Oil Industry Focuses On Water Use

Via The San Angelos Standard Times, an article on the oil industry’s focus on water use, especially in light of fracking.  As the report notes:

“…Estimates of how much water will be used in Texas in the coming decades to extract oil and gas from the ground were lowballed, and the petroleum industry needs to get a grip on its water use before the government does it for them, an industry symposium in Midland was told this week.

Water consumption for oil and gas mining predicted in a state-commissioned report was “naively” underestimated for at least the next decade — and perhaps further into the future, said an environmental scientist who contributed to the study. The report says statewide consumption would triple by 2020 and gradually decline after that.

The water is being consumed in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which involves pushing water laced with chemicals under high pressure into oil and gas wells to fracture surrounding rock formations and make trapped oil or gas deposits flow.

The final version of the report, released in July, calculated how much water will be used for oil and gas exploration and production in the state between now and 2060.

The University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology compiled the report for the Texas Water Development Board, the state’s water planning agency.

Peter Galusky, the principal environmental scientist at Colorado- and Midland-based consulting firm Texerra, said at an industry water-use symposium Thursday in Midland that he and others assumed drilling and production activity would decline from the time they began work on the study in mid-2009. He said that was before the onset of the current boom, spurred by controversial,

water-intensive ­“fracking,” which has allowed operators to extract massive amounts of oil out of previously stagnant fields.

“I think I underestimated the projected water use because I based it on an anticipated gradual decline in drilling activity,” said Galusky, who served on an industry committee organized in the Barnett Shale in North Texas to help get a handle on water use and establish best practices for efficient use.

“That changed, like, overnight,” he said.

Galusky said drilling had “pretty much stopped in 2009” when the price of oil was still low after bottoming out earlier that year. The onset of the current boom came in late 2010.

“It was then that it picked back up again and it’s been insane ever since then,” Galusky said.

How long the current boom will last — and how much water will be used over the next decade and beyond for mining, including fracking — also is difficult to predict, he said.

“This might be a blip,” Galusky said. “So, I’d say in the short term over the next 10 years, I’m certain my forecast underestimated (water use.) Over the 50 years, maybe not so much because maybe this boom will turn into a bust.”

Every five years, the Texas Water Development Board puts out an updated version of the state water plan, which estimates how much water the state will need over the next 50 years under record drought conditions.

The board is scheduled to adopt the 2012 plan next week. The 2017 plan will be the first to include statewide water use for fracking, which requires at least tens of thousands, and up to millions, of gallons of water per well.

The report Galusky worked on will be used as a reference for the plan.

Robert Mace, the water development board’s deputy executive administrator of water science and conservation, said the estimates in the report are by no means “static” and that he expects the board will want to update the study or commission another one before the next plan is published.

“With the industry moving as quickly as it’s moving, as soon as a report comes out, you could argue it’s outdated,” Mace said, noting that the Bureau of Economic Geology increased water use estimates in the final version of the report for water use in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, where drilling activity has recently escalated.

The final report estimates water use in the Eagle Ford will increase tenfold, from 600 acre feet in 2010 to 17,600 acre feet in 2020 and double again in the decade after that.

In the Permian Basin in West Texas, the report estimates water use will increase from 4,300 acre feet in 2010 to 7,200 in 2020, then drop to 4,200 in 2030 before declining to 1,200 acre feet in 2040 and zero acre feet in 2050 and 2060. One acre foot is 325,851 gallons — about what three Texas households of four would use in an average year.

At the symposium in Midland, which was organized to discuss ways to moderate the industry’s water consumption, industry representatives said it’s a given that less (or even no) new freshwater should be used for upstream oil and gas production — especially during the drought. But they said they are figuring out how to make that happen without significantly increasing operating costs.

“We feel that with increasing drought conditions and increasing governmental regulations, it’s not a matter of if we’ll run out of water but an issue of when,” said Brian Schmitt, a petroleum engineer for Oklahoma-based Devon Energy, an oil and gas company that operates mostly in the Barnett Shale in North Texas but has a presence in the Permian Basin in West Texas.

Schmitt and representatives from other oil and gas companies like Irving-based Pioneer Natural Resources who gave presentations at the symposium said they are still using almost 100 percent freshwater pumped from aquifers to mine oil in the Permian Basin in West Texas and natural gas in the state’s two major shale plays: the Barnett and Eagle Ford.

The easiest and most cost-effective alternatives to pumping freshwater from aquifers for fracking, the companies said, are still elusive.

But they said they are researching the two main ones: recycling the small amount of water that comes back from each fracking operation (20 to 25 percent of the total fluid used, on average) and

reusing it or using brackish water, water with a higher saline content that is located deeper underground.

“I think it will be a combination of both,” said Brian Larson, a logistics coordinator for Pioneer, when asked which alternative industry might gravitate toward.

Expressing fear about the threat of impending government regulations, Larson and Schmitt, who both said the ultimate goal of their respective companies is to use 100 percent recycled or brackish water, urged other industry representatives in attendance to be proactive in figuring out water-use strategies.

They said it would take cooperation and open communication between companies, as well as with research entities that are trying to calculate how much water is being used and will be used in the future for oil and gas mining.

“We all have the same common goal, which is to mitigate water usage,” Schmitt said.

The public and private researchers, including Galusky, who made presentations at the symposium said the lack of information in Texas on water use and water quality is a huge problem in getting a grip on the issue.

Water use for oil and gas mining makes up only a few percent of the state’s overall water use, but the relatively new demand has impacted local water supplies. During the drought, the issue has garnered increasing scrutiny from local groundwater conservation districts, agriculture and even the state Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry, who signed a bill earlier this year that will require companies to disclose how much water they use per well.

The Texas Railroad Commission, the state regulatory agency for the oil and gas industry, has yet to approve rules to meet the requirements of the law.

During his presentation, Galusky said getting information on how much water is being used for oil and gas production is difficult because of “how water is owned and used” in Texas — i.e., it is the landowner’s property, and there is no reporting requirement.

“There is very little data,” Galusky said, noting there was a poor industry response rate to a survey on water use sent out for the water use estimation report.

Mark Engle, a research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey who has worked in about a dozen states, said Texas has “some of the worst record-keeping of any state in the U.S.” for both how water is used and the quality of the water produced during oil and gas production.

“Most states keep their own little records, but the state of Texas … they just don’t keep it,” Engle said. “And there are other states that also don’t do much, but they’re often states that barely have any oil and gas production.”

J.T. Murrey, a geoscientist for Pioneer, said many of the water-use estimates that have been made are wrong because of the industry’s unwillingness to divulge information. He argued it is in the industry’s best interest to work with researchers and each other to figure out how to manage a dwindling and precious resource.

“We are working toward using the water properly and not wasting it,” Murrey said. “We’re going to have to learn to share on some aspects, and little things will go a long way.”

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About This Blog And Its Author
As the scarcity of water and energy continues to grow, the linkage between these two critical resources will become more defined and even more acute in the months ahead.  This blog is committed to analyzing and referencing articles, reports, and interviews that can help unlock the nascent, complex and expanding linkages between water and energy -- The Watergy Nexus -- and will endeavor to provide a central clearinghouse for insightful articles and comments for all to consider.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has held a lifelong interest in environmental and conservation issues, primarily as they relate to freshwater scarcity, renewable energy, and national park policy.  Working from a water-scarce base in Las Vegas with his wife and son, he is the founder of Water Politics, an organization dedicated to the identification and analysis of geopolitical water issues arising from the world’s growing and vast water deficits, and is also a co-founder of SmartMarkets, an eco-preneurial venture that applies web 2.0 technology and online social networking innovations to motivate energy & water conservation.  He previously worked for an independent power producer in Central Asia; co-authored an article appearing in the Summer 2010 issue of the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, titled: “The Water Ethic: The Inexorable Birth Of A Certain Alienable Right”; and authored an article appearing in the inaugural issue of Johns Hopkins University's Global Water Magazine in July 2010 titled: “H2Own: The Water Ethic and an Equitable Market for the Exchange of Individual Water Efficiency Credits.”