In "Spotlight on SMEs" I draw attention to small and medium sized enterprises involved in developing UK shale gas. These aren't the operators, whose names are well known, but they provide vital services to ensure that shale gas extraction is done safely and efficiently. It is in this supply chain that shale development can give a significant boost to the UK economy.
This week's SME is Remsol, a waste management service involved in treating and disposing of waste flowback fluids after hydraulic fracturing has taken place.
Remsol was founded in 2002 by Lee Petts, a waste and environmental management expert living in Preston, Lancashire. The firm initially cut its teeth dealing with waste from the pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing industries. They have built a reputation for solving complex and difficult waste problems, sometimes in unconventional ways.
As case example comes from Tessenderlo, a Belgian chemicals manufacturer. A production process had gone awry at its Widnes plant, contaminating 400 tonnes of hydrochloric acid with chlorinated toluene. The conventional waste industry approach would be to take it away, neutralise it and then dispose of it. However, this would prove to be prohibitively expensive, and couldn't be completed within the necessary timescale (only 3 days). Remsol succeeded in finding a buyer who was able to utilise the acid, despite the small concentration of chlorinated organic material, and arranged for all 400 tonnes to be shipped off site over a 2-day period.
Being based in the NorthWest, Remsol were aware of Cuadrilla's hydraulic fracturing plans at an early stage. Initially, Remsol wondered whether treated waste water from other industrial applications, instead of fresh mains water could be used as a cheaper alternative. Understandably, however, Cuadrilla wanted to have complete control over what they were injecting in order to guarantee safety, so this was a non-starter.
However, after their fracking tests in 2011, Cuadrilla's flowback fluid was found to contain small quantities of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM). United Utilities made a commercial decision not to process the flowback water at their Davyhulme site, so Cuadrilla were in the market for someone who could process flowback water containing NORM, which lead them back to Remsol.
Through their contacts in the UK nuclear sector, they identified a process that has been used to remove low levels of radioactive material from waste water for over 40 years - a process similar to a slightly more complex 3-stage chemical separation and filtration process conducted at about a dozen waste treatment facilities around the UK. In collaboration with some of these operators, they demonstrated, first in the lab, then at plant-scale trials, that the process was able to remove more than 90% of the NORM particles, reducing the radioactivity of the wastewater to a level lower than that found in your average bottle of mineral water.
Their early successes with Cuadrilla mean that Remsol are gearing up to play a key role as the industry develops. The flowback disposal issue is one that resonates with the public, and they've been engaging with local people in the Northwest to address fears in a calm and rational manner. "Radioactivity" is a word that can scare people easily, and it's important that the levels of radiation in flowback fluids are put into perspective with the amounts of radiation we are exposed to as we go about our daily lives. They've also listened some of these concerns - the issue of road traffic, for instance - so are using larger tankers to reduce the number of journeys needed, and developing onsite clean-up facilities, so that the fluid can be recycled and reused. This significantly reduces the amount of water required, as well as reducing tanker journeys.
The purpose of "Spotlight on SMEs" is to draw attention to UK companies involved in the shale gas supply chain. When I contacted Lee, he had this to say about the importance of UK companies getting involved:
"For shale gas to succeed, the industry needs to make good on its promises about local jobs and supply chain roles.
To deliver the maximum economic benefit for the country, we need to see a mostly British supply chain (that pay corporation tax here) comprised largely of SMEs - because it will be smaller firms that have to take on new staff in order to grow and meet demand, thus boosting jobs - with priority given to companies based in the areas where shale gas activity takes place.
It's important that we show there is already a well-developed SME supply chain in place that has both the desire and skills to perform the necessary work to the required standard. If we don't, I think there's a real risk that the big oil field services companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes will come to dominate the supply chain space, along with the global environmental consultancies, civil engineering giants like Babcock, Carillion and AMEC, and water treatment firms like French-owned Veolia - companies that are all big enough to take on a lot of the work without taking on new people, and that will perhaps pay their taxes in countries other than Britain."