Energy Exchange

Could wastewater from oil and gas production help solve our water crisis? Not without better science

Climate change is drastically raising demands on the world’s fresh water supplies, and as a result, governments, scientists, and others are actively searching for new ways to manage and preserve our water resources.

One consideration includes repurposing wastewater generated from on-shore oil and gas development, which produces a whopping 900 billion gallons of water annually in the U.S. alone.

Some proponents of this option believe produced water may be a massive opportunity for water-scarce regions. Researchers at the University of Texas suggest recycling produced water for hydraulic fracturing operations could help address anticipated water shortage problems in the Permian Basin. Recycling wastewater within the oilfield is a viable option – as long as the spill and leaks, which can have significant and long-lasting negative impacts on soil and water resources, are minimized.

However, uses beyond the oilfield are much riskier if we don’t answer some critical questions first.

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Six ways oil and gas development can contaminate land and water (and what to do about it)

By Adam Peltz and Nichole Saunders

As oil and gas production increases, so does the risk of toxic waste leaking to the environment. The massive amount of briny wastewater generated from oil and gas development can cause serious damage if it comes into contact with the public or our environment.

Consider what happened to the Johnsons, a 4th generation ranching family in New Mexico. More than 400,000 gallons of wastewater spilled on their ranch leaving a dead zone no longer viable to raise cattle or grow crops. Read More »

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Getting dangerously creative with oil and gas wastewater

Look before you leap – why learning more about oilfield wastewater is critical to reducing health and safety risks.

The oil and gas industry has a massive wastewater problem. And if the growing dialogue about new ways of dealing with it are any indication, it may get worse if we aren’t careful.

Cost concerns, pressure to conserve water, and other factors have led some oil and gas companies to consider new ways to manage or repurpose wastewater – including using it to irrigate crops. That could create more problems than it solves.

Managing the massive amount of oil and gas wastewater has been a challenge for energy companies for generations. Some wells produce up to 10 times more wastewater than oil. In the United States, companies produce nearly 900 billion gallons of wastewater a year. That’s enough to fill over 1,000 football stadiums.

Ongoing Risks

Oil and gas wastewater is often many times saltier than sea water – and can ruin soil for generations if large amounts spill or leak during storage or transport.  In fact, landowners with a long history of oil and gas production on their lands know that a wastewater spill can cause much more long term damage to their land than an oil spill. Read More »

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New study reveals gaps in the methods used to assess chemicals in oilfield wastewater

A new study led by researchers with Colorado School of Mines exposes limitations with the current methods used to detect chemicals in oilfield wastewater and offers solutions to help regulators make better decisions for managing this waste stream.

Oilfield wastewater is extremely salty and can contain multiple combinations of many potentially harmful chemicals (approximately 1600 on a national basis). However, most standard or approved analytical methods available to regulators were designed to work with fresh water. Because oil and gas wastewater is so salty—sometimes 10 times saltier than seawater or more—chemists often have to dilute wastewater samples to manage the high salt content.

This means they may also be diluting chemicals of concern to concentrations too low to detect, even though they may be present at risky levels. For example, benzene is a chemical associated with petroleum hydrocarbons and a known carcinogen. It also has a drinking water standard of 5 parts per billion – that’s 5 cents in 10 million dollars. It really doesn’t take much dilution of a sample to lose that level of precision. Read More »

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Report identifies ways to reduce water contamination from oil and gas development in Texas

A new report from the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST) is shedding more light on what we know and don’t know about the potential health and environmental impacts caused by oil and gas development in Texas.

The report, the first of-its-kind authored by experts across the state, looks at all areas of concern related to oil and gas – including seismicity, air pollution, land and traffic issues  – but TAMEST’s observations about the risks to water are especially noteworthy.

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New report offers long-awaited answers about reusing oil and gas industry’s wastewater

A new report from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board’s (OWRB) Produced Water Working Group indicates that oil and gas companies looking for ways to dispose of large volumes of wastewater should focus on recycling those liquids within the oil and gas fields, and not – as some suggest – use it for irrigation or other surface applications where human and environmental exposure is a risk.

The Produced Water Working Group, a panel of 17 state experts convened by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin in December, 2015, to study various options for wastewater reuse, determined that treating wastewater for use outside of the oil field is not economical, nor are the environmental and health risks well understood.

In fact, the Working Group didn’t evaluate health and environmental risks for any of the 10 alternative uses evaluated. While research into reducing the cost of desalination, by powering treatment facilities with solar or excess lease gas, for example, may be promising, it won’t be sufficient to green light uses that introduce oil and gas wastewater into contact with communities and ecosystems.

To that end, the OWRB recommends that scientific efforts should be devoted to “identifying toxicological risks and protective water quality targets to ensure that the environment and public health are adequately protected under various reuse scenarios.” This is exactly right. Read More »

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