Study: Produced water from oil and gas could sustain fracking for Permian's lifetime

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

As oil and gas booms in the Permian Basin, the need for water continued to grow in the arid region for use in hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

The practice allowed oil and gas producers to target deeper, harder-to-reach shale rock and extract fossil fuels in larger and more rapid quantities.

The resulting wave of oil and gas booms across the country in recent years led to the U.S. to become a major exporter of oil and gas – overtaking countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia in 2018.

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But the perceived need for freshwater to continue the fracking process, which sees a combination of water, sand and chemicals pumped underground to break up the shale and release hydrocarbons, continued to be a concern for producers in the Permian Basin – the county’s most active oil field in a desert region of southeast New Mexico and West Texas.

A group of scientists from the University of Texas at Austin think the answer could lay in the same underground formations where fossil fuel was extracted from.

When oil and gas is brought to the surface, drilling operations often draw large quantities of water from beneath the surface.

Known as produced water, this fluid often comes up at a large ratio to the oil itself – up to 10 barrels per barrel of oil depending on the geology of the land and operation.

The team from UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology said that water, often briny and containing hazardous chemicals or heavy metals, could be used in fracking.

And the basin should produce plenty of it.

In the Delaware Basin, on the western side of the Permian, the study estimated 10.4 trillion gallons of water would be produced during the lifetime of the basin, while only about 2.8 trillion gallons would be needed for fracking during the same time.

The Midland Basin – the Permian’s eastern region in Texas – would need about 1.9 trillion gallons of water for fracking during its lifetime, the study read, while about 2.6 trillion gallons would be produced during extraction.

 “We need to first maximize reuse of produced water for hydraulic fracturing,” said Bridget Scanlon, lead author on two produced water studies and a senior research scientist with the UT Bureau of Economic Geology. “That’s really the message here.”

Scanlon’s first study was published on Feb. 3 to look at the potential for produced water’s use outside of oil and gas.

More:Carlsbad residents debate produced water at State hearing

She concluded that produced water volumes were still much lower than the need for agriculture and irrigation demands and would likely not solve problems with water scarcity.

Her second study was released on Feb. 16, which predicted the quantities of water needed, and the volume of water expected to be produced.

“The water volumes that are quoted vary widely. That’s why we did this study,” Scanlon said. “This really provides a quantitative analysis of hydraulic fracturing water demand and produced water volumes.”

The research came as the State of New Mexico partnered with the New Mexico Environment Department last year to study and better understand produced water and seek to potentially expand its use.

More:Wyoming company hopes to solve New Mexico's oil and gas waste water dilemma

New Mexico Gov. Lujan Grisham said she hoped produced water could one day be reused to preserve New Mexico’s scarce supplies of water for consumption.

“Turning this waste product into a commodity is good for preserving fresh water resources, good for compact requirements with other states, good for conservation purposes, good for local and county governments; it’s good for small and large producers, it’s good for agriculture,” she said. 

“It’s good for New Mexico, and it represents an exciting leap forward.”

But doing that could prove too expensive, especially in the Delaware Basin, which accounts for about half of the U.S.’s oil production, and where produced water is especially salty and hard to treat.

Treatment would also generate vast quantities of salt, read the study. In 2017, scientists concluded Delaware Basin produced water contained enough salt to fill 3,000 Olympic swimming pools.

“The ability to beneficially reuse produced waters in arid and semi-arid regions, which can be water stressed, is not the panacea that we were hoping,” said co-author Mark Engle, a professor at The University of Texas at El Paso. “There is definitely potential to do some good, but it will require cautious and smart approaches and policies.”

Nichole Saunders, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund said rushing policy to allow produced water's reuse outside of oil and gas operations could do more harm than good. 

 "Getting the science down to reuse waste water correctly is going to take time," she said. "I think it's great that they're (NMSU) prioritizing research first, but the spotlight needs to be on increasing oil and gas' reuse of waste water and less use of freshwater."

She said that a lot was still unknown about produced water, often viewed as a viable solution to general water scarcity in the arid Permian Basin region, and that it must be thoroughly studied for its toxicity, chemical content and treatment options. 

"The contention that produced water is not going to solve water scarcity is important, because it's what a lot of the public in the area is being told that there's this grand opportunity of oil and gas waste water," Saunders said. 

"We need to get the oil and gas industry off of freshwater. We need to focus on that instead of the reuse (of produced water) in other industries because we don't really understand the impact."

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.