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HOUSTON – One thing the oil and gas industry needs to produce more of is data, particularly around produced water.
Speaking Feb. 8 during the Produced Water Society Seminar, experts said that without better data about produced water, the industry will remain stuck trying to figure out what to do with water that is produced alongside oil and gas. Operators have historically reinjected the water produced from unconventional plays, used it for hydraulic fracturing or treated it for reuse but are not permitted to discharge treated water into U.S. waterways.
Josh Butler, environmental science associate at Exxon Mobil, said during the Injection Restrictions and Produced Water Management Alternatives panel that the New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium (NMPWRC) has “gone to fairly great lengths” to identify and characterize treated produced water as part of its effort to develop a risk assessment framework.
“We need data,” Butler said. “We need data because in order to calibrate and validate the framework that we've developed, you need actual representative treated, produced water data.”
He said a collaborative effort by the industry, academia and the government can help move produced water treatment science forward.
“Until we can advance the science, we're not going to have regulations. And without regulations, we're going to be stuck in the same place that we're stuck in right now, which is what do we do with this water?”
But, he said, the data the NMPWRC wants is data from produced water that has been fully treated representative of beneficially reusable water.
This “is not just a membrane discipline. It's not just a polish treatment. It's not just a pre-treatment,” Butler said.
To date, he said, “we’ve only got two treated produced waters that are representative” of fully treated produced water from the past two years.
“Until we can advance the science, we're not going to have regulations. And without regulations, we're going to be stuck in the same place that we're stuck in right now, which is what do we do with this water?” – Josh Butler, Exxon Mobil
One reason for the dearth of data is that what the NMPWRC is currently seeking requires a more expensive analysis looking at more than 700 constituents in produced water rather than looking mostly at total dissolved solids and oil.
And that data will help calibrate and validate the NMPWRC’s risk assessment framework to aid regulators.
“It's something that regulators are going to need in order to establish regulations and standards,” Butler said.
Tyler Hussey, water resources lead at Apache Corp., said there have been some changes in how the industry has disposed of water through disposal wells. Previously, the industry had been using shallow disposal wells, but the industry shifted to using deeper disposal wells. That, however, has been tied to increased seismic-related activity.
“Instead of going to deep [disposal wells], now everything’s going back to shallow [disposal wells],” he said.
But there may be a day when the industry has nowhere to send produced water, he said.
“We have to have somewhere to go with water. We can't flare it, we can't discharge it, obviously without treating it,” Hussey said. “The shallow disposal, five years ago we wanted to get away from it, and now we're having to go back to it, which means the future is going to look like a combination of reuse[able energy] and oil and gas of disposal and beneficial reuse, whatever that entails, whether it's potable, non potable, use[d] in ag, golf courses, etc.”
Rob Bruant, director of product at B3 Insight, said there had been a downturn in seismic activity associated with the Gardendale Seismic Response Area (SRA) that covers Andrews, Ector, Martin and Midland counties in Texas when deep disposal was curtailed in certain portions of the SRA and shallow disposal was restricted in those same areas. The changes had been put in place due to ongoing earthquakes in the areas.
“Gardendale seemed like it was kind of on the path to success,” he said. “The frequency, the magnitude of earthquake events really seemed to start to go down as these restrictions were put in place.”
Then came the 5.4 magnitude earthquake in December 2022 that was “completely out of the blue,” he said.
“We understand there's always going to be a lag here in terms of reduction in disposal and the seismic activity that's influenced by them,” Bruant said.
“We have to have somewhere to go with water. We can't flare it, we can't discharge it, obviously without treating it.” – Tyler Hussey, Apache Corp.
Rick McCurdy, vice president for innovation and sustainability at Select Energy Services, said it’s critical that the industry has somewhere to send produced water if disposal ceases to be an option.
“If we lose that capacity and we can't find a place to put that water, whether through some external method or through more reuse opportunities, production's going to change somewhere,” he said.