The fate of residual treatment water in gas shale

Terry Engelder, Lawrence M. Cathles, L. Taras Bryndzia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

192 Scopus citations


More than 2 × 104 m3 of water containing additives is commonly injected into a typical horizontal well in gas shale to open fractures and allow gas recovery. Less than half of this treatment water is recovered as flowback or later production brine, and in many cases recovery is <30%. While recovered treatment water is safely managed at the surface, the water left in place, called residual treatment water (RTW), slips beyond the control of engineers. Some have suggested that this RTW poses a long term and serious risk to shallow aquifers by virtue of being free water that can flow upward along natural pathways, mainly fractures and faults. These concerns are based on single phase Darcy Law physics which is not appropriate when gas and water are both present. In addition, the combined volume of the RTW and the initial brine in gas shale is too small to impact near surface aquifers even if it could escape. When capillary and osmotic forces are considered, there are no forces propelling the RTW upward from gas shale along natural pathways. The physics dominating these processes ensure that capillary and osmotic forces both propel the RTW into the matrix of the shale, thus permanently sequestering it. Furthermore, contrary to the suggestion that hydraulic fracturing could accelerate brine escape and make near surface aquifer contamination more likely, hydraulic fracturing and gas recovery will actually reduce this risk. We demonstrate this in a series of STP counter-current imbibition experiments on cuttings recovered from the Union Springs Member of the Marcellus gas shale in Pennsylvania and on core plugs of Haynesville gas shale from NW Louisiana.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)33-48
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Unconventional Oil and Gas Resources
StatePublished - Sep 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology


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