Noon: Hope for fracking technology's water woes

Marita Noon

Water’s scarcity has been predicted to be the next doomsday scenario and hydraulic fracturing is often blamed for exacerbating water concerns.

Instead of the problem, the oil-and-gas industry could just be the solution.

Water is important to the hydraulic fracturing process. Fresh water is used to help transport the tiny grains of sand deep underground where they are used to hold open the fissures in the fracked rock — allowing the oil or natural gas to flow at economic rates. When the resource is extracted, it comes out of the ground with not only the water that was pumped in, but also with “produced water” from deep in the earth. This water mixture — that contains both the chemicals used to reduce friction in the frack job, and very high concentrations of salt, other minerals, and metals — needs to be disposed of.

Industry has been in search of a solution that would improve both safety and the bottom line.

What was “wastewater,” can now have new life irrigating crops in the arid Southwest — or, at least, that is the apparent result of a research project conducted by the Texas A&M AgriLife Research team, the Texas Railroad Commission and a coalition of oil-and-gas companies. The initial results look very promising.

Bill Weathersby, chairman and CEO at Energy Water Solutions — a company that uses a patented technology to successfully recycle more than 8 million barrels, so far, of wastewater — spearheaded the effort. Katie Lewis, Ph.D., designed the experiment at the AgriLife Experimentation Station near Pecos, Texas. Anadarko Petroleum brought the wastewater from a nearby well and Gibsons provided the tanks to store the water on site. The commission permitted the use of the recycled water for the noncommercial cotton crop, which was planted on June 2.

Portions of the controlled field were watered with well water, while others received a blend of one part recycled water and four parts well water.

Assuming the test results are as expected and the project expands next year, Weathersby hopes more companies will participate in additional testing to expand the project. Ultimately, participants want the Texas legislature to use the results to change the law to allow the use of recycled water for agriculture.

While this project and collaboration are unique, there are many other companies with water recycling technologies and numerous other tests being conducted.

One of the new technologies being tested is developed by Kaizen Fluid Systems and uses an electromechanical process that can break down the molecular bonding agents to produce clean water with commercially viable by-products and no toxic waste stream. Kaizen’s system is especially effective in North Dakota’s Bakken Field where the wastewater disposal costs are very high and produced water is too salty to be recycled cost effectively by evaporation or reverse osmosis systems.

Marita Noon

The type of hydraulic fracturing fluid frequently used in the Bakken, cross-link gel, requires exceptionally clean water with no salt or metals, and tests found that the Kaizen technology was able to deliver. The model is currently being scaled up and soon will be available for wide-scale wellsite use — with the mobile system processing 50 gallons a minute and the fixed base: 300 gallons per minute or 10,000 barrels (420,000 gallons) per day. Additionally, Sandy McDonald, Kaizen’s CEO, told me their system removes present and future environmental liabilities for the producers.

Recycling produced water and reusing it for hydraulic fracturing and/or agricultural use provides more water for everyone’s use, while eliminating the need for disposal wells.

The oil-and-gas industry’s search to do things better and more cost effectively, could provide the answer to America’s water woes.

The author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the companion educational organization, the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy.