Battelle scientists are leading a search for sites where companies can pump fracking waste underground in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The two-year project, funded by a $1.8 million U.S. Department of Energy grant, is a response to the growing amount of polluted wastewater that bubbles out of fracked shale wells. Millions of barrels of the waste are pumped into disposal wells, many of which are in Ohio.
With more drilling and fracking expected, oil and gas companies will need to find the best locations to safely inject more waste, said Neeraj Gupta, senior research leader for Battelle’s subsurface-resources group.
“That’s one of our objectives. Where is the injection capacity?” Gupta said.
Right now, it’s in Ohio, where more than 14.2 million barrels of fracking fluids and related waste from oil and gas wells were pumped into 190 disposal wells last year. That was a 12 percent increase over 2011.
Much of the waste — 8.16 million barrels last year — came from Pennsylvania, which has seven active disposal wells. West Virginia has 63 disposal wells.
The fracking process pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground to shatter shale and free its trapped oil and gas. Some of the fluid bubbles back up, along with ancient saltwater that contains toxic metals and radium.
Environmental advocates say they worry that old, poorly maintained disposal wells will leak pollutants to groundwater.
“Ohio has injected enough waste into all of the different strata,” said Teresa Mills, fracking coordinator for the Buckeye Forest Council. “They just need to stop it.”
Mark Bruce, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said state geologists will provide mapping data and core samples to help Gupta’s team map the extent and capacity of injection zones. “The more information you have, the better and the easier it is to make the decisions that have to be made,” Bruce said.
Christina Novak, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said her state’s geologists hope to learn more about the rock strata there and whether it can safely contain fracking waste.
Gupta said Battelle has done extensive work in West Virginia to see whether deep rock formations could contain injected carbon dioxide, a key climate-changing gas. Many of the rock formations that could hold carbon dioxide also should hold fracking waste, he said.
The $1.8 million grant was awarded by the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, headquartered in Sugar Land, Texas. The partnership, which judges applications for federal energy grants, is made up of university officials and oil and gas companies, including Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips Co.
Kent Perry, a Research Partnership vice president, said he hopes Battelle produces a map and database that drilling companies can use to locate spots for new disposal wells.
“Ideally, there are some areas and more formations that have possibilities for disposal,” Perry said.
Spencer Hunt - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
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