[Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the March 2020 edition of E&P. Subscribe to the magazine here.] 

As the oil and gas industry continues to generate billions of barrels of wastewater, annual projections show these volumes will only increase. With limits of injection and water scarcity dominating headlines more than ever, state authorities and stakeholders are acknowledging the need to prevent water wastage—particularly in areas where it’s scarce—and taking necessary steps to treat and renew it for other purposes.

In May 2019, a study by the U.S. EPA concluded that if produced water could be treated to a level suitable for discharge, it could be very beneficial for agriculture, municipalities and other industries. In areas with higher drilling activity such as New Mexico and West Texas, which are also known for thriving agricultural industries, many scientists, companies and government agencies are studying how to treat and reuse produced water for farming. Currently, more than 90% of produced water is injected into disposal wells, while only a small percentage is being reused for irrigation.

Encore Green Environmental (EGE), a newly formed, Wyoming-based agriculture company, has designed a method that addresses the oil and gas industry’s wastewater dilemma as well as the region’s scarce water supplies for farming. Marvin Nash, who has several years of oilfield and agriculture experience, co-founded EGE in 2017 with his wife, Darlene Nash, to recycle produced water for irrigation.

“Water is a critical component of any agricultural operation. Our goal is to add a few inches of water for agriculture, while allowing oil and gas operators to continue production by disposing of the water at a competitive cost,” John Robitaille, president of EGE’s Wyoming operations, told E&P. “Management of produced water is not new to the oil and gas industry. We have seen many years of reinjection or burial of produced water in commercial pits. However, the awareness on environmental issues is increasing now and stakeholders are asking for better solutions.”

Robitaille pointed out that trucks carrying flowback and produced water are being blamed for high volumes of traffic, damage to infrastructure and increased air emissions. In addition, injection of water is a suspected cause of earthquakes in Oklahoma. Too much produced water is an obstacle for continued production of a well in certain areas of the country. He explained that if operators can change the focus of produced water from being a “waste” to a “resource,” they can successfully repurpose produced water for agriculture and conservation within environmental standards for the same cost that the energy industry is paying to inject or otherwise dispose of the water.

Water recycling process
To recycle wastewater, EGE developed the Conservation By-Design method, which was designed after studying the produced water in Wyoming’s coalbed methane play. The first step of the process is testing the soil near the oil well and using GPS to map the area that needs to be watered. The next step is testing the water to determine if its makeup matches the soil’s DNA for optimal vegetation growth. The soil requirements should match the quality of water needed to prevent any environmental damage.

As Robitaille explained, “Once the testing is done, we get permits from state authorities. Then the water treatment facility will be placed in close proximity to the well. After the initial water treatment, we will use our fail-safe system to test the water once again to ensure it meets the standards set by the regulating agencies and soil scientists. Once these steps are completed, only then will the water be applied to the ground.”

After the land is watered, soil monitors are used to measure temperature, moisture and other factors that could  potentially impact the quality of the soil. In addition, the water treatment process uses blockchain technology to continually monitor the water from the wellbore to the land it is applied to. The software also can record the number of wells in a section of land and how much oil and water they produce.

When land is watered, the enriched soil improves vegetation both above and below the surface, which removes carbon from the air through photosynthesis and also improves habitat. In addition, flare gas in certain projects can be used to power the water cleaning equipment, thereby finding a good use for the gas.

“Over the last few years, the relationship between landowners and E&P companies has become increasingly strained. The Conservation By-Design method will bring these two parties together, as the [oil and gas] industry gets their water disposed of for the same price or lesser than injection costs with an ongoing source of water for refracking, while the landowners can have access to a new source of water,” said Jeff Holder, general manager of EGE.

Concentrated solar power
In January EGE signed a memorandum of understanding with Wilson Farms based in Midkiff, Texas, in which both parties agreed to add a solar component to the water treatment method and use the recycled water to grow cotton. Cody Wilson, CEO of Wilson Farms and a fourth-generation farmer, has earmarked four sections of his land for applying the clean water.

Once the water has been processed using the Conservation By-Design method, concentrated solar power will be used to turn the water into steam to generate electricity. The steam from the concentrated solar power will then be condensed back into distilled water and clean enough for oilfield operations, conservation and agriculture.

According to a press release, this type of water treatment system offers numerous benefits such as reducing man made tremors associated with typical water injection, sequestering carbon through agriculture, capturing solar energy for electricity generation and increasing vegetative and wildlife growth. In addition, the process can generate profits for farmers as they can claim solar tax credit, while also collecting disposal fees from companies supplying the wastewater.

Recently, EGE received a one-time permit from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to use treated produced water from oilfield drilling for farming operations, marking a huge step in the company’s attempts to get the new method up and running. The permit allows the company to apply roughly 7,000 bbl of produced water to private farmland near Pine Bluffs, Wyo.

EGE also is holding active discussions with a number of companies and regulatory agencies in the Permian Basin. “Our action plan for New Mexico and Texas is the same as Wyoming—to bring all the stakeholders together, [including] the energy industry, landowners, regulators and environmentalists. Our project with Wilson Farms holds high potential of kick-starting work in the Permian,” Holder said.