Oil Industry Tries To Escape Water Crunch

Via E&E News, a report on the petroleum industry’s water crunch:

Energy companies in the U.S. are searching for new ways to manage the water they use and produce along with crude oil.

The U.S. oil industry has a double-edged problem: It’s running out of fresh water in one of the most productive U.S. regions while being overwhelmed by chemical-laced liquids.

In some areas of the Permian Basin, nearly five barrels of briny water comes out of the ground for every one barrel of crude. Until recently, operators in the prolific region in Texas and New Mexico relied almost exclusively on reinjecting that liquid back into the ground or pumping it into open air waste pits.

But after earthquakes were linked to reinjenctions — and water officials warned of dwindling freshwater and groundwater supplies in drought-stricken areas — states, oil companies and critics have been looking at ways to reuse this so-called produced water. That is raising concerns, however, of the long-term impacts of reusing produced water and its potential impact on groundwater.

“You have to know with certainty what the [contaminants] are in the produced water and know with certainty that you can treat those out to a level of safety for both aquatic life and drinking water purposes,” said Tannis Fox, a senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “We’re a long way off from there.”

Colorado legislators ordered the creation of a state research committee to study the issue and potential uses for produced water. New Mexico in May unveiled draft rules that prohibit discharging that liquid into waterways or using it for agriculture, but they pave the way for pilot projects that could see the water be reused for industrial purposes. Texas’ oil and gas agency is in the process of rewriting rules for how produced water can be used, which could include agriculture and even discharging it into dry riverbeds.

To Rusty Smith, director of the Texas Produced Water Research Consortium, the situation presents an “opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.”

“The state of Texas, who has a massive looming water shortage on our horizon, is trying to find all the potential solutions to this water problem that they have,” Smith said.

As much as 14 million barrels of wastewater are churned out of the Permian Basin every day — enough water to fill more than 54 Olympic swimming pools. The Permian accounts for nearly 50 percent of all U.S. oil production and has become ground zero for produced water as Texas works to lessen the number of earthquakes caused by reinjecting the water deep into the earth.

It’s mostly up to states themselves to govern how produced water is handled, and whether it can be recycled and reused. But EPA created the national Water Reuse Action Plan several years ago, which includes federal studies of recycling produced water and partnerships with oil- and gas-producing states looking at the potential.

And produced water is already being used and discharged.

EPA granted permits that allowed produced water to be discharged into the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania as it meets “40 different contaminate criteria concentrations,” according to the Ground Water Protection Council. Produced water has been used in test projects to irrigate crops in parts of Southern California, and a now defunct Arkansas energy company also got an EPA permit to discharge produced water into the White River.

But environmental groups and health advocates worry the water — which contains naturally radioactive minerals, oil, fracking lubricants and other chemicals — could wreak havoc on the environment and human health if its discharged or used in a way humans could consume it.

“It poses the risk of contamination of our scarce water resources — drinking water, water in streams for recreation, water for agricultural use,” said Fox of the Western Environmental Law Center. “It’s our view that this has not been shown to be protective of human health or the environment at this time.”

State variations

Produced water is a blanket term that covers everything from used fracking fluid to ancient, extra salty seawater that gurgles up with crude oil.

The chemicals and minerals in it vary from state to state and even well to well.

Waha C23H, a well in Reeves County, Texas, has 26 different chemicals as part of its fracking fluid composition, including polyurethane resin and hydrochloric acid, according to FracFocus.com. Hethcock 5-1HZ, just west of Fort Collins, Colorado, has 23 chemicals that include chlorine dioxide and cinnamaldehyde, according to FracFocus.com.

While companies report most of the chemicals they use in fracking to their state oil and gas regulators or environmental agencies, the amounts and some specifics can be kept hidden if the company views them as trade secret, said Virginia Palacios, executive director of Commission Shift, a nonprofit watchdog of Texas’ oil and gas regulator.

Some of the chemicals used are “designer chemicals” created by the fracking companies themselves, Palacios said. EPA does not have thresholds for some of these chemicals in terms of how much should be allowable in water that is discharged into rivers or streams, used for irrigation, or reused for industrial processes.

“Laws passed in 2013 required chemical disclosure [of fracking fluid], but allowed trade secrets,” Palacios said. “So that’s a big reason why we don’t know what to test for.”

Research groups across the country exploring how to better test produced water and are searching for more efficient and less costly ways to take contaminants out of water.

Michael Hightower, program director of the New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium, said his group looks for about 400 potential contaminants in produced water, then works to filter them out and tests again, usually finding 10 to 20 contaminants they didn’t see before.

It’s not just man-made chemicals they’re finding and working to take out.

Naturally occurring radium, a byproduct of uranium decay, can be radioactive but is already found in some groundwater across the country, Hightower said. He said municipalities have been filtering it out for years, and that desalination processes can also remove some of those naturally occurring minerals that, in high quantities, can be damaging to people and the environment.

But other components of fracking fluid and wastewater are harder to remove, especially oil and greases, Hightower said. To try to get those out, Hightower and his group is looking at running the water through multiple treatment processes in succession, a process he calls a treatment trail.

“What I say to people is, right now, we’ve found out we can remove all these in produced waters we’ve looked at, which is pretty tough in the Permian Basin,” Hightower said. “We can get to safe discharge by using a treatment train approach, but it depends on what quality you want.”

But Fox said the public hasn’t seen data and peer-reviewed research supporting the idea that all the contaminants have been removed from produced water and was skeptical that current treatment practices could get produced water to a point where it is safe to discharge into rivers or safe for agriculture.

“They haven’t come up with the goods,” Fox said. “There have been peer-reviewed articles from New Mexico State University — not consortium per se but academics from NMSU and other institutions — but none of that to date has said there’s silver bullet you can use on all produced water everywhere.”

New Mexico plans

New Mexico officials are trying to speed up the process of finding ways to treat and potentially reuse produced water.

The New Mexico Environment Department is the early stages of a rulemaking process, which would prohibit the release of untreated and treated produced water and also open the door for more pilot projects for reuse and reuse for industrial purposes.

John Rhoderick, the department’s water protection division director, said the ultimate goal is to reduce stress on the state’s aquifers and dwindling groundwater supply.

He said certain areas of New Mexico — historically during the summer — “experience droughts in their aquifers and their wells start running dry.” With parts of the Ogallala Aquifer in New Mexico, Rhoderick said, “current estimates say we have 10 years of water before the aquifer gives up completely.”

The hope is that reusing produced water for things like cooling towers for large-scale air conditioning units, or in data centers, companies won’t have to use groundwater, preserving that resource for drinking and agriculture.

“That’s really our intent, looking at only new sources or alternative sources of water, or how do we otherwise use a waste product that’s good for nothing to offset the use of limited freshwater supplies,” Rhoderick said.

But the proposed rule has led to contentious public testimony about whether and how the process should move forward.

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association has filed comments seeking to remove the discharge prohibition from the rule. Hightower, with the New Mexico Produced Water Consortium, filed comments seeking the same thing — angering environmentalists, Fox with the Western Environmental Law Center said.

Fox said her organization worries that using produced water outside of the oil and gas industry could increase the likelihood of accidental spills, spills that could leech down to groundwater supplies.

She said her group and some other environmental organizations aren’t opposed to more research and pilot projects looking at how to better treat and potentially use produced water. But support for its use outside of the oilfield is scant.

“You do need substantial evidence in support of this idea, and we’re not convinced evidence is there for industrial use,” Fox said. “There’s higher degree risk of spills than these lab demonstration projects.”

Rhoderick said science will help determine what happens next.

“I believe we have an obligation on behalf of the department to try to protect [groundwater] from being used up, but we will not do that in any manner that’s unsafe or puts the environment at risk,” Rhoderick said.

Texas options

In Texas, finding ways to reuse produced water goes beyond droughts and preserving groundwater.

The state Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, clamped down on wastewater injections in West Texas after a series of strong earthquakes rocked the region. In January, it suspended issuing permits for injecting produced water deep underground in a 2,601-square-mile area just south of the New Mexico border, leaving operators to find new ways to dispose of their wastewater.

That same month, the commission rolled out a regulatory framework for produced water recycling pilot studies. But unlike in other states, operators themselves can seek Railroad Commission approval to conduct pilot studies themselves.

Under the framework, it would be operators that would compile data on how treated produced water can be reused “in certain activities that are safe and protective of human health and the environment.”

“The oil and gas industry has been using recycled produced water in oil and gas exploration and production, and the potential exists to further reduce the amount of produced water that gets injected into disposal wells, which can help reduce incidents of seismicity, as well as developing a potential for above ground use,” said Patty Ramon, a Railroad Commission spokesperson, in a statement.

That has raised concern among Railroad Commission critics and environmental groups about whether the data will be skewed and what effects the pilot projects will have if it leeches down to groundwater — or the effects it might have on wildlife or nearby landowners.

“This rule was developed behind closed doors with industry partners, not including public for better part of two years,” said Palacios with Commission Shift. “We asked them to engage with public when they shared informal draft with public, but they refuse to do any in district public hearings on the rule which we asked for.”

She also raised concerns over the Railroad Commission’s handling of waste pits — large open air pits that hold produced water. Although the commission updated and strengthened rules on waste pits for the first time in 40 years in October, Palacios said, the state still has looser rules on testing water in the waste pits and liners protecting the edges than neighboring states like Oklahoma and Louisiana.

The operators doing pilot projects are sending their data, and sometimes samples of their water, to the Texas Produced Water Consortium, which is based out of Texas Tech University.

“What I’ve heard so far leading up to this from companies has been all confidence,” Smith said. “It is, ‘We are removing just about everything that we can think of. There may be some constituents that we’re still working on, but it’s just part of the process that we just stood up a to a new technology.’”

He said safety is the main issue the consortium is examining. The consortium will provide studies and data to the Railroad Commission, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Texas Legislature to help guide their decisionmaking, Smith said.

The consortium is doing its own pilot projects, too.

“Everything is on the table,” Smith said. “Does that mean that on Day 1, this water is going to be reused in every use category? Probably not. But we are trying to explore the environmentally sound practice and the potential economic viability.”

This entry was posted on Friday, June 21st, 2024 at 2:29 am and is filed under Uncategorized.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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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.”