For all the fear about the potential for deep underground water contamination due to the hydraulic fracturing process used in shale gas extraction, there’s always been a much more present danger: the risk of something going wrong at the surface. From simple spills to industrial accidents to the ongoing problem of wastewater disposal, the rapid expansion of shale gas drilling will inevitably bring risks, even if it’s done well. You don’t have to fear the contamination of underground aquifers to worry about the impacts of shale gas drilling. Indeed, this afternoon—a year after the BP oil spill—a Chesapeake Energy gas well in northeastern Pennsylvania reportedly suffered a blowout, spilling thousands of gallons of fracking fluid water on the surrounding ground. It’s not the first such blowout—and it likely won’t be the last.
That accident comes after the publication earlier this week of a report by Congressional Democrats charging that oil and gas companies injected hundreds of millions of gallons of hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals into wells in more than 13 states between 2005 and 2009, as part of the fracking process. The inquiry—initiated by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which had been led until this year by Democrat and fracking critic Henry Waxman—also found that 14 of the country’s most active hydraulic fracturing companies had used 866 million gallons of fracking chemicals, not including water. (Some 99% of the average fracking formula is water, but since a single frack job can use up to 5 million gallons of fluid, that still means tens of thousands of gallons of fracking chemicals.) Although industry allies criticized the report for lacking context, the inquiry found that 11.4 million gallons of fluid were injected that included at least one of the toxic group of chemicals: benzene, toluene, zylene and ethylbenzene. That doesn’t mean that any hazardous chemicals from fracking actually came into contact with groundwater supplies—indeed, the depth of most shale gas would make it unlikely—but that’s not absolutely certain, so limiting the use of toxic ingredients would be a pretty good waste.
Another long-term problem with shale gas drilling is wastewater. Each well can return to surface as much as 1 million gallons of water from the fracking process—the rest stays inside the shale—and that water can come back with dissolved solids, radioactive elements and other nasty stuff, in addition to the chemicals used in the fracking process. In Colorado or Texas, that water can usually be disposed of by injecting it back into deep wells, regulated by the federal government—but the geology in the Marcellus in the Northeast largely eliminates that option. The result, as the New York Times has reported, is a real problem, especially in Pennsylvania, where water treatment plants have struggled to deal with fracking waste water. And the industry may not have that option available much longer—earlier this week Pennsylvania authorities called on gas companies to voluntarily stop sending waste to treatment plants that are not equipped to dispose of it.
If shale gas drilling is going to continue—and given the sheer amount of gas waiting to be tapped, and the bipartisan support for drilling, it’s likely to happen—there need to be ways to clean and filter fracking fluid at the well site. GE may have a solution—the company has developed a mobile evaporator designed to help drillers recycle waste water produced during fracking on site, rather that trucking the water to a treatment plant. “Water is a huge issue for fracking,” says Heiner Markhoff, the president and CEO of GE Water & Process Technologies. “With the mobile evaporator you can separate out the contaminants and concentrate them in a significant fashion. You end up with water that can be used for recycling.”
The evaporator, which can be mounted on a truck and driven to any well site, can process about 50 gallons a minute, and it’s especially useful for the Marcellus shale, where the water tends to come back with a high degree of dissolved solids—including some nasty stuff. (Shale gas sites in Colorado, Texas and Wyoming tend to produce relatively cleaner waste water.) It’s already being used outside the Marcellus, but GE expects major demand in the Northeast soon—especially if regulators, as they should, push drilling companies to take better care of the water they use and produce. “We see this as a significant growth opportunity,” says Markhoff.
GE’s technology isn’t a silver bullet to solve all of the environmental risks associated with shale gas drilling—and anything that is done depends on better practices from industry players. The best tech in the world can’t completely eliminate human error, as we saw with the Deepwater Horizon blowout a year ago, and as we may be seeing now in northeastern Pennsylvania. But it’s important to remember that fossil fuel extraction—like just about any other business—can get cleaner, greener and more efficient. It often just takes a little nudge from regulators to make it happen.
More from TIME:
Can Shale Gas Power the World?