Oil companies now have access to technology that enables them to recycle water used for hydraulic fracturing (fracking), according to a recent report from the Forum News Service. This is good news because disposing wastewater from fracking, in many instances, is expensive.
However, implementing the technology in the Bakken, a prominent region for fracking that covers parts of Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, “will take time as operators adjust to the new methods and regulators respond with new permitting rules,” the report says.
The process of fracking typically involves shooting a highly pressurized mixture of water and sand or ceramics into an oil or gas reservoir several thousand feet underground, “often with the help of a small percentage of additives that aid in delivering that solution down the hatch,” explain officials from Halliburton, which drilled the first fracked well in the 1940s.
The force of the water fractures the rock, and the sand which is blasted into the cracks holds them open so the natural gas can escape. The operator then removes the water, which must then be treated or quarantined to avoid contaminating drinking water.
Forum notes that “the oil industry used about 5.5 billion gallons of fresh water in North Dakota in 2012, according to the North Dakota State Water Commission.” Usage statistics elsewhere are similar, but in some areas the fracking operation uses a relatively high percentage of the locally-available water.
Reducing Fresh Water Usage By 25 Percent
Still, the industry is determined to do what it can to work toward sustainability. Halliburton “has set a goal of reducing the amount of fresh water the oil industry uses in North America by 25 percent by the end of 2014,” Forum says. Walter Dale, Halliburton’s strategic business manager for water management solutions, says that accomplishing that goal “depends on oil companies getting on board with the new technology,” the report notes.
Fracking uses such large quantities of water — it is “hydraulic” after all — that industry journal OilPrice wrote recently that “figuring out how to help companies recycle frack water is an emerging business opportunity that could be worth countless billions.” The journal concedes that “it still costs more to use recycled frack water in shale plays where water is plentiful and disposal wells numerous.” But the price gap is closing in arid areas.
Until recycling becomes part of the fracking process, environmental concerns about water management and wastewater treatment will grow, as noted by fellow ThomasNet News writer Al Bredenberg.
Produced Water Is Part Of the Problem
Crude oil wells and natural gas extraction brings up “produced water,” which is “water that is brought up to the surface along with the gas,” Bredenberg wrote. He cited a paper from Argonne National Laboratory which says that produced waters from gas extraction “are relatively more toxic than produced waters from oil production” and tend to have higher concentrations of “low molecular-weight aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX).”
This is why recycling the water is such a big deal. Right now, the most common method for getting rid of such produced water is ”underground injection”– shooting the water back into wells deep enough “where it won’t affect groundwater.” Obviously, both the industry and environmentalists would like to see this water productively reused instead.
There’s an added incentive for the industry. Dale told Forum News that if the system works as envisioned, it can “reduce the fresh water usage, reduce truck traffic, and reduce disposal costs, providing environmental benefits and saving operators an estimated $100,000 to $400,000 per well.”
Looking For the Silver Bullet
There are plenty of efforts to find that silver-bullet technology that will allow the water used in fracking to be reintroduced into productive use. The industry journal Shale Media Group writes that General Electric (GE) is planning an early 2014 launch of a system “aimed at helping natural gas drillers recycle water” used in fracking. About the size of a truck, GE’s mobile evaporator “will cut the volume of wastewater and fresh water needed by between 50 percent and 90 percent by recycling water directly at the well site,” significantly lowering producers’ transportation and disposal costs as well as reclaiming a great deal of the water, company officials say.
Environmental Leader wrote this month that the use of Halliburton’s H2OForward recycling service on ExxonMobil’s XTO Energy wells in New Mexico “saved $70,000 to $100,000 per well with no loss of production,” and that officials of oil and gas extraction company FTS International say they use “up to 100 percent reclaimed water in some Oklahoma and Texas locations.”
Layne Christensen, a provider of water management services, told Reuters that its fracking-focused business should be in a position to “generate $200 million in revenue by 2017.”
Being Neighborly Is Economical
Economics are one reason the industry itself is seeking ways to cut down on fresh water use. Neighborliness is another — many of the locations for fracking, such as Texas and Oklahoma, have had severe water shortages, and any water conservation from fracking is welcome.
The water doesn’t have to be of pristine drinking quality to be suitable for reuse. Reuters writes that slightly dirty water, and water with higher saline content than fresh water “does just as good a job as crystal clear when it comes to making an oil or gas well work, so the point is to treat the water just enough so that it can be used again.”
Undeniably, economics will drive the industry to find the maximum return from recycling water. Trucking water to injection wells is a cost the industry would gladly eliminate. Oil and gas extraction firm Baker Hughes introduced a water management offering called H2PrO about a year and half ago, but the response was tepid, according to Tom Whalen, the company’s vice president of water management. Today, however, interest is keen and customers using H2PrO “are saving 30 to 50 percent compared with trucking the used water to underground wells,” he told Reuters.
But the economics aren’t uniform. Extraction companies could save $370,000 per well in the Marcellus shale play in Pennsylvania, due in large part the the unsuitability of the land for disposal wells and the high costs of transporting the water to such wells, according to a recent report by Jefferies, a global investment banking firm. However, savings would only be about $70,000 in North Dakota’s Bakken region and negligible in Texas’ Eagle Ford shale play because of the many disposal wells there. In such cases, government regulation would provide the needed incentive, the report says.