Unconventional oil and gas development produces billions of tons of waste annually. Waste products from shale gas operations include:
- Liquid waste such as brine and flowback water
- Sludges and semi-solids like tank bottoms
- Concentrated TENORM (technologically-enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material)
- Filter cake, filter socks, and material residues
- Solid waste such as drill cuttings
Unconventional oil and gas development requires extraordinary quantities of water during the extraction process. In 2019, drilling operators used an average of 14 million gallons of water per fracking event. Some hydrofracturing jobs required up to 39 million gallons for a single well. After it is pumped underground to “frack” oil and gas wells, water that initially returns to the surface is called “flowback,” and includes naturally-occurring underground brine water– containing dangerous levels of radiation, heavy metals, and other contaminants — mixed with the fracking chemical-laden fresh water that has been pumped into the well. The chemicals used in the fracking process are known carcinogens, while others remain entirely secret (or “proprietary” by industry), even to the personnel in the field who are employed to use the additives.
Flowback is disposed of by injection into underground wells, in water treatment plants, or in open air pits. Each of these disposal methods comes with enormous risks, such as contamination of drinking water sources, fresh water contamination, inducing seismic activity in the case of underground injection, human exposure to radioactivity, and increased traffic needed to transport produced water.
Produced water, which flows out of the shale throughout the lifetime of the well, contains fewer of these chemicals used to frack the well, itself. Sometimes produced water is treated to remove remaining fracking chemicals and is then reused in the fracking process. However, because fresh water is less expensive to obtain — at least in non-arid parts of the country — this accounts for only a portion of the water used to stimulate a given well.
Shockingly, some states allow for fracking wastewater to be treated and used for agricultural purposes, for road spreading, or for commercial sale in products such as pool salts, increasing exposure pathways to toxic chemicals.
Scroll down to explore articles on FracTracker’s work as it relates to fracking waste issues.
Class II Injection Wells
Class II underground injection wells are a major disposal pathway for liquid oil and gas exploration and production wastes. Much of the solid waste from oil and gas wells will end up in landfills or other types of impoundments, as well as spread on the surface (called land-spreading).
Class II Wastes Include:
- Produced water
- Drilling fluids
- Spent well treatment or stimulation fluids
- Pigging wastes
- Gas plant wastes (including Amine and Cooling tower blowdown)
For disposal, the majority of the liquid is pressed from the solid waste and re-injected back into the ground into Class II injection wells. These liquids are a combination of drilling mud compounds, hydraulic fracturing chemicals, well cleansing acids, and formation fluids. These fluids can be high in naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs), hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and other toxics. Such a disposal process is regulated by the U.S. EPA’s underground injection control program, with primacy (authority) granted to states to regulate permitting (COGCC in Colorado, DOGGR in California, RRC in Texas, PADEP in Pennsylvania, Ohio EPA in Ohio, etc.).
This is all outlined in Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Subpart C on Exempt Waste. But because RCRA’s exempt status here is based on the relationship of the waste to exploration and production operations, and not on the chemical nature of the waste, it is possible for an exempt waste and a non-exempt hazardous waste to be chemically very similar.
A 2020 report by Earthworks accompanied by an interactive map that allows residents to determine if oil and gas waste is disposed of or has spilled near them in addition to a list of recommendations for state and local policymakers, including the closing of the state’s harmful oil and gas hazardous waste loophole. Click the icon to access the report and map.
With FracTracker Alliance and using PA DEP data, Earthworks created a map allowing users to search and see how much PA oil and gas waste is being processed, transported, and disposed near them each year since 2011. States as distant as Idaho are involved. Click the icon to access the report and map.
Where and how this is all happening is best illustrated in the Public Herald interactive map “How Radioactive Fracking Waste Gets Into Pennsylvania Waterways” — produced with FracTracker Alliance. Click the icon to access the article and map.
FracTracker Waste Articles
Class II and Salt Water Disposal (SWD) wells in Alabama as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells in Arkansas as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells in California as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells in Colorado as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells in Florida as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells in Kansas as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells in Illinois as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells in Indiana as of April 2016
Monthly fracking waste volumes for 14,500+ Class II SWD wells from 1982 to 2018
Waste disposal wells in Louisiana as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells in Michigan as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells in Mississippi as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells in Montana as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells in Nebraska as of February 2018
Waste disposal wells in New Mexico as of April 2016
Annual Disposal (AD) Class II injection wells in Ohio as of April 2016
Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) Class II injection wells in Ohio as of April 2016
Temporarily Abandoned Annular Disposal (TAAD) data for Class II wells in Ohio as of April 2016
Salt Mining (SM) Class II injection wells in Ohio as of April 2016
Class II and Salt Water Disposal wells in Ohio as of April 2016
Volumes of waste received by Class II and Salt Water Disposal wells in Ohio as of December 2019
Pending or proposed Class II Waste Disposal Sites in Ohio as of June 2020
Waste disposal wells in Oklahoma as of April 2016
Monthly fracking waste volumes for 12,000+ Class II SWD wells from 2011 to 2018
Waste disposal wells in Pennsylvania as of the end of 2019
Waste disposal wells in Tennessee as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells in Utah as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells Virginia as of the end of 2019
Waste disposal wells in West Virginia as of April 2016
Waste disposal wells in Wyoming as of April 2016