to reduce air pollution
  3. Implementing sound well construction standards, including strongest well siting, casing and cementing and other drilling best practices
  4. Complying with Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Act, minimizing waste and classifying hazardous wastes, funding robust inspection and enforcement programs, and disclosing fully all chemicals;
  5. Replacing dirtier fossil fuels like coal with natural gas, prioritizing renewables and efficiency, implementing mercury, sulfur and other clean air standards, and strengthening power plant carbon pollution standards
  6. Allowing communities to restrict fracking through comprehensive zoning and planning.vii

The oil and gas industry already operates under rules and regulations that govern each of the above requirements at the local, state and federal level. The priority today is to refine existing practices so that they address very
pecific conditions that accompany shale development. There is an ongoing collaboration among producers, suppliers and government regulators to identify all chemicals that are used, however small the concentrations.


Some objections to fracking arise from the escape of methane or other naturally occurring gases from old wells or faulty well completion assemblies. These can be resolved through diligent inspection and correction.

Concerns about chemical contamination, however, arise from the standard practice of treating frac fluids with an array of chemicals designed to perform various functions as the fracking operation proceeds.

Fourteen oil and gas service companies received a letter from members of a congressional committee requesting that they provide the names and volumes of the products used for fracking over a specified five-year period. All 14 companies responded voluntarily. They included details of each product's chemical components, with the objective of helping the federal government establish a "minimum national baseline for disclosure of fluids injected during the hydraulic fracturing process."1

A single frac operation can require millions of gallons of water, of which up to 40% is recovered and requires disposal or re-use. The chemical treatments applied to frac fluid are used primarily to eliminate bacteria, minimize corrosion to equipment and reduce injection pressures.viii

Among the chemicals selected for frac fluid treatment, the choice of disinfecting agent is one of the most critical.  

Disinfection is essential -- otherwise the equipment and piping that transport gas to the surface, and even the producing formation, can be impaired by bacterial growth. Slimy biofilm can accumulate, providing a haven for bacteria communities which can produce hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a poisonous and corrosive gas. This poses a serious safety risk for personnel and damages production equipment. Operational costs go up and production decreases.

Disinfection with an effective biocide can help prevent this chain of events, and do away with the double threat to health and economics. However, sometimes the treatment itself can be risky. Fears of ground and surface water contamination have amplified with the rapid growth in frac operations, and commonly used biocides have come under scrutiny.

For example, one of the most widely used bacteria inhibitors is glutaraldehyde (glut), a non-oxidizing organic biocide.  It is relatively inexpensive to produce, and it has a long history in oilfield applications. Glut-based products are also a major component in embalming fluids, and they are used in health care facilities to sterilize instruments that cannot tolerate high-temperature disinfection methods. Gluts are poisonous – that is how they kill organisms.

The Health Rating code that appears on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) was devised by the National Fire Protection Association and is intended to address the health "hazards presented by short-term, acute exposure to a material under conditions of fire, spill, or similar emergencies."ix

Depending on the source and the strength of the glut product, the MSDS for glutaraldehyde indicates a Health Rating of 2 (may cause temporary incapacitation or lingering injury) or 3 (may cause serious or permanent injury).

The MSDS for glutaraldehyde solution (50%) lists the following health effects for humans:

  • Causes severe eye irritation. May cause eye injury or chemical conjunctivitis.
  • Causes moderate to severe skin irritation. It may be absorbed through the skin, although poorly. May cause allergic contact dermatitis with itching and skin rash. May cause staining of the skin and nails to a brown or golden brown color.
  • Harmful if swallowed. May cause severe irritation of the digestive tract with burning sensation in the chest, abdominal pain, cramping, vomiting, diarrhea (perhaps bloody diarrhea), vascular collapse, and coma. May also affect liver (increased liver enzymes, liver damage), spleen, blood (normocytic anemia), metabolism (weight loss), behavior (somnolence, excitement, dizziness, lethargy, ataxia, seizures), metabolism (weight loss), urinary system (abnormal reneal function, anuria)
  • Inhalation: Harmful if inhaled. Can cause respiratory tract irritation and sudden headaches, nausea.x

The concentration of glut-based products in frac fluid is small when compared to the extremely large volumes of water used for the fracking operation, so it would seem to pose little threat even if it reached a public water source. However, recent studies show that there is more to consider than the impact of the initial glut treatment.

Lab tests and field experience show that glut by itself does not provide as high a kill rate as glut in combination with other chemicals, and testing performed on frac flowback water indicates that the surviving organisms can develop resistance, re-establish themselves and flourish in the post-frac environment. Therefore, attempting to achieve a complete kill can require adding more glut and other toxic chemicals, resulting in higher chemical concentrations as well as increased costs at every stage of treatment.xi,xii Most other non-oxidizing chemicals commonly used for frac fluid disinfection exhibit a similar outcome: enough resistant bacteria survive to warrant heightened treatment levels.

Opposition to the use of toxic biocides is also fueled by concern over the potential for spills, either at the rigsite or in transit, especially given the quantities required for a typical frac operation.


Effective alternatives to these chemicals can minimize the toxicity hazards associated with disinfection, and such alternatives are available. Like many technologies springing from the shale boom, safer methods of water treatment have been introduced in recent years. However, adapting these methods to the large scale and unique conditions imposed by oilfield operations has been a challenge.

Keeping pace with fast-moving fracking operations (at pump rates of 3000-4000 gpm) demands on-the-fly treatment processes.6 Equipment and systems traditionally used in public water treatment plants cannot be installed at wellsites without extensive modifications to suit harsh oilfield conditions, including temperature extremes, dust, vibration, power fluctuations and very limited space.xiii Any system selected has to function reliably without imposing unreasonable costs.
Mechanical treatments – like reverse osmosis (RO) and ultra-violet (UV) – are highly effective at surface disinfection and are widely used for municipal water treatment, but they are unable to match the high process rate. Further, RO and UV processes leave no residual in the frac fluid to combat downhole bacteria. A chemical biocide is typically added to control bacteria over the long term.  This can reduce the amount of biocide used, but defeats the larger purpose of eliminating toxic biocide treatments altogether. 

Oxidizing biocides include sodium hypochlorite (bleach), hydrogen peroxide and variations of chlorine-based treatments. Most oxidizing biocides are familiar to the public because they are used to disinfect drinking water, pools and household fixtures. These biocides work well against all strains of bacteria encountered in fracking situations.

Industrial grade bleach (12.5% NaOCl) has been documented as being used downhole in oilfield operations as early as the 1960s. However, the huge volumes needed for a typical frac operation would require a fleet of high-capacity trucks. Trucks must often travel through populated areas to reach the wellsite, so any spill becomes an instant HAZMAT crisis.  The problems of transportation and risks imposed by handling and storing treatment chemicals at the wellsite remain.

As an alternative, producers are now evaluating a mixed oxidant technology that provides the ability to generate an effective oxidizing biocide at the wellsite, under high volume-high rate conditions, but does not involve handling toxic chemicals or excessive transportation risks. The system produces drinking water quality chemistry that penetrates biofilms and removes bacteria, preventing them from developing resistance or pockets of regrowth.

The components are simple: water, food grade salt and a small mobile unit that uses electricity (electrolysis) to create a sodium hypochlorite-hydrogen peroxide solution that destroys the bacteria. The only item requiring transport is sacked salt, the same material used on icy roads in winter. Comparing bleach disinfection to mixed oxidant treatment, the typical ratio cited in the field is one truckload of salt instead of four to five trucks of bleach.

Performance data indicates that the mixed oxidant provides reliable disinfection at less than a penny per gallon, and this cost is equivalent to that of traditional oilfield biocides.  Indirect cost benefits may also be obtained: the disclosure of water and salt as the "chemicals" used in the process is far less time consuming than documenting the chemical compounds in other oilfield biocides, and the risk of a damaging spill or incident is almost totally eliminated.

Mixed oxidant disinfection technology offers the advantage of simplicity, and its key components are thoroughly familiar to the public, to regulators and to the producers who are searching for an effective alternative.


Accurate disclosure of chemical volumes used in hydraulic fracturing will help ease public worries about the safety of the water sources that we depend on every day. If we can remove the subset of disinfection chemicals from that portfolio, and still preserve good well economics, we are moving in the right direction. Concerns over toxic biocides making their way into community water systems can be dispelled. Expensive disruptions to gas production caused by bacteria accumulations can be prevented.

Today the EPA is reviewing all aspects of fracturing, and the quality of the water used in these operations is getting close attention. As regulators determine the future of fracking in the US and around the world, they will want to support the goal of energy independence while ensuring that no harm comes to the environment or natural water sources.

The list of safeguards cited by the Natural Resources Defense Council -- strict permitting and zoning requirements, best practices in well construction, careful tracking of drilling and production waste streams and disclosure of chemicals used in the fracking process -- are already in effect in the industry, either by statute or through corporate policies.  Any resistance to disclosure of chemicals is likely to fade very soon, as it is in the best interests of every producer to fully comply with standards -- official or not -- that protect our ability to develop our own energy resources in a responsible way. 

The introduction of a proven, safe disinfection method that removes dependency on traditional biocides is just one more step on the path toward energy independence, outstanding gains in employment and increased revenues for state and federal treasuries.

i United States House of Representatives Committee On Energy And Commerce: Minority Staff. "Chemicals Used in Hydraulic Fracturing." April 2011.

ii Energy Information Administration (EIA), Monthly Energy Review, September 2012.

iii Hill, P. Major changes from oil revolution: American technology, Asian demand on course to reshape global politics. The Washington Times, 4 February 2013.

iv IHS, Inc.  America’s New Energy Future: The Unconventional Oil and Gas Revolution and the US Economy. Volume 1: National Economic Contributions, October 2012.

v IHS, Inc.  America’s New Energy Future: The Unconventional Oil and Gas Revolution and the US Economy. Volume 2: State Economic Contributions, December 2012.  

vi King, G. Thirty years of gas shale fracturing: what have we learned? SPE Paper 133456. SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, 19–22 September 2010.

vii Natural Resources Defense Council. Risky gas drilling threatens health, water supplies: the rapid expansion of natural gas drilling across the nation endangers human health and the environment. www.nrdc.org/energy/gasdrilling

viii  FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry. What Chemicals Are Used. http://fracfocus.org/chemical-use/what-chemicals-are-used.

ix National Fire Protection Association. NFPA 704: Standard System for the Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response. 2012.

x Glutaraldehyde 50%. MSDS. www.sciencelab.com

xi Campbell, S. et al. Conventional application of biocides may lead to bacterial cell injury rather than bacterial kill within a biofilm. Paper 11234, 2011 NACE International Corrosion Conference.

xii Tischler, A. et al. Controlling bacteria in recycled production water for completion and workover operations. SPE Paper 123450. SPE Rocky Mountain Petroleum Technology Conference, April 14-16, 2009.

xiii Gloe, L. et al. UV light reduces the amount of biocide required to disinfect water for fracturing fluids. SPE Paper 125665, SPE Eastern Regional Meeting, 23-25 September 2009.

White Paper_Oil and Gas Production and Water Treatment Methods