Next Up For Fracking: Cleaning All That Waste Water, Cheaply

Handshake at World Economic Forum

By Sam Eifling

January 30, 2014

A water treatment company has won contracts in the United States and China to clean wastewater produced during hydraulic fracturing, a service that could ease the environmental damage and social turmoil in Canada's own fossil fuel production.

In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Jim Matheson, the CEO of Oasys Water Inc., said his startup can convert the water leftover from fracking back into a usable resource: "You can drink this water."

That's no small order, when fracking wastewater, as Bloomberg points out, is "saltier than seawater and often laced with radioactive materials," to say nothing of the fossil fuels and chemicals that define the process. Hydraulic fracturing, now a $36 billion market, involves injecting water, sand and a menu of chemicals underground to release gas and oil.

A single well might consume 4 million to 6 million gallons of water, a huge amount to taint in water-starved areas such as west Texas, where gas fields might consume a tenth of a given county's water use, according to a 2011 New York Times report.

While gas production in Canada benefits from greater supply and less demand for potable water, Canada has seen protestors oppose mere exploration for fears it would lead to fracking and water degradation, according to Al Jazeera America.

Matheson, a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot instructor, said Oasys can treat "produced" water at the well for $3 to $4 a barrel, comparable to the cost of shipping it elsewhere to pump underground. In a nut, Bloomberg writes, the process works "using membranes and the nature pressures of liquid to separate impurities from industrial waters." It's a technology less energy-intensive and more effective than evaporation or reverse-osmosis.

Vancouver-based Axine Water Technologies also is bringing to market technologies that aim to treat wastewater in industries that include refining and fossil fuel production. Its treatment modules use a proprietary catalyst to strip such pollutants as hydrogen sulfide, phenols and ammonia out of industrial waste water using electrolytic cells, avoiding the use of chemicals.