Waste to Water: 6 things we know about produced water problems from fracking

Jessica Onsurez
Carlsbad Current-Argus

The Waste to Water project explores the energy industry, local communities and leaders who are exploring ways to mitigate the impact of waste water produced during hydraulic fracturing in the Permian Basin and Delaware Basin.

What we know is that millions of gallons of contaminated water are removed from fracked wells, and the conventional method of disposal is to re-inject that water into the earth via a disposal well.

The Current-Argus and its partner, Solutions Journalism Network, found the problem is massive and is growing every day as the amount of waste water increases alongside the booming oil and natural gas industry.

Travelogue:We headed cross country to find out how other cities recycle waste water.

Here are 6 key takeaways on the problem of produced water.

1. Regulations are a guide, not the key

House Bill 546, also known as the Fluid Oil and Gas Waste Act, was signed into law by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during the 2019 Legislative session.

HB 546 required the well owners and producers to take ownership of waste water and be responsible for its disposal or transfer, and required state permitting for its use in operations.

The bill, however, does not regulate what "types" of disposal for the waste should be employed, nor does it require operators and producers to explore innovative solutions that would mitigate its overall impact on the well-being of the environment and local communities.

Thus disposal wells are still used to dispose of waste water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began regulating disposal wells in the mid-1970s, following passage of the Safe Water Drinking Act, but widespread use of such activity began in the 1930s. 

2. Expect growth

One fracked well could use up to 6 million gallons of water, one study estimated, and “thousands” of fracked wells are drilled each year. 

As of 2016, there are 977,000 wells in the U.S., according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Of those wells, 670,000 — or 69 percent — were drilled using hydraulic fracturing.

A 2018 study conducted by Duke University titled “The Intensification of the Water Footprint of Hydraulic Fracturing,” reported the fresh water used nationally in fracking increased to 770 percent from 2011 to 2016, while waste water volumes within the first year of production grew by 550 percent. 

A barrel of oil, or about 42 gallons, yields about half a barrel of waste water.

Experts predict that the energy industry in the Permian Basin could have sustained growth over the next decade.

3. Recycle, reuse or both?

“Finding ways to treat and dispose of or recycle the large volume of chemical-laden flowback water and brine-laden waste water that is produced over the lifetime of an unconventional oil or gas well also poses challenges,” wrote Avner Vengosh, geochemistry professor of water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Recycled waste water can be reused in further extraction operations. 

However, the price of cleaning water contaminated during the fracking process is exorbitant and, in many cases, the technology to do so is not available or is in its infancy.

Further, water culture of local communities has dictated the reuse of "cleaned" waste water would not be welcome for purposes outside of the energy industry.

Would you consider using recycled produced water?Give us your feedback on waste water in the oil and gas industry in New Mexico.

4. Geology and chemistry

The challenges with recycling water can vary by region as differing geology alters the water’s chemistry, Vengosh wrote.

Eighty-four percent of the water used in fracking became waste that has historically been pumped back into the ground in disposal wells. 

“The main issues are what’s in the chemistry of the waste water,” Vengosh said. “The issue is the salt — the high level of salt that can precipitate once they are moving or changing or managing. That’s kind of the challenge the industry is working with waste water for recycle for fracking.”

5. Unknown consequences

Injecting waste water into disposal wells after crude oil and natural gas liquids are extracted could put aquifers, which supply drinking water, at risk of contamination. 

The geology of the Karst formation in southeast New Mexico has concerned experts, who said it is unknowable how that disposed waste water may be filtered by the surrounding geology.

A 1966 report from the Stanford University School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences detailed how a disposal well drilled in the Denver area, within years, caused 710 earthquakes in a region that had not felt seismicity since 1882.

There are 40,000 wells used for commercial disposal of waste water from oil and gas production across the U.S., per 2018 data from the USGS. 

Waste to water:What's the future for our water? Let's talk about it.

6. Big potential

Ryan Flynn, executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said the industry has an opportunity growing in step with the boom: To create an economy for use of treated and recycled water in agriculture and other industries.

“Just the sheer volume of production is making the reuse and recycling of water even more economical,” Flynn said. “It’s driving the cost down. And the cost of freshwater is going up."

As the "midstream water" sector grows, the sale of recycled water could become the next largest economy in the oil and natural gas rich Permian and Delaware basins.

Want more details on waste water? Check out our full coverage of the problems facing the oil and gas industry.

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems, www.solutionsjournalism.org.

Jessica Onsurez can be reached at 575-628-5531, jonsurez@gannett.com or on Twitter at @JussGREAT.

Solutions Journalism Network