Underground Injection of Gas Industry Brine Taking Off 

Drillers now have the option of taking fluids to newly opened West Virginia sites.

23 January 2010
By Pam Kasey

Several years into the developing Marcellus Shale gas boom, West Virginia well operators are opening new brine disposal injection wells to handle the waste fluids.

"It's an interesting time because things are changing," said James Peterson, who permits underground injection wells for the state Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Oil and Gas. Flows of waste brine generated through natural resource extraction have been modest in the past.

But development of a gas well in the Marcellus Shale requires hydraulic fracturing: blasting high volumes of water laced with sand and chemicals into the formation to break the rock and release trapped natural gas.

Several million gallons of "frack" fluid for each well return to the surface as a heavy brine, far saltier than seawater. Disposal of these new volumes of brine is a challenge.

So far, well operators or their agents have been hauling most of the frack flowback to Ohio for underground injection, according to Peterson, because salt removal is expensive and only two Class II, or brine disposal, wells were permitted by West Virginia's Underground Injection Control program.

Now, though, nine commercial brine disposal injection wells are permitted, and seven are operating. Several more are in the permitting pipeline.

The DEP has not in the past required well operators to report their water management in detail.

It soon may be possible to get a rough estimate of the industry's brine disposal needs: The agency began on Jan. 8 requiring operators expecting to use more than 5,000 barrels of water to report their plans in advance.

Lacking that, though, here's a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation of how much frack flowback is being generated in the state. Seventy-one Marcellus wells were drilled and completed in 2009 through November, according to DEP Office of Oil and Gas Chief James Martin. Estimates of frack flowback from a Marcellus well vary, but a midrange number is about 3 million gallons.

At that rate, the state's industry would have generated about 638,000 gallons of frack flowback - an Olympic-size swimming pool - each day in 2009.

A small part of that is treated and reused or released to surface waters, so something on the order of 600,000 gallons per day may be disposed of through underground injection.

That estimate may be extremely low. As a reality check, Pennsylvania environmental regulators are planning for the disposal of 20 million gallons per day of gas industry brine in the near future. According to an OOG database online, 62 private brine disposal injection wells operate in West Virginia, one of them permitted as far back as 1917 and only about a dozen since the Marcellus boom began. The newest wells are operated by names familiarly associated with development of the Marcellus Shale, names like Cabot Oil and Gas, Chesapeake Energy and XTO Energy - that last one recently acquired by Exxon Mobil because of its position in the Marcellus.

But Peterson said any permitted well, old or new, is kept up to date through five-year inspections and might be taking Marcellus wastewater. He has data on injection volumes into each well and is in the process of entering it into a database.

Seven brine injection wells operate commercially in the state: two in Lewis County and one each in Fayette, Kanawha, Monongalia, Raleigh and Ritchie counties.

Commercial wells differ from private wells in two main ways, Peterson said.

Operators have to haul their own fluids or submit monthly lab tests, and the properties must be fenced and monitored in person or by camera. The newest well, started in November, is operated by Viking International Resources Co. of Marietta, Ohio.

Viking President Tom Palmer said the company established the Ritchie County well, its second including a well in Ohio, to serve the disposal needs of related oil and gas producer Virco Inc. and also to serve others commercially.

The well accepts only Marcellus frack flowback, according to company geologist Rick Zickefoose. It serves small local producers, as well as large brine-hauling firms, including Energy Contractors of Bridgeport and Key Energy Services of Houston.

Two types of trucks do the hauling, Zickefoose said: flat trucks that hold 70 to 80 barrels, or 2,940-3,360 gallons, and tractor-trailers that hold 120 to 135 barrels or 5,000 to 5,600 gallons.

Palmer described what happens when a truck arrives.

"We put the water into a dirty water tank; then we run it through a filtering system that takes out a lot of the impurities," he explained. "It goes into a series of clean water tanks, where some of the additional solids drop out," he continued. "Then we send it by injection pump to the well."

Filters are disposed of as non-hazardous waste.

Processing capacity is 1,000 barrels per day. Peak operation so far has been 900 barrels per day, but in winter, when roads are treacherous, customers bring less: 300 to 400 barrels per day. Zickefoose was unwilling to specify how much the company charges for disposal, but he said the charge depends on volume.

The well is one that formerly earned mineral owners royalties for the production of oil or gas and now earns them royalties for the injection of brine, he said.

Asked about the well's total capacity, he said, "You'll have to ask God."

Peterson agreed.

"It's just one of the risks of an injection well: when it's going to fill up," he said.

He expects Viking's well to be popular.

"They're at Ritchie County off of (U.S.) Route 50, right in the heart of the Marcellus that's being drilled," he said. "I'd guess that's going to be a major player."

Zickefoose said that if the market continues to develop, the company is considering opening more wells in both Ohio and West Virginia.