Congressional panel hears of potential for produced water

Nick Snow
Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Oct. 4 -- Water produced with oil and gas can help relieve pressure on surface-water resources, witnesses told a US House Resources subcommittee hearing Sept. 26.

The three witnesses spoke in support of HR 5110, which Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) introduced on Apr. 10.

The bill would direct the interior secretary to identify obstacles to using more produced water. It also would authorize $5 million for three pilot plants in Colorado, California, and Arizona or Nevada to demonstrate ways in which produced water can be made suitable for other uses.

"Developing beneficial uses for produced water could reduce costs of oil and gas development while also easing demand for water by alleviating drought conditions in Colorado and the West and providing water for agriculture, industry, and other uses," Udall said at the hearing of the water and power subcommittee.

Witnesses agreed that more produced water could be used aboveground, but obstacles loom. They include the oil and gas industry's unfamiliarity with water marketing, produced water supply duration uncertainties, the relatively poor quality of produced water and need for extensive treatment, and Clean Water Act limits on the discharge of produced water to surface water in western states, according to David R. Stewart, a professional water engineer based in Fort Collins, Colo.

Other obstacles include fluctuating oil and gas prices and the resulting fluctuation of interest in water-recycling investments, identifying and minimizing risks of public exposure to produced water, and a wide difference between the desired pace of development by the water-recycling industry once the decision is made to proceed and the lower rate at which public water systems are built, he said in written testimony.

Stewart also noted that the oil and gas industry's focus of capital and talent on its core business and the relatively low value of water compared with oil and gas pose problems.

Potential benefits
Stewart said surface use of produced water can cut or eliminate costs associated with disposal and treatment and lower environmental risks. It also can improve the efficiency of thermal oil recovery, reduce the potential for reservoir damage from water reinjection and recirculation, and lower oil-field energy use.

The practice would boost water supplies in the US West and ease pressure on surface water resources, Stewart said.

David Templet, environment, health, and safety manager at Devon Energy Corp., Oklahoma City, said US onshore oil and gas operations generated about 18 billion bbl of produced water in 1995. Some of the water already irrigates land and waters livestock, he said.

He testified on behalf of the Domestic Petroleum Council, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, the US Oil & Gas Association, and the Colorado and New Mexico oil and gas associations.

Powder River potential
US produced water with the lowest concentration of total dissolved solids (less than 10,000 ppm) is found in the West, where water is a critical resource, he continued. "Energy operations in the Powder River basin in North-Central Wyoming produced approximately 1.4 million bbl of relatively good-quality water per day. A large volume of this water could be used for agricultural, ranching, and other purposes," he said in written testimony.

Templet suggested that wider use of produced water could benefit oil and gas producers and water consumers but added that water-treatment costs and inconsistent water-quality regulations among states make this difficult.

He said Section 3 of HR 5110 recognizes the need to identify these legal and regulatory problems. "The research conducted in response to this legislation needs to evaluate existing regulatory barriers for beneficial use, particularly with surface discharge under the Environmental Protection Agency's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System onshore permit programs," he said.

"Additionally, a number of the issues preventing or posing obstacles to the surface discharge of produced water are firmly within the arena of state agencies, current rule-making, and lawsuits," he continued.

Kevin Bliss, the Washington representative of the Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission, confirmed that states are the principal regulators of water produced in association with oil and gas and have more experience than any other entity.

"Research performed by the IOGCC and its member states documents the presence of produced water whose quality is compatible with irrigation," he said in written testimony. "Water of this quality dominates some oil and gas basins and is in the minority in others. Some of this water is useable in its native state. There are instances where some can be used for irrigation with minor changes to the way ranchers and farmers manage their crops. Treatment prior to field application benefits other sources."

An impediment to aboveground use of is its changing availability as oil and gas production changes, Bliss said. The bill would help connect producers, water-treatment companies, and irrigators, he added.

Two projects
Stewart cited two produced-water projects under way or nearly complete.

The first, near Wellington, Colo., will treat and sell produced water to increase the town's supply by up to 300%. A second, at San Ardo oil field near Monterey, Calif., could make 100,000 b/d of water available for agriculture, groundwater recharge for salt barrier intrusion, and environmental reclamation in addition to the 50,000 b/d the producer uses for steam injection.

Stewart also cited water produced with coalbed methane in the West. "This is a difficult water to dispose of due to its mineral content. Technologies have been developed to treat this water, but its beneficial use has not been researched or developed. Its potential uses include municipal augmentation of a new water resource, industrial and agricultural interests, and environmental enhancement through the creation of wetlands and in-stream flows," he said.

He said two federal agencies could help find ways to use produced water aboveground. The Bureau of Reclamation has experience removing salt from brackish water and has access to end users, while the US Geological Survey understands how produced water can be used and what water-quality technologies are necessary.

"In addition, there will be a need to prove to the energy industry that these technologies are feasible and will assist in the development of new energy resources," Stewart said.

Templet told the subcommittee, "Water treatment must compete with the lower-cost option of deep-well injection. While this is the most environmentally sound disposal method, it forgoes the opportunity to use millions of gallons of water as a resource."

Critical cost
Managing produced water can be critical to production economics. Templet pointed out. "Research that provides concise and comprehensive information on produced water and ways in which it can be managed can help operators, regulators, landowners and other stakeholders to be better informed and support management options that can lower production costs and protect, and even enhance, the environment," he said.

Bliss said the IOGCC expects by the end of 2006 to complete a national study with ALL Consulting LLC of Tulsa of managing produced water from conventional and unconventional onshore oil and gas exploration and production operations. The Department of Energy's National Energy Research Laboratory funded the study, which has identified uses for produced water that include agricultural irrigation, power generation, aquifer storage and recovery, enhanced oil recovery, surface discharge, and water for wildlife.

Bliss said the final handbook for the project is due by the end of October, and a produced-water analysis tool will be finished by the end of the year. The project's funding came through DOE's Office of Fossil Energy, for which there is no appropriation in the fiscal 2007 budget.

Contact Nick Snow at nsnow@cox.net.

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