Comparison of the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle in China and North America: A Critical Review

Cheng Zhong, Ashkan Zolfaghari, Deyi Hou, Greg G. Goss, Brian D. Lanoil, Joel Gehman, Daniel C.W. Tsang, Yuhe He, Daniel S. Alessi

Research output: Journal article publicationReview articleAcademic researchpeer-review

57 Citations (Scopus)


There is considerable debate about the sustainability of the hydraulic fracturing (HF) water cycle in North America. Recently, this debate has expanded to China, where HF activities continue to grow. Here, we provide a critical review of the HF water cycle in China, including water withdrawal practices and flowback and produced water (FPW) management and their environmental impacts, with a comprehensive comparison to the U.S. and Canada (North America). Water stress in arid regions, as well as water management challenges, FPW contamination of aquatic and soil systems, and induced seismicity are all impacts of the HF water cycle in China, the U.S., and Canada. In light of experience gained in North America, standardized practices for analyzing and reporting FPW chemistry and microbiology in China are needed to inform its efficient and safe treatment, discharge and reuse, and identification of potential contaminants. Additionally, conducting ecotoxicological studies is an essential next step to fully reveal the impacts of accidental FPW releases into aquatic and soil ecosystems in China. From a policy perspective, the development of China's unconventional resources lags behind North America's in terms of overall regulation, especially with regard to water withdrawal, FPW management, and routine monitoring. Our study suggests that common environmental risks exist within the world's two largest HF regions, and practices used in North America may help prevent or mitigate adverse effects in China.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7167-7185
Number of pages19
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2021


  • environmental risks and solutions
  • flowback and produced water
  • hydraulic fracturing water cycle
  • policy and regulation
  • Unconventional hydrocarbon development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry
  • Environmental Chemistry


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