PEARSALL — At a freshly-cleared 11-acre site, oil-field water flows from tank to tank. It starts off opaque and yellowish, heavy with salt, iron, manganese, calcium and residual oil.
But after about a day, it’s so clear a jar of it looks like tap water — and it’s clean enough to reuse in oil-field operations.
Water — and how it’s sourced — has been an increasingly hot topic in the oil patch. Drilling a well in the Eagle Ford Shale and other so-called “tight” formations requires several million gallons of water.
But Cobb & Associates, which recently opened a site just south of Pearsall, is among the companies cleaning up oil-field water and saying it can compete with the cost of pumping fresh water from a well. It uses a proprietary process that causes any solids in the water to coagulate, clumping together and falling to the bottom.
“We can take the salt water their wells are already producing and clean it up,” said Jeremy Roberts, yard manager with Cobb’s Pearsall location. “The technology is there. There’s virtually no reason for the oil companies to use all of the freshwater they’re pumping out of the ground.”
Drought concerns: Texas heading for major water shortage with limited oil field recycling
Hydraulic fracturing pumps a mix of water and chemicals at high pressure to break the shale. Then sand is added to the fluid in increasing amounts to hold open the fissures, letting oil and gas flow up the well to the surface.
Some frac water returns to the surface, although much of it is lost in the shale formation. And the rock itself often produces brackish water alongside oil and gas.
Operators have to get rid of all of that water, generally paying for it to be trucked to a disposal well and pumped deep underground.
Roberts said that it doesn’t make sense that operators are continually buying fresh water from rancher’s wells only to turn around and dispose of it. “We have this byproduct that we’re disposing of,” Roberts said. “And then we’re buying it on the other side.”
It’s impossible to say exactly how much freshwater versus brackish water or recycled water is being used in the oil field. Operators report total water usage in hydraulic fracturing to the website FracFocus.org, but not how the water is sourced. An Express-News analysis of that data showed that in 2012, Eagle Ford wells used around 14 billion gallons total of water.
A paper from Jean-Philippe Nicot, a research scientist at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology, estimates that in the Eagle Ford around 21 percent of the water used for oil and gas operations would have come from nonfreshwater sources: brackish aquifers that can’t be used for drinking, agriculture or livestock, or water that was recycled. The rest would come from freshwater sources.
But several companies are cleaning frac water and produced water in the Eagle Ford so that it can be reused, helping reduce some of the pressure on aquifers.
Others see effluent as a potential source. Bryan-based Alpha Reclaim Technologies LLC sells effluent water, which it purchases from a network of cities from Laredo to East Texas, and has a facility in Karnes City.
Energy Water Solutions has cleaned several hundred thousand gallons of frac water in La Salle County, and millions in other states. In most cases, that recycled water is used for the next frac job on the same ranch.
Late last year, Omni Water Solutions and Dow Water & Process Solutions, part of the Dow Chemical Co., announced that they had treated more than 245,000 barrels of flowback and produced water from Eagle Ford Shale hydraulic fracturing operations.
The companies have mobile water treatment units working with operators in Karnes and Gonzales counties.
Snehal Desai, global business director of Dow Water & Process Solutions, said that even though the energy industry uses a relatively small slice of the state’s water, the local impact in communities with a lot of oil and gas development can be significant.
“It ultimately is a local issue,” Desai said. “Even if it’s not a lot, it’s still meaningful to the people it’s near.”
Water reuse has been more widespread in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, a prolific gas field, because operators there have virtually no access to in-state disposal wells. In Texas, disposal wells are common and inexpensive to use, but Desai said that operators are getting innovative and creative in how they source water.
“Comparing Texas to any other part of the U.S., you could say there’s not as much recycling recover going on. But there’s an uptick in interest,” Desai said. “People are making the connection and talking about dealing with water in a place that doesn’t have a lot of it. Just getting rid of it is not okay.”
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