Reusing Waste Water from Gas Wells

By John McFerrin

In recent years there has been a movement toward what is called “water reuse.”  The idea is that with the possibilities of drought and general water shortages, we need to start considering, as a source of useable water, the water that is now considered wastewater.  The result of this thinking would be a set of practices and technologies that will impact drinking water, energy, agriculture and industry throughout the nation. This approach seeks to convert a community’s own waste stream into a valuable resource.  Under this idea, there would no longer be such a thing as “wastewater.” There is only water that is wasted.  

The ideas come together in the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Reuse Action Plan (WRAP).  The Plan is not a regulation or a permit or anything that allows anybody to do anything or tells anybody they can’t do something.  Instead, it is the EPA’s effort to get companies, municipalities, citizens, etc. talking about this approach, sharing ideas, developing the technology, training the workers who would carry out the ideas, etc.  

The Environmental Protection Agency published a draft WRAP in 2019, accepted comments, and then published a final version in early 2020.  It is designed to be an ongoing process, with periodic updates and examinations of how the interested community is progressing toward water reuse. Scientific American had a blog post explaining the idea and giving examples of places it has been tried.  Reading it is a whole lot easier than slogging through the actual Plan.

One prolific user of water in West Virginia is the oil and gas drilling industry.  Those of us who live in areas where there is active drilling have seen the lines of water trucks delivering water to the well site. Nationally, water use per well can be anywhere from about 1.5 million gallons to about 16 million gallons, according to the United States Geological Survey.  Much of this water comes from freshwater sources.  

In fracking, the fresh water is mixed with chemical additives.  When it is pumped down the well it can pick up, among other things, bromide, calcium, chloride, magnesium, sulfate, and radioactive materials.  Once it is used for fracking, it is too dirty to be returned to fresh water sources.  Some of it is collected and used to frack additional wells.  For what cannot be reused, the industry’s disposal method of choice is to inject it into deep wells for disposal.

To someone committed to the idea of water reuse, the oil and gas industry is an anathema.  It takes perfectly clean and useable water, pollutes it, and then disposes of it deep underground.  It permanently disappears from the water cycle, never again to quench a thirst, support a fish, or do anything useful.  

Because such a result is what the Water Reuse Action Plan wants to avoid, the Plan addresses it.  To the planners’ disappointment, it does not yet have a way to solve the problems that oil and gas wastewater presents.

The overall tone of the WRAP is one of congenial cooperation.  It is supposed to be different entities who have a common interest in stretching our water supply by finding ways to turn what are now waste streams into useful sources of water.  On wastewater from oil and gas, the spirit of cooperation fell apart.  Some commenters thought it was possible, although they were vague on exactly how we would do it.  Some thought it was impossible and could never be made possible.  Still others thought that it might be possible but it would take a lot more research to even begin to figure out how to do it.

One big barrier to turning wastewater into something we could use is that, right now, we don’t know what is in it.  Fracking fluid is a mixture of mostly fresh water and chemical additives.  The additives differ from company to company and well to well.  Companies often consider their formula proprietary so it is not easy to know what is in the fluid.  In the course of fracking the water picks up different naturally occurring materials. When we do not know what is in the water, we cannot know how, or even if, we can clean it and what kind of tests we would have to use to determine if it was clean enough for use.

The Water Reuse Action Plan is supposed to be an ongoing process.  As things move ahead the participants may be able to solve the problems of what is in the water and how to test and treat it.  As part of the ongoing process, in May, 2020, the EPA published a summary of wastewater management practices for the oil and gas industry.  It pointed out that there was some limited reuse of oil and gas wastewater in arid western states where water is at a premium.  These practices faced the same technical problems of not knowing what is in the water that are present in the rest of the country.  As things stand now, however, there remain no widespread solutions to those problems.

Even if everyone who participates in the WRAP were to agree that reuse of oil and gas wastewater is possible, that does not mean that such reuse would happen.  The conclusions of the Plan would have to make their way into regulations and permitting standards before there would be any reuse of oil and gas wastewater.

How this Story Came About

       Shortly before the November, 2020, issue of The Highlands Voice was ready to go, long time member Marion Harless spotted a story in another publication which contained this paragraph:

Another of the many directives for the new interagency is implementing a water reuse plan. Oil and gas companies have supported one aspect of the plan that could allow them to dispose of briny, often chemical-laden oilfield wastewater on crops or in aquifers.

       With the possible exception of “Touchdown, Pitt!”, there is no phrase that will rile West Virginians more than “dispose of briny, often chemical-laden oilfield wastewater on crops or in aquifers.”  Unfortunately, the story did not elaborate.  This sent us on a quest to find out what was going on.

       The news event that sparked the story was an Executive Order from the President.  The Executive Order, in a nutshell, creates what it calls a Water Policy Committee (to be known as the Water Subcabinet), co-chaired by the Secretary of the Interior and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.  Through the actions of a host of agencies, the United States government makes an extraordinary amount of water policy. The Water Subcabinet is supposed to coordinate the activities of all these agencies who are setting water policy.  The Executive Order names several agencies and several initiatives that agencies are supposed to be working on that the Water Subcabinet is supposed to coordinate.  

       One of the initiatives is the Water Resources Action Plan (that’s WRAP, to those seeking to increase their acronym vocabulary).  It is an initiative by the Environmental Protection Agency which seeks ways to take water which is now disposed of as waste water and put it to productive use. 

       One big source of waste water is the oil and gas industry.  Because of this, the WRAP (see how that new acronym vocabulary is coming in handy) addresses how oil and gas waste water might be put to productive use.  The short answer is that it can’t, at least not with the current state of our knowledge. The accompanying story explains more.