The booming Marcellus shale gas play could mean additional barge traffic if the U.S. Coast Guard grants approval to move the drilling industry’s wastewater on the inland waterways.
GreenHunter Water LLC, a wastewater hauling and disposal company headquartered in Grapevine, Texas, currently transports waste liquids by truck from the controversial hydraulic fracturing process in the Marcellus shale fields in eastern Ohio, western New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The company wants to haul some of the liquid by barge to lower transportation costs for their customers and reduce truck traffic on local roads.
The Coast Guard is reviewing GreenHunter’s bid to move the wastewater. Originally the company believed it could haul the waste liquid by following existing Coast Guard procedures. John Jack, vice president of business development for GreenHunter Water, said the company informed the Marine Safety Unit in Pittsburgh of its plans as a courtesy.
“There are already protocols in place to handle undocumented or unclassified materials,” Jack said. “Nobody had a problem with what we were planning until about a month before we were ready to start barging the product.”
The Coast Guard, with the advice of other federal agencies, has determined that the maritime transportation of shale gas extraction wastewater should be regulated, according to Carlos Diaz, a Coast Guard spokesman. Diaz did not have a timetable for a ruling.
The waste liquids come from natural gas production techniques in which drillers pump millions of gallons of water laced with a proprietary mixture of sand and chemicals into the gas well. The fracturing technique is designed to create and prop open fractures in the rock that allow the gas and oil to flow to the surface. The fracking liquid also flows to the surface, where it is recaptured.
The fracking liquid, which is 99 percent water, contains various chemicals to inhibit bacteria buildup, prevent pipe corrosion and maintain desired viscosity, among other things. The liquid may contain low-level radioactive materials, salts and heavy metals from underground. Liquids also rise to the surface during normal gas production.
Currently GreenHunter Water collects the fracking liquid from well sites and trucks it to terminals. There the liquid can be cleaned and recycled, removing the sand, chemicals and natural elements so the water can be used again. The removed materials and any unneeded fracking liquid are trucked to a licensed disposal well.
GreenHunter acquired or leased five barge terminals on the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and planned to begin moving the recycled remnants of the fracking liquid by barge to disposal wells in 2012.
Environmentalists fear spills of the waste liquid, but the inland waterways already safely carry millions of gallons of hazardous materials each year, noted Jim Kruse, director of the Center for Ports and Waterways at Texas A&M University. He expects the Coast Guard to issue standards primarily aimed at avoiding cross contamination with other cargoes.
“The Coast Guard may have to come out with special protocols making sure the barges are cleaned when they offload a cargo and put another one on,” Kruse said. “I think that’s the only real concern that anyone has right now.”
Just how big a market this could be is anyone’s guess at this point. Jack of GreenHunter Water, estimated that at current production levels the company would move a 10,000-gallon tank barge every two to three days.
Kruse envisioned a market for barging fracking liquids from the Northeast, where disposal wells are fewer, to Louisiana and Mississippi, where there is more capacity.
“You have to have enough quantity and distance for it to make sense,” he said. “I wonder if there will be enough volume in any given spot to justify putting it on barges and move it down the river.”