Reusing produced and flowback water in hydraulic fracturing operations appears to be a win-win proposition by transforming the industry’s biggest waste product into a resource, with the added benefit of reducing our environmental footprint. The economics are right. Scores of successful projects prove that produced and flowback water can be treated at a lower cost than acquiring and using fresh water. And the treatment technology certainly exists. The oil field is overrun today with companies claiming to have all manner of technologies to treat water.
So, if it is such a good idea, why has the industry been slow to embrace reusing produced and flowback water? Perhaps because it is not as simple as it seems. The challenges are organizational, emotional, and technical.
Few oil companies are organized to recognize the total cost of water. Sourcing, transporting, storing, and treating fresh water and then constructing disposal wells, maintaining that infrastructure, and transporting and disposing of produced water is rarely managed from a central group. Typically, field operations are financially responsible for sourcing water, but the costs of disposal are managed elsewhere in the organization. This division of responsibility creates a false economy for water, artificially lowering the price, and distorting the true cost.
Some operators also are anxious about reusing produced water if they do not feel confident that it will meet the performance requirements of the fracturing fluid or preserve the integrity of the reservoir. Plus, there is some resistance to building the infrastructure to collect, treat, and reuse produced water.
Reusing produced water is more technically complicated than just pulling up to a wellsite with a treatment system. The chemistry of these waters is complex and specialized expertise is needed to successfully treat produced water and formulate a productive fracturing fluid, while protecting the integrity of the wellbore and the reservoir. It takes in-depth analysis of the water to determine what constituents must be removed and/or what additives are necessary.
But, as an industry, we are naive if we think the decades-old strategy of sourcing fresh water and then disposing of produced water is sustainable. A growing list of regulations will force us to look for alternatives.
The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 140 billion gallons of water are needed annually for hydraulic fracturing operations in the United States alone. While that is just a fraction of the total US water usage, our industry is becoming a lightning rod in the water use debate. Add to that the growing concern about bourgeoning truck traffic on local roads and the seismic activity often blamed on high-pressure wastewater injection into disposal wells, and you have an environment ripe for regulation proliferation.