The new heart of the American energy landscape, the Permian and Delaware Basins, is an exciting place to be right now. Production wells are expanding rapidly across western Texas and eastern New Mexico, which has brought forth the promise of economical prosperity for the region and greater energy security for our nation. However, with this growing opportunity also comes an immense set of responsibilities, particularly with respect to environmental stewardship and the implementation of sustainable practices. A lot has been made about the seemingly thirsty process of production well stimulation, hydraulic fracturing, whereby large amounts of water are utilized to extract sequestered hydrocarbons from relatively impermeable subsurface strata. In the case of production wells in the arid Permian region, where lateral fractures have increased in length from 5,700 to 6,800 lateral feet on average, the median amount of water used to stimulate each lateral has increased to 12 million gallons. Water use has increased by more that 400% in the past few years, which is attributable to the favorable subsurface geology and the fact that there are multiple petroliferous strata in west Texas that are ‘stacked’ underground and can be stimulated sequentially.
Further to this point, unconventional wells in the Permian region generate approximately 3 times more wastewater (produced water) than oil . When considering the water requirements for well stimulation, in conjunction with the fact that more than 2 million barrels of oil are being produced each day in the Permian, it is easy to see that the effective management of fresh and produced water streams is paramount to the oil and gas industry.
What is the most sustainable way to manage these waters? Are there treatment technologies out there that can recycle produced oilfield waste so that we don’t have to use so much fresh water, and does this strategy makes sense on the balance sheet? Are there any legal liabilities? Our research has found that there are mutually inclusive environmental, financial, and litigative impetus for produced water reuse/recycling and that this relatively new paradigm shift in the shale energy sector makes sense on multiple fronts.