Shale Gas: Addressing the Water Challenge

A key area where new approaches and new technologies are required is in the management of water.

Plenty of service companies are already involved in the management of the "high-pressure" side of hydraulic fracturing: getting water, blending it with sand and chemicals and then injecting it into the well.

And FMC itself is involved in the low-pressure side of the activity: handling the "flowback" – the fluid that flows back to the surface during, and after the completion of, fracking. As well as water, the flowback fluid contains sand, clays, chemical additives and metals that need to be disposed of in an environmentally-friendly manner.

"Where we're not active yet is in water recycling. And we see that as a tremendous opportunity," Pfeiffer said.

This is because getting water from its source to a well site can be very expensive.

The Goal: Recycling Water for Under $2 per Barrel

"Different plays in different geographical areas have different costs," he said, but he explained that to get access to large volumes of water will cost at least $2.50 per barrel and can cost as much as $10 per barrel in North America.

"When we look at international plays, we believe those costs can be doubled. The cost of water internationally is going to be much higher than the cost of water in the United States, so the urgency of reducing the water costs is going to be more important internationally than they are in North America," Pfeiffer said.

"We also believe that regulation is going [to be introduced]. We believe that we are going to be regulated … the amount of water consumed or forced to recycle the water."

The process of fracking might consume much less water than used to water a golf course, Pfeiffer said, "but this doesn't really matter because it is all about perception".

"So, we have this magic number in our heads: we have to be able to recycle water for under $2 a barrel. If you can hit that magic number of $2 a barrel you have a winning formula," he added, pointing out the opportunity is great when you consider that some operators are paying as much as $10 per barrel for water.

FMC itself is aiming to bring its experience and knowhow in handling produced water in deepwater projects to bear on the problems of treating and recycling water in hydraulic fracturing operations. Deploying equipment at great depths means that it has to be both compact and robust, especially considering that fishing it up out of the water again for maintenance can be costly.

"If you then think about the many shale pads there are on an oilfield you have to move your equipment from pad to pad under difficult conditions… then again the concept is you have to try to be compact and you have to be robust," Pfeiffer said.


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