Southwestern Energy (SWN) seeks to be a responsible steward of the environment wherever it operates. SWN topped 30 North American oil and gas producers for transparency in water and chemical management practices in the 2019 “Disclosing the Facts” report. The company attained its goal to be freshwater neutral in 2016 and has maintained this status every year since.

Freshwater neutral means that for every gallon of freshwater it uses in its operations, SWN offsets at least an equivalent amount through water conservation projects.

SWN’s freshwater neutral program begins with its own operations. The company manages its water usage, minimizing freshwater usage and sourcing as much water as reasonably possible from recycled and other sources. It recycles produced water safely and efficiently within completion activities.

Since 2014 SWN has completed 10 water conservation projects across several states where it was or is active. The total beneficial freshwater volume from these projects resulted in more than 9 billion gallons of freshwater returned or restored to environments supporting the company’s operations. SWN water projects have included stream channels and habitat restoration; river, lake, stream and floodplain improvements and revegetation; and wetland creation, irrigation optimization and aquatic habitat revitalization. SWN’s commitment to environmental water solutions has restored and rejuvenated water ecosystems, adding options for recreation, wildlife and economic development.

Program specifics
SWN’s water stewardship program focuses on four areas: water conservation, usage reduction, protection and innovation, which in turn support the company’s mission to develop, produce and supply responsible natural gas, NGLs and condensate for North America and the world.

One area of innovation in the company’s program is the search and use of alternative water sources. These are typically undesirable or brackish water types from other companies or communities. The efficient use of alternative water sources can be challenging, with complications around supply logistics, potential expenses for treatment and conditioning, variable quality, quantity and all-in economics.

Some advantages to being freshwater neutral include gains from recycling produced and/or brackish water, firm leverage against public dissent on regional water usage, positive differentiation and “goodwill” afforded by stakeholders and investors.

There are additional advantages to becoming freshwater neutral:
• Reduced dependence on freshwater resources;
• Counteraction to criticism about freshwater use in arid and drought-prone areas;
• Water conservation projects to help communities eager to improve natural water resources;
• Stronger community ties through working toward common goals with local leaders, academia, nongovernmental organizations and others;
• Positive “responsible” differentiation of products contracted to midstream companies; and
• Demonstrated environmental stewardship through actual, functioning water conservation projects.

The company also is certifying some of its wells through the Independent Energy Standards (IES) Corp.’s TrustWell Responsible Gas Ratings program, and it has achieved IES’ Gold-level TrustWell certification for a number of its wells. The certification is based on the company’s responsible management of and performance on methane emissions, leaks and spills, well integrity, risk management, freshwater stewardship, chemical management, community engagement and other factors.

In one example of establishing stronger ties with communities, the company recently partnered with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) in a multiyear investment project to restore the watershed of the Muddy Creek tributary of the Cheat River.

Acid mine drainage severely damaged Muddy Creek over time, polluting the Cheat River. The mining industry has historically flourished across West Virginia, but by the mid-1990s, two serious blowouts from abandoned coal mines near the town of Albright led to severe acid mine drainage contamination. Soon, aquatic life died off and the creek bed took on a yellow-orange tarnish where the tainted water flowed.

Though SWN obviously played no part in creating the acid mine drainage, SWN leadership signed on as sole private-industry partner on the WVDEP’s cleanup, made possible through a permit issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The T&T Water Treatment Facility receives water via a collection system funded by SWN. The site began full operations a year ago. The newly purified, pH-balanced water flows back into the Cheat River, diluting residual pollutants and restoring life to the entire watershed. Small brown trout are swimming there again and other aquatic life is returning. The successful joint project adds another batch of fresh clean water to the more than 9 billion gallons that the company has already restored to the environment since 2014.

Southwestern Energy
Acid mine drainage contamination of Muddy Creek over time led to the pollution of West Virginia’s Cheat River, resulting in the tarnishing of the creek bed with a yellow-orange tint (left). Cleanup of the creek (right) was made possible through a successful joint project between the state and SWN. (Source: Southwestern Energy)

Managing produced water, sourcing water
SWN is able to reuse produced water in its existing operations without requiring treatment. Effective produced water management is critical, especially in cases where reuse opportunities are limited due to logistical and operational constraints such as long distances or low activity levels.

SWN operations are focused in the Appalachian Basin, which provides a relatively surface water-rich area. The company uses surface water and reuse/recycle produced water to the extent possible—safe, practical and economical and generally does not use municipal treated wastewater as a source. Produced water is reused within its existing operations without requiring treatment, with water usage and management efforts focused primarily on production support and environmental protection. The economics in terms of reuse of produced water are centered on infield storage; efficient logistics and transportation; timely land agreements and permitting, if necessary; and compatibility of reuse with the frac blend and formation/ reservoir.

In summary, SWN is focused on continuing to make progress against its environmental goals and believes that careful and responsible water stewardship is key among achieving them.