As operators search for water treatment options in shale plays, they are hearing some crazy pitches, according to Rick McCurdy, senior engineering adviser for Chesapeake Energy Corp.

“On my computer, I have a folder in my e-mail box that says, ‘The Solution.’ That folder contains 100 other folders from service providers. Each one came to me and said, ‘We have the solution to all of your water management needs,'” McCurdy told conference attendees Wednesday on the first day of the Fifth Shale Gas Water Management Marcellus Initiative 2012 in Canonsburg, PA.

In addition to potentially legitimate technologies, the folder contains pitches for treatments powered by perpetual motion magnets that were apparently developed by Soviet engineers during the Cold War, created to provide drinking water for the indigenous populations of the Amazon, and based on “nanocavitation” processes capable of instantaneously heating fluids to 700 degrees C, he said.

There are also what McCurdy calls “black box pitches,” or technologies where, “Something bad comes in here, something bad happens in here and something good comes out this side,” he said. “We understand [that] you’ve got to protect your intellectual properties, but when you make a claim to me that challenges the laws of chemistry and physics, you’ve got to provide details.”

McCurdy’s stories highlight a tension in shale development: operators desperately need cost-effective options to treat flowback and produced water, but many have no interest in managing those technologies in house. The need for technology has created tremendous competition for third-party providers, but the emerging nature of the shale plays means that operators are still determining what they need.

Pennsylvania made municipal treatment plants a nonstarter, while new Ohio regulations to govern operations in the Utica Shale are cracking down on deep injection wells (see Shale Daily, March 12; April 20, 2011).

Disposal is usually discussed in environmental terms in the Marcellus Shale, but operators see it as an economic problem. Chesapeake spends upwards of $14 per barrel to move water from its Marcellus operations in northeastern Pennsylvania to disposal wells in Ohio and West Virginia. Some operators are spending as much as $25 per barrel to ship water to disposal wells, said McCurdy. However, the various options for treating and reusing brine cost less than $2.00 per barrel, including trucking, he said.

At current natural gas prices, the difference between shipping barrels of water, or treating and reusing brine can make a well economic, McCurdy said. “You can see why we prefer going that method, rather than moving this brine all the way to Ohio.”

But reuse continues to present logistical and technical challenges for operators, McCurdy said.

A mere three years of field data have made promising technologies increasingly unfeasible, he said. Vendors first touted large scale desalination plants, $70 million facilities that would handle as much as 50,000 b/d of brine through distillation and crystallization methods, but that option proved too expensive. While reverse osmosis offered lower costs, it didn’t work particularly well for the high concentrations of total dissolved solids in Marcellus brine, he said.

After operators “pushed back,” vendors crafted smaller scale treatment options. Those included mobile or semi-mobile evaporation facilities capable of handling around 2,000 barrels a day of produced brine and ion removal processes that avoid chemicals by using electrocoagulation to treat brine.

Now “crystallization has suddenly become the flavor of the day,” McCurdy said.Those processes can separate 10,000 barrels a day of brine into distilled water and salt, but operators want guarantees that vendors have a market for that salt. “The most common pitch is, ‘They use tons of salt up in the Northeast. They’ll just fall over backward to take this salt.’ Well, maybe, maybe not,” he said, noting that existing salt providers will fight back if upstarts try to enter the market.

McCurdy also noted that operators may be held responsible for misusing effluent streams and they therefore need assurances about concerns such as naturally occurring radioactive material.

Vendors also need to respect companies’ knowledge, McCurdy said, particularly when it comes to the potential impacts of reuse on production. “We have literally hundreds of very sharp people that watch everything we do to make sure we’re doing the best we possibly can for our wells. If we’re hurting ourselves by putting brine down a well, we know it.”

But operators can help the march of progress by being more forthright with existing operating costs and providing better access to fluid samples and well sites, McCurdy said. That accommodation can be difficult for companies busy obtaining permits and in drilling operations. Additionally, he said, producers need to be willing to pool their fluids to make large-scale facilities possible.

“We don’t want to be in the water business,” he said. “We produce gas.”