Home / News / Bakken News / 2014’s Booms, Bans, and Busts no.9: Oilfield waste controversy
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2014’s Booms, Bans, and Busts no.9: Oilfield waste controversy

Shale Plays Media is ringing in the New Year with a series of posts counting down some of the hottest oil and gas-related topics of 2014. Yesterday, we covered the new EPA emissions regulations. Today we are tackling one of the most widespread and controversial topics of the year –oilfield waste disposal. There are two major areas to which this topic can be applied. The first, where to dispose of TENORM waste that is produced as a result of oil extraction in the Bakken and Marcellus regions.

TENORM is an acronym for Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material. Oilfield waste usually contains 5-80 picocuries per filter sock, which is a large bag that collects the waste that comes up with excess water during the oil extraction process. Each curie represents around one gram of radium, the primary radioactive component found in wastewater. In order for radium to affect human beings it needs to be inhaled or ingested.

While this issue has been around for a few years, it really didn’t reach the public’s eye until a series of abandoned filter socks filled with radioactive material popped up in several different locations in North Dakota earlier this year, including a truck bed and an abandoned gas station in Noonan, North Dakota. State regulators struggled for months trying to think of a solution for North Dakota’s waste problem, including requiring disposal wells to have leak-proof containers for the used filter socks. The Noonan gas station case reached a surprising climax a few weeks ago when state regulators lowered the fine for the disposal well company from $800,000 to $20,795.  In response, last week the North Dakota Department of Health proposed that the state raise its radioactivity limit for landfills from 5 picocuries to 50, despite the outrage of environmentalist groups.

The Marcellus region also had issues finding the proper means to dispose of their TENORM waste in 2014.  The Marcellus region is considered to be three times more radioactive than other comparable formations. This May a shipment of radioactive waste from a drill site was rejected by a state landfill for exceeding radioactivity limits. The waste was then sent to a landfill in West Virginia, and in response the state banned any landfills from taking any more shipments. Michigan had a similar interaction with the company, Range Resources, which also caused the state to bar the disposal of radioactive drilling waste.

In Texas and Oklahoma the topic of waste disposal has centered around earthquakes. Since the implementation of hydraulic fracturing, there has been speculation concerning whether or not the practice causes earthquakes due to an increase in seismic activity in areas where fracking occurs. It came to light this year, however, that scientists believe that this increase in earthquake activity in areas with high amounts of drilling is the result of saltwater disposal wells, not the process of fracking itself.  This is caused by pumping the wastewater from several different wells into a fault line, causing the fault to move.  These earthquakes are much weaker than naturally occurring quakes but the practice has caused places such as Texas to have more earthquakes than California. Oklahoma has seen one of the most dramatic increases in quake activity. This August the state recorded 20 in one day. Scientists are currently trying to find a solution for this problem in an ever evolving industry.

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