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The Ohio River is narrow.
It runs a course of 981 miles at an average width of less than a half-mile, until it opens up to a little more than a mile at its widest point.
For decades, merchants have used the river to ship commodities of all types, including steel, grain, minerals, coal, oil, gas and chemicals.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that those in Ohio and Pennsylvania working to develop the region’s burgeoning oil and gas industries want to employ the river to help move one of their biggest nuisances: fracking wastewater.
A little-known proposal, creeping its way slowly into the spotlight and making its way through the echelons of the federal government for approval, is seeking to do just that.
It was in March that the Reuters news agency first reported that the U.S. Coast Guard had “quietly sent to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget a proposal to allow the barging of fracking wastewater,” according to the article.
If advanced, the next step would be a period of public comment and, soon after, under the government’s constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce, fracking wastewater could have a new way to move.
Turns out, in Ohio where the Utica Shale play is really only just beginning to bear its fruit, and across the border in Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale formation has come to account for nearly 10 percent of U.S. natural-gas production, the Ohio River — with its age-old ability to help ferry large amounts of cargo — was already on the radar of companies looking to save a buck.
“There’s been opposition against moving fracking water on barges for some time,” said Thomas Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, with a chuckle, almost as if he’d been waiting for such a question. “I’m perplexed by it, quite frankly. Crude oil moves up and down that river in rather large quantities.
“It’s a major conduit for all kinds of materials, including chemicals. This is just salt water we’re talking about.” Stewart said the river could aid companies in moving the wastewater to proper disposal sites such as injection wells, treatment facilities or even other sites where the waste could be recycled to frack other wells, an increasingly viable and attractive option.
The Ohio River is considered a major artery of the east-central U.S. The inland-river system provides access to the Gulf of Mexico via both the Mississippi River and the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway, where the Port of New Orleans and the Port of Mobile Alabama serve each.
More importantly, for those who have expressed a desire to utilize the Ohio River for moving frack waste, is its northwesterly flow out of Pennsylvania where it is formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.
Texas-based GreenHunter Water LLC has been among one of the first companies to publicly target the river to help facilitate the movement of wastewater.
The company first opened a bulk-water storage and transloading facility at a location in New Matamoras in Washington County, Pa., last July. In March, GreenHunter announced yet another facility in Wheeling, W.Va., where it has engineered plans to convert an old gas-storage station into a water treatment, recycling and condensate handling logistics terminal.
GreenHunter wants some of its incoming waste to reach those locations by barge run down the Ohio River.
But it’s not GreenHunter’s plans or even whether to allow fracking waste to travel down the river at the heart of the debate, but rather the necessity of the proposal and more transportation options to deal with the vast amounts of wastewater being generated during the fracking process and the region’s waning ability to deal with it all.
“We have this situation where we’re producing all this waste and we need to be taking every conceivable precaution to make sure shipments are properly regulated and tracked,” said Julian Boggs, state policy advocate for Environment Ohio. “Whether it’s by barge, truck or pipeline, this influx of waste shouldn’t be acceptable. It highlights a larger problem we’ve got with millions of barrels of waste coming into the state with no real concrete plan on how to deal with it.”
In January, an independent report released by researchers at Duke University and Kent State University showed that hydraulically fractured natural-gas wells are producing less wastewater per unit of gas recovered than conventional vertical wells.
But the scale of fracking operations in places such as the Marcellus is so enormous that the wastewater produced threatens to overwhelm the region’s wastewater disposal capacity.
The study showed the total amount of wastewater from natural-gas production in the region has increased by about 570 percent since 2004 as a result of increased shale production there.
Fracking waste includes flow-back water, which is produced after hydraulic fracturing takes place when water, chemicals and sand are forced down a well to prop open shale rock and begin releasing oil and gas.
It also consists of production water, or brine, which comes after fracking is completed.
These wastes contain high amounts of salt, dissolved solids and light radioactive and toxic metals from their contact with underground rocks. Chemicals added to the mixture contain volatile organic compounds, such as benzene and toluene.
“The unique challenge for this area is we don’t have a lot of capacity. If we want to keep disposing with underground injection, we’ll have to consider taking that waste farther and farther away,” said Brian Lutz, a professor of biogeochemistry at Kent State University who led the waste analysis as a postdoctoral research associate at Duke University.
“As we do that, we’ll have to choose between road, rail and barge, as well as the cost differences, the efficiencies and the risks associated with each in moving the waste,” Lutz added.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management claims that 98 percent of all brine generated or entering the state is disposed of in injection wells.
According to Lutz’s estimate, Pennsylvania generated 20 million barrels of wastewater in 2011, with about 7 million barrels shipped to Ohio.
Though the figures have not been finalized, ODNR has projected that the state’s injection wells saw nearly 14 million barrels of waste in 2012, an increase from the year before.
Ohio’s geology, its laws and regulations and its 180 injection wells make it ripe ground for Pennsylvania’s waste, where there are only about 11 injection wells and a poor management structure to deal with it, Stewart said.
“I wish Pennsylvania would manage their own problems,” he said. “I have my hands full, and there’s nothing I can do about the interstate commerce clause. You can’t stop commerce across state lines.”
Indeed, the federal government is overseeing the proposal to allow wastewater barging because it has jurisdiction in the matter. Ohio can do nothing to stop the waste from crossing state lines because of the commerce clause.
Though not entirely an environmental issue, it’s easy to see why moving the waste on the Ohio River has stirred emotions.
“I presume that water would go from the well site by truck to a marine terminal for transload to barge,” said Tracy Drake, chief executive of the Columbiana County Port Authority, which helps facilitate cargo movement on the Ohio River. “The process would reverse itself at the other end for injection-well disposal.”
Currently, Drake said the Ohio River is operating at approximately 37 percent capacity. He is familiar with the proposal to allow wastewater barging, and the river’s 11 cargo terminals could manage the additional traffic.
The standard barge tow running down the river, Drake said, averages 15 barges tied together. They carry the cargo equivalent of 1,200 tractor-trailer trucks.
Though allowing the barges to carry frack water in such a capacity would greatly reduce truck congestion on the roads and rail traffic — currently both the primary methods of transport — Boggs said that’s like choosing between three lesser options.
“ODNR just seems willing to keep permitting new injection wells as demand increases,” Boggs said. “The number just keeps going up.” He continued by saying the state should consider using deeper Class I injection wells instead of the Class II wells currently used to dispose of frack waste. He also said a higher bar should be set for drillers to maximize their use of recycled water, moving it from one well to another repeatedly.
But Lutz said that bar is already moving higher, with more companies recycling their wastewater.
The Ohio River, Lutz added, also could become a means of moving the waste farther out of state and getting rid of it at injection wells or recycling facilities in other parts of the country if that becomes a logistical and economically viable option.
“There will likely be a trade-off when we begin considering how far we can move the waste given the cost of trucking versus the cost of barging and the geographic reach involved,” he said. “We may or may not want more trucks on the road because the risks seem higher if a barge fails on the river versus one truck giving out and failing on the roads. We’ll have to assess the risk and make the choice as more of the waste is produced.”