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Fracking Industry Explains How Oil and Water Do Mix

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gas pad

A parade of oil and gas industry representatives told legislators today that they are hard at work on reducing the amount of freshwater used in fracking. This is the Texas Legislature, which is enormously deferential to the industry, so the joint hearing of two House committees had the air of a casual fact-finding mission mixed with lots of oil-and-gas boosterism.

State Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), who chairs the House Energy Resources Committee, framed the discussion as a chance to head off criticism.

“We just have to make sure people know we are not sitting on our hands,” Keffer said.

(He was, by the way, the legislator who authored legislation last session requiring operators to disclose the fluids used to frack wells. The disclosure law has been criticized for allowing companies to keep secret one out of every five chemicals used in Texas wells.)

The amount of water used to frack wells in Texas is less than 1 percent of all the water consumed in the state. However, in some counties water used in fracking can constitute 40 to 50 percent of the total. A University of Texas study, paid for by the oil and gas industry and released in January, found that the oil and gas boom had driven a 128 percent increase in water use but that companies were starting to recycle water and tap brackish groundwater sources.

As the rigs have chased the shale plays south and west, production has ramped up in more water-scarce areas. That, in turn, has increased pressure on the producers to look for ways to avoid spoiling potable water by shooting deep underground.

“It’s always one of two question the [locals] ask,” said Stephen Jester of ConocoPhillips. “What can you do to get more trucks off the road and the second thing is what are you doing about using less freshwater? We hear that.”

Yet, after hours of testimony from a variety of operators and speciality companies it became clear that no one technology or solution is at hand. Instead producers are trying out a number of different approaches, from strategies to simply use less water, to reusing “produced” water from one well in another, to seeking out brackish water sources.

Alternatives to freshwater are expensive and there is no government mandate for operators to pursue the alternatives. Currently, freshwater has the advantage of being clean, cheap and relatively abundant. Brackish water and “produced” water—the often-contaminated water that comes up from the well—can contain bacteria, high concentrations of solids and chemicals like boron that can clog up the well. So it’s often cheaper for companies to pay for freshwater to frack a well and then pay for it to be disposed in one of Texas’ abundant commercial disposal wells.

Water treatment companies, one man testified, don’t compete against each other but against the status quo.

Jay Ewing of Devon Energy said the company had recycled about 700 million gallons of “frack water” since 2005. (That’s about how much water the city of Austin uses in 5 days.) Recycling, mainly due to the transportation costs of moving the water from well to treatment site, cost 50 to 75 percent more than the alternative, Ewing said.

Another option for frackers is to use brackish water. “There are a lot of people, particularly in West Texas and South Texas, looking very seriously at using brackish water rather than freshwater,” said Brent Halderson, founder of the brand-newTexas Water Recycling Association, an industry group that promotes recycling of frack water. Indeed, a board member of the Colorado River Municipal Water District (CRMWD), a wholesaler that’s provides water to San Angelo, Midland and Odessa, suggested that it could form a public-private partnership with oil companies centered on a brackish water aquifer the water authority owns rights to. Of course, brackish water is also increasingly eyed as a water source by cities. El Paso opened the biggest inland desalination plant in the U.S. just a few years ago to treat brackish water from a nearby aquifer.

Still, brackish water can have a chemistry incompatible with the tracking process, requiring further treatment. It can also be expensive to tap deep brackish aquifers. Tapping the Carrizo Aquifer in South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale costs $1 million, whereas a well in the shallow Gulf Coast Aquifer runs about $70,000, said Jester.

Given the additional costs, there was some vague talk about “incentives” in the form of, you guessed it, tax breaks. That produced a chortle from state Rep. Allan Ritter, the House’s leading water guru. “Good luck with that sir,” Ritter said.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=655989571 Matthew Taylor

    This article has been linked on thejavelina.com

  • Marc

    I constantly hear a lot of talk about recycling wastewater and reusing it, but it is all talk. According to Devon Energy’s own website, they were only able to clean and reuse about 7 or every 1,000 gallons of wastewater, and the cost for using treated water was 70% above their production costs for a well. The total water cleans and reused by Devon amounted to about 140 out of over 20,000 wells drilled in the Barnett Shale. Devon was the leader in recycling efforts for flowback and produced water, but at 0.007% efficiency in recycling water it just was not profitable. Besides, the amount of energy used to recycle wastewater is far greater than the amount of energy recovered by using that recycled water, so recycling is a net energy loser, and there is simply no economic or environmental sense in recycling just for the sake of recycling.

    When people start telling you about recycling wastewater from oil and gas operations pin them down for specifics and watch how quickly they change subjects. They try not to outright lie, though they have no problem with telling “little white lies” or telling just enough of the truth to say they weren’t lying while intentionally omitting the parts of the truth that damage their names and reputations.

    The ONLY reason why drillers prefer to use freshwater, which is then contaminated and permanently destroyed, and which is subsequently pumped 15-18,000 feet down into the Ellenberger formation is because there is no cost feasible alternative available to them. They are certainly not going to undertake a more costly production option at a time when natural gas is selling for about one third of its production cost!

    Let’s get serious about this subject – NOBODY is using recycled flowback or produced water except in some extreme cases just to show us that they are trying to do it because even they are starting to realize that the water use and destruction is quickly becoming a deal killer for them.

  • TruckerMark

    Perhaps the fracking industry could use salt water straight out of the ocean by the trainload, which would leave whatever fresh water is left for other uses?