KITTANNING, PA, Dec. 3, 2009 -- Pennsylvania's prolific Marcellus Shale natural gas basin has given the state a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create high-paying, green-tech jobs while providing cleaner energy for the nation. However, critical water resource problems have the potential to kill this exciting opportunity unless both water disposal and water re-use challenges can be solved with new and better technology.
The opportunity is in producing clean-burning natural gas -- and lots of it. Recent technological innovations in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have reopened the 54,000 square mile Marcellus Shale Basin, stretching across Pennsylvania and portions of New York, Ohio and West Virginia. Officials estimate that the Marcellus Shale has the potential to produce nearly 500 trillion cubic feet of gas -- enough to supply all of the U.S. needs for nearly two decades. The vision of an era of natural gas, a cleaner energy for the nation, coming from Pennsylvania and surrounding states, is poised to take off in a big way.
But there's a problem. Before this vision can become a reality, acute water disposal and supply restrictions must be solved. The new "frac" technology being deployed to access the Marcellus shale gas 6,000 feet below the surface requires up to two million gallons of water per well to be injected into the ground at tremendous pressure. When that water flows back to the surface, it returns with high amounts of "total dissolved solids (TDS)," or naturally-occurring salts that dissolve in frac water, and must be disposed of in an environmentally safe manner. To date, this dirty salty water has been trucked off-site to commercial and municipal sewer treatment plants. These plants are not capable of removing the salts, but merely dilute the dirty water with other wastewaters in order to comply with discharge requirements to the state's waterways. When the high TDS water is discharged into PA's watersheds, numerous human and aquatic health concerns arise, including allegations of huge kill of fish, mussels and other aquatic life along the Dunkard Creek in Greene County in western PA. Late last year the state acted, ordering that a little over a year from now, on January 1, 2011, all water used in the drilling of natural gas wells will be prohibited from being put back into Pennsylvania's waters, unless it is first treated to remove the salts.
This ruling, in turn, has threatened to halt the state's natural gas expansion, limiting the creation of tens of thousands of jobs, and keeping cleaner-burning natural gas away from east coast customers hungry for a cleaner source of energy than either coal or imported oil. Without an economical and sustainable water resource solution, further development of the huge Marcellus Basin is at risk.
"If you're not removing the salts, you're not really solving the problem," said Stan Berdell, President of BLX Inc., a natural gas producer in western Pennsylvania. "Our industry has no choice but to limit our growth if we can't find a way to clean the salt out of this water so that it can be re-used again and again for our next frac jobs."
The answer has come from a New Mexico company, Altela Inc., that has come up with a solution for BLX's natural gas wells near Eau Claire, PA (coincidentally in keeping with the town's name's meaning: 'clear water', in French). Last month, the two companies placed into operation a new water purification unit directly at the well head that purifies the frac water to remove the salts and other contaminants, so that BLX can use the water again and again for the same frac process. And when they are done with the water, it can go back into the river, in a state purer even than drinking water.
"Recent water restrictions from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), both from the freshwater side as well as the wastewater disposal side, will limit the pace of tapping Marcellus natural gas," said David Kohl, of CWM Environmental Inc., a local environmental company. "Until an economically viable water desalination process proves itself in the field, industry tends to be skeptical. Well, now that problem has been solved with this Altela unit."
The new water treatment unit, built by Altela Inc. of Albuquerque, started purifying water last month at the BLX well head, and results show a complete success in the purification process. The mobile AltelaRain® system is 45 feet long and 8 feet wide -- similar in size to a semi-tractor trailer. It is continuously converting the brackish frac water into water that is less than 50 mg/liter in salt concentration -- about ten times cleaner than municipal drinking water.
"Altela's new technology has created a unique opportunity for PA's shale-gas industry to beneficially re-use and expand water supplies. The natural gas industry can now become a key element of environmental sustainability and stewardship here in the northeastern Unites States," said Berdell.
Altela has patented its new desalination process that economically removes all salts and other contaminants with a movable unit that sits directly at the gas wells. The innovation from Altela that allows the process to be so economical is centered around its non-pressurized technology, for which it can use inexpensive plastics, rather than corrodible metal, to purify these brackish waters. Its recent success in the Marcellus builds upon the company's prior installations in the western United States and Canada, including receiving the first-ever water discharge regulatory permit to place clean treated oil-field water directly into the most pristine reach of the Colorado River.
"We don't use pressure," said CEO Ned Godshall, "so our product is much less expensive because it doesn't have to have exotic metals to reduce their inherent corrosion. Our inexpensive plastic holds up to these brackish waters and that means our system provides clean water at a very economical price, from this 360-million-year-old Marcellus Shale brackish water. This is a real 'win-win' for both the environment and U.S. energy independence, since the water for the new wells being frac'd will be recycled water, rather than new water from Pennsylvania's waterways."
With thousands of PA acres leased by large natural gas companies, and thousands of wells ready to be tapped in Pennsylvania alone, a single Altela unit will not be enough to handle the water demand. Altela has already designed a centralized plant for eastern Pennsylvania to handle the load from the wells in that area. PA's DEP estimates that 16 million gallons per day of freshwater will be used by the shale-gas industry in 2010, and will increase to 19 million gallons per day by 2011. Pennsylvania's natural gas industry, which is poised to roar back to life and produce thousands of jobs and clean energy for decades to come, now has a powerful water management solution to move forward in an environmentally sustainable manner. Companies can now continue to drill the wells in the massive Marcellus Shale, extract the natural gas, recycle the water, and then put that water into Pennsylvania's rivers, cleaner than drinking water. Natural gas wells in the Marcellus Shale basin can now be completed in a sustainable manner, providing a clean source of energy to the northeast United States for decades to come, without having to sacrifice the quality of the state's pristine rivers and waterways.
About Altela Inc.
Altela Inc. manufactures and services water treatment systems for the oil & gas industry based on a fundamentally different water desalination/decontamination solution inspired by nature itself. Through the use of its proprietary, patented AltelaRain® technology, Altela desalinates and decontaminates highly challenged water without the energy intensive equipment, pressure or high temperatures of other water desalination technologies -- representing the first new low-cost water desalination technology in the last 50 years. The company has assembled a strong intellectual property position, experienced management team, and strategic partners. By removing all contaminants from highly challenged E&P waste water and brackish water, Altela converts these contaminated water liabilities into clean water assets, thereby removing the customer's environmental liability and high treatment/disposal costs. Altela turns waste into clean water, naturally. Website: www.altelainc.com