Water wars in the western US and around the world are predicted with increasing frequency as climate fears grow, debilitating droughts persist and human population growth climbs steadily higher. Concerns about fresh water supplies coming under pressure and the increasing cost of supplying fresh water to people, crops and livestock seem to grow more urgent every day. But mitigating technology is being funded and developed – by what may at first appear an unlikely source – the oil and gas industry.
Hydraulic fracturing – as its name suggests – is a water-intensive industrial process that requires increasing volumes as companies drill greater numbers of wells needed to maintain and increase production levels. At the same time, these often horizontal wells are being drilled with longer lateral sections and greater numbers of frack stages, as companies continually optimize drilling and completion techniques.
This means they need more water for their operations. Wells have been hydraulically fractured since the 1940’s, but most were vertical wells that required smaller volumes of water often obtained from local municipal water systems. The breakthrough marriage of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that allowed companies to economically extract hydrocarbons from thin layers of tight rock, like shale, greatly increased demand for water. A common approach today uses 90 barrels of water per minute at 9,000 pounds per square inch to frack a 7,000 to 8,000 foot lateral well section.
This massive increase in water demand has forced companies to invest billions of dollars developing new recycling, filtration and purification technologies. “I think all this water crisis stuff that you hear on the planet will be transformed by technologies the oil and gas industry is going to pay for the development of so that we can have water for our fracking jobs” Cal Cooper, Manager of Special Projects in the office of the CEO at Apache recently told the audience at the Manhattan Institute’s American Oil and Gas Renaissance conference in New York.
“And that will turn right around and make it possible to use groundwater and turn it into fresh water in very innovative and different ways from what we are doing now,” Cooper said.
Much of the “produced water” that comes back up the well bore after completing a well is contaminated – not only with fracking fluids – but with numerous naturally-occurring chemicals and compounds like salt, various sediments and sometimes even low-level radioactive material.
“So while many of my environmental friends are screaming that the oil and gas business is going to destroy the planet because there is not enough water, I think it’s just the opposite. I think the oil and gas business does nothing better than invest in technologies that make a difference, and wow, are we aligned that we need water in order to make hydraulic fracturing work? We’re going to have to find ways to use very impaired groundwater that could never be considered drinking water economically right now, we’re going to find ways to use that water, we’re going to find ways to clean it up and you all are going to be amazed. And humanity is going to look back 100 years and say ‘wow, if they hadn’t made that investment, who would have?’,” Cooper said.