Navigant Research Blog

Fracking Well Microbes Could Be Boon or Barrier for Oil & Gas Industry

— October 27, 2016

Pipeline (2)“Life finds a way.” It’s a quote seen on inspirational posters, calendars, and mugs. One location where this phrase is particularly applicable, though, is in hydraulic fracturing wells. Scientists recently discovered unique colonies of microbial organisms growing in these wells. Microbes have a massive impact on the flow of elements through our environment, so their presence in highly inhospitable fracking wells could have widespread implications for the oil & gas industry.

Thirty-one unique colonies of microbes were found in two separate wells in Ohio. Despite being geographically separated by several hundred miles, the microbial communities were strikingly similar. One species, never before identified, has been dubbed Candidatus frackibacter. This microbe likely developed in hydraulic fracturing wells, having only been found in that environment. The rest of the colonies probably came from surface ponds and adapted to the high pressure, temperature, and salinity of the shale well environment.

Increased Yield

The impacts of these microbes on the oil & gas industry are multifold. First, a number of the microbes identified are methanogens, which produce methane as a byproduct of metabolism. Methane is a key component of natural gas, so the presence of methanogens could actually increase the net yield of a natural gas well. Osmoprotectants, compounds produced by certain bacteria to protect them from very high salt concentrations, are converted into methane by these microbes. In this case, the compound in question is glycine betaine. More research must be done, but someday oil & gas companies might stimulate wells with osmoprotectants in addition to fracturing fluid. The process of exploiting microbial methane is already in use in the coalbed methane industry.

Potential Damage

On the other hand, these microbes could have a profound impact on the longevity of fracturing infrastructure. Corrosion of metal pipes can be a microbial process, and can happen rapidly in aqueous systems once microbes grow to a sufficient concentration. Microorganisms can greatly change the pH and alkalinity of water, leading to corrosion. This is one motivation behind adding chlorine or other disinfectants to drinking water distribution systems. As microbes become more adapted to fracturing wells, the rate of corrosion could increase over time, resulting in additional costs to natural gas producers. Thus, it may become necessary to inhibit growth of microorganisms, including the methanogens mentioned above.

Previously thought too inhospitable an environment to support life of any kind, we now know hydraulic fracturing wells host their own unique population of microorganisms. These microbes can have a huge impact on the productivity—and lifespan—of these wells. As their exact composition becomes better understood, the oil & gas industry will need to make adjustments to maximize profits and minimize any potential damage.


Fracking Boom Drives Increase in Wastewater Treatment

— May 23, 2016

PipelineHydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as fracking) has been around for many decades, but only recently has it been at the forefront of oil & gas exploration in the United States. Even with the recent downturn in natural gas prices, producers are continuing to frack. According to Scientific American, hydraulic fracturing consumes up to 9.6 million gallons of water per well, and many wells are located in arid regions like Texas.

There are a number of opinions about the process, both favorable and unfavorable. But one thing is for certain: hydraulic fracturing consumes a large amount of water and produces a great quantity of wastewater. This wastewater can be in the form of flowback (fracturing fluid that flows back to the surface of the well after injection) or produced water (water that was already in the aquifer). These present different challenges to treatment and disposal, as flowback water contains components which make it viscous, and produced water tends to have very high levels of dissolved salts. Treatment of this water is usually overlooked in favor of injecting it deep underground in Class II injection wells. However, with increasing public awareness of fracking and advancing treatment technologies for complex contaminants in water, treatment and recycle of wastewater is becoming more viable.

Increasing Regulations

The United States and Canada are the major players in the fracking waste treatment business today. Despite rumors of the lack of regulation, hydraulic fracturing is heavily regulated, and more stringent regulations are being passed at local, state, and federal levels. Along with heavy regulation on the practice itself comes heavy regulation on the disposal and treatment of associated wastewater. For example, in Pennsylvania, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates the permitting of Class II underground disposal wells. In many other states, these are the main sink for produced and flowback water. In Pennsylvania, there are only seven active disposal wells for oil & gas use; increasing regulation, as well as changes in the economic conditions, are causing the market for water treatment to expand rapidly.

Navigant Research’s recently published Wastewater Treatment Technologies in Natural Gas Hydraulic Fracturing report analyzes the wastewater treatment market between 2016 and 2025. According to the report, revenue from treating water is expected to surpass revenue from deep well injection of produced water in 2018 and is expected to continue to grow from there. This represents a great opportunity for many of the small companies entering this market. Currently, advanced oxidation, membrane filtration, and reverse osmosis are popular treatment options for flowback and produced water streams. With the rapidly growing available revenue in fracking waste treatment, it will be interesting to see which other treatment technologies are adapted.

Revenue from Hydraulic Fracturing Wastewater Treatment by Disposal Type, United States: 2016-2025

Anne Blog Fracking(Source: Navigant Research)



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