Water, some say, may be worth more than oil. Well, today, water is necessary to produce oil. With the technology breakthrough of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, water is crucial for producing oil in the tremendously productive Permian Basin and Eagle Ford Shale in West and South Texas. But the hitch is these areas are drought stricken, and have been for many years. As a result, a great deal of pressure has been placed on oil companies to reduce the amount of freshwater that they use for fracing wells. The oil companies have responded with technology and water management innovation to find ways to lessen their use of freshwater.
While there may be plenty of water for the oil companies to use, public pressure is intense, and public companies tend to respond to this pressure. As a result, a great deal of time, money, manpower, and equipment have been focused on ways to reduce water use in the Texas oil fields.
One means of doing this is to reuse water. A great deal of effort has been placed on recycling water that comes back up the well after fracing. This water may have high salt content and gels that are used to enhance the fracing process. The oil companies discovered that the water did not have to meet freshwater standards for reuse for fracing. Thus, the water does not have to be cleaned up as much to allow reuse.
At times, however, certain amounts of salts, metals, or gels need to be removed before the water can be used for another frac job. Many startup companies have developed various technologies to remove these materials and chemicals from water in the oil field and to provide a competitively priced solution to the oil companies. Oil companies are trying these technologies and evaluating which ones may provide a reliable means of producing water that is useful for fracing.
One of the challenges is that the needs of a particular well or geology, the contaminants in the water produced after fracing, and what chemicals are used to frac, may vary significantly from one well, one location, and one field to another. This means that one water treatment technology or process may work in one location, but not in another, and that one type of treatment is needed for a particular well, that is not needed for another.
This complicating factor makes selecting technologies or companies to provide water treatment more difficult. Some companies remove certain materials while others do not. The costs of one technology may be higher than another.
In all of this, the question is what is the cost to reuse water compared to use of freshwater. Economics still apply to oil drilling and the expense of treating water for reuse has budget limits.
As a result, oil companies have started considering other water sources than the traditional fresh water wells used to provide frac water. In West and South Texas, as in many parts of the country, the aquifers, or water-bearing geologic zones underground, may be saltier depending upon location and depth. Typically, the freshwater that has low levels of salt is found in the upper reaches of the ground, nearer to the surface, while the water found deeper in the ground tends to be saltier. The saltier water is called “brackish” water. Typically brackish water is not very palatable to drink or too salty for agricultural purposes, so it generally has gone unused.
But for the oil industry, it may be perfectly fine for fracing. This opens up a significant possibility for a source of water that can be used that does not offend local citizens and farmers who are concerned about current and future supplies of freshwater for drinking, showering, farming, and other uses.
A great deal of effort is now being focused on how brackish water wells may supply water for fracing. The testing of this water in terms of its chemical content and its potential use in fracing is well underway. Companies are finding that it may be sufficient without any treatment in many cases. In other cases, some level of minimal treatment may be necessary.
The use of brackish water is new to the oil business. The regulator in Texas, the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), had not reviewed this issue. In considering use of brackish water, the RRC conclude that it would be regulated in the same way as freshwater in makeup pits for either use in drilling oil wells or for injection for water floods to produce more oil in secondary or tertiary recovery operations.
Brackish water use may present a lesser concern for now, but this may be changing. Cities are now using brackish groundwater as a source of drinking water. A few cities have drilled wells into brackish aquifers and used desalination technologies to remove the salts and other chemicals to produce drinking water. Several bills were filed in the last session of the Texas legislature to define and clarify regulation of brackish water use. None of these bills passed, but future bills are expected in next year’s legislative session as brackish water is seen as a future source of water supply.
The use of brackish water may present in a few instances challenges for oil companies. Even so, the use of brackish water is far less controversial than use of fresh water.
Water and oil are critical to our economy and to our lives. While water may not cost as much as oil, it is certainly of critical value in drilling for oil now that fracing is a key component of the most productive oil fields in Texas. The recycling and reuse of water and use of brackish water will reduce the amount of freshwater that is used by the oil companies in producing oil. As the droughts continue, these innovations by the oil industry provide a means of conserving a scarce resource and will hopefully allow oil companies, farmers, landowners, and citizens of towns and cities in West and South Texas to coexist as water continues to be a critical resource to the life and economies of Texas.