Extracting materials we use for fuel can take a mighty toll on Texan water supplies, but Gabriel Collins, blogger for North American Shale Blog, sees a solution in recycling oilfield water. Large projects in Eagle Ford, he writes, can use up to 11.5 million gallons of water—about 10 barrels of water per barrel of oil produced.
“Treatment technologies have advanced dramatically in recent years, and treating produced water now costs a fraction of what trucking and disposal does,” Collins writes. “[Fracking] is only one potential end use for treated water. Some companies may even be able to purify the water to drinking-level quality at a cost still comparable to that at which major Texas cities such as San Antonio have recently acquired freshwater supplies.”
Data from the Argonne National Laboratory suggests that in 2007, oil and gas fields churned out a volume of produced water that equates to nearly 22 percent of all water used by Texas municipalities that year. Despite technological advancements and economic incentives to recycle frack water, factors including cost and lack of public support had previously deterred companies from treating water.
In 2014, Apache employees estimated that water disposal in the Barnhart area cost the company about $2 to $2.50 per barrel while recycling—but not desalinating—the water only cost about 29 cents per barrel.
Desalination, though a slightly spendier process, has been made more accessible through technological breakthroughs, driving the traditional costs of $4 to $8 per barrel down to as little as $1.50 to $2.00 per barrel.
Collins also cites draught and public perception as a driving force behind a pickup in water recycling. If, for example, a town near fracking sites suffered a water shortage, oil and gas companies would surely receive public scorn if they chose to continue freshwater-intensive production practices.
In a more specific example, Collins points to the 21 county in Eagle Ford, an area for which researchers at Texas A&M’s Bush school estimate oil and gas operations take up about 13 percent of the water use—much higher than the state average.
“The disproportionate use of locally supplied water comes in large part because trucking water is very expensive and permitting long-distance water supply pipelines takes time, risks political opposition, and can run afoul of local groundwater conservation districts’ restrictions on water exports,” Collins writes.
The last factor Collins links to an upswing in wastewater treatment is changes in regulation, which make it easier to treat, transfer and reuse oilfield water. The particular ruling he mentions—Texas Railroad Rule 3.8—“dramatically reduced the regulatory burden” on water recycling operations by allow operators to recycle water for fracking without a permit, allowing for more cost-effective water storage methods, allowing purified frack water to be used free of permits “for any manner other than discharge to waters of the state,” and by allowing operators to transfer fluids without a permit.