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

Over the past few years, water management has emerged as a critical component in shale development in places like the Permian Basin and the SCOOP/ STACK. But in the Appalachia, at least one operator identified early on the challenges that large amounts of produced water could present to unconventional production and put a plan in place to manage water challenges.

In 2004 Range Resources drilled the first discovery well in the Marcellus with the Renz #1 well in Washington County, Pa. Tony Gaudlip, vice president of operations planning for Range Resources, said the transition during that time from conventional to unconventional production resulted in stalled regulatory mandates.

“As the play got bigger and people recognized how big it could be, we recognized that water was going to be an issue, simply because of the magnitude,” Gaudlip said.

Just five years after the Renz #1 well was drilled, Range adopted large-scale water recycling in Pennsylvania and became the first company to achieve 100% water reuse, according to its 2018 Sustainability Report.

Similar to other operators in the Northeast, Range found water sources were prevalent and procuring water for fracturing jobs would not necessarily be a barrier. What would be a challenge, however, was disposing of the amount of water a gas well produces in the Appalachia.

“Disposal was recognized as an issue because there are no real disposal wells in Pennsylvania,” Gaudlip said. “You don’t have that option. Whereas in Texas you have 11,000 disposal wells. Here, at the time, you probably had three.”

In 2008 Range formed a group within its management structure to focus solely on water management.

“This is an unconventional gas play,” Gaudlip said. “We said, ‘Let’s look at this water from an unconventional viewpoint.’”

The result was Range’s water management group recognizing that it might be more beneficial to reuse it rather than send it to an injection well or a publically owned treatment facility where it would be reintroduced to waterways.

“Rather than pay to dispose of this water, why don’t we just reuse it?” Gaudlip said. “Let’s aggregate it like we would any water source and pump it downhole. We can get compatible friction reducers and see how it works. We just did a big pendulum swing from needing to source freshwater as our base fluid to reusing our produced water.”

What Range discovered with the take-all-comers approach to water procurement was that its wells performed just as well compared to its previous blends of freshwater. However, Range’s early water recycling methods resulted in their own challenges, specifically around logistics.

In 2014 Range again evaluated its water management operations and identified more opportunities for efficiencies, both in terms of cost and operations.

“Water was being trucked to a centralized treatment facility to be clarified, and then it was being trucked from there to an impoundment in the field,” Gaudlip said. “Then it was potentially being trucked to another frac job. It could have been moving one, two, three times. There’s a cost associated with that.”

Range’s in-house logistics and SCADA systems tracked every barrel of water running throughout the company’s operations as well as tank levels and where water was needed for a fracturing job. Eventually, the company eliminated a few steps and just delivered the flowback water directly to the next well site.

“There was only one movement,” Gaudlip said. “There are no treatment costs. You can see where your costs are being driven down because of that.”

Although the company recycles all of its produced water, it still needs to source additional water for its fracturing jobs. For that, Gaudlip said Range turns to the nearby Ohio River, from which it can get that water to its fracturing sites via an underground water pipeline network. He added that the amount of water drawn from the Ohio is “absolutely minimal” to the river’s flow rate.

“Our water use is nowhere near something that would impact downstream flow of the Ohio River,” he said.

In addition, Range created a water-sharing program with other operators in Pennsylvania, including measures that Gaudlip said help drive down costs and saved the company tens of millions of dollars.

“For our long-range plan, water operations and water infrastructure not only have a seat at the table, they have a voice in what we do,” he said. “We try to forecast every barrel that goes into a well and comes out of a well in every schedule we put together.”