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Shales Seen Making Oil and Gas Drilling a 'Water Industry'

When it takes 75,000-100,000 bbl of water to hydraulically fracture (frack) a shale well, "the oil and gas industry is effectively a water industry and delivers oil and gas as a byproduct...so welcome to the water industry," an environmental services executive told a Houston energy audience Wednesday.

Calgary-based CCS Corp.'s Phil Vogel, president of U.S. environmental and energy services, talked about environmental stewardship in water management at World Oil's Shale Energy Technology Conference. While the upstream oil and gas industry appears to use a lot of water, the amount is only a sliver...less than 1%...of the overall water market, which is worth about $530 billion a year globally, according to Vogel.

While it cuts a small profile among other water users, such as agricultural interests and consumers, the oil and gas industry is garnering an increasing amount of scrutiny for its water use from these interests and from regulators, Vogel said. Regulations are tightening on the industry's use of and access to water, he warned. "Access to fresh water [by oil and gas interests] is becoming increasingly restricted and/or a last-resort option in many areas."

For instance, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently warned that using water from the Colorado River Basin for shale oil production could impact agricultural and municipal water uses affecting 15% of the nation's crops and up to 30 million people from Wyoming to Southern California (see Shale Daily, Aug. 23). Legislation has been introduced in New York state that targets water "over consumption" by the energy industry (see Shale Daily, June 20).

Irrigation and agriculture interests account for about 37% of water use, Vogel said. However, reusing produced water and relying less on fresh water is becoming increasingly important for the energy industry, he said.

"Why do we get blamed for all of the problems if we're only using 1% of what's being consumed on a daily basis? We use little but we're basically blamed for everything," Vogel lamented. Exacerbating the concern over the industry's water use are inconsistent drought cycles, which "demand excellence in water management practices," he said.

That's why, among other things, the industry needs to further investigate fracking wells with produced and/or frack flowback water after it has been treated, Vogel said. The Holy Grail is a closed-loop system for water management.

Water issues and the ability to manage produced/flowback water vary across the country, said Veolia Water Solutions and Technology's Bob Bradley, senior process engineer, another speaker at the conference.

"In the East the shale is dry," he said. "You're going to pump 100,000 bbl down the well to frack it, and you get 7,500 bbl back...The water's much saltier, but there's a lot less of it. As you move west, you get more wet shale, shales that are natural aquifers. You get all the frack water back, plus you get 100-200 b/d per well for the life of the well.

"Different water chemistry requires different treatment technologies...You've got to look at the regulations with regard to what's required for discharge. And you've got to figure out what you want to do with it. Do you want to frack the next well with it, or are you going to discharge it to the environment? That's pretty much dictated by how much water there is...In the western United States you've got a lot more produced water than what you need for fracking so there you have to dispose of it somehow."

However, Gene Citrone Jr. of Process Plants Corp., another conference speaker, is focused on the East, particularly the Marcellus Shale, where he believes there will be a market for his company's technology to treat produced water with a mechanical process so it can be reused to frack wells. "We're at the workbench ready for commercialization," he said while holding up a short section of pipe with multiple openings, gauges and valves.

Someone in the audience described the device as a black box, and Citrone joked that he would have liked to put it in a black box so no one could see it. He did, however, describe the process as one involving multiple pressure changes that take place within the device, producing cavitation. What comes out is not drinking water but rather water that can be combined with fracking chemicals and proppant to do a frack job.

Citrone said water treated with the process meets Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection requirements for discharge into stream environments. "But that's not our goal because we're in the oil and gas industry" and the industry wants to reuse the water.

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