Oilfield innovators drawn to water

In August, Riggs Eckelberry flew into Aspen for a renewable energy conference, but perhaps surprisingly, his message concerned traditional energy development. He aimed to talk about his company’s algae-based system to help drillers clean up their water.

“They will save money, which to me is a pretty attractive case of win-win,” said Eckelberry, chief executive of OriginOil.

Water is indeed a major expense for drillers operating in the Wattenberg, Raton and other oil and gas fields in Colorado. In terms of total water consumption, drilling uses only a small fraction of the state’s water. But in some places, even that small quantity causes a steady procession of trucks lumbering along county roads.

Trucks are needed for two components of oil and gas extraction:

First, after drilling is completed, large volumes of water, sand and small amounts of chemicals are blasted into wells in an attempt to fracture the rock and expedite the escape of hydrocarbon molecules.

The volume of water needed for hydraulic fracturing varies. A well in the Piceance Basin, located in the Rifle-Meeker area of Colorado’s Western Slope, may have anywhere from five to 13 fracks, or stages, as drillers refer to them. That’s 1 million gallons of water altogether. Wells in other locations can require even more, 5 million to 8 million gallons. Drilling also results in produced water – native to the oil-and gas-bearing layers, typically 5,000 to 8,000 feet deep in the Piceance Basin. Over the wells’ lifetimes – typically 30 years or more – they can continue to produce water along with hydrocarbons. This produced water typically has elements such as arsenic, solids and, almost inevitably, salt.

Because flowback and produced water typically don’t meet clean water standards, they must be treated. That’s where Eckelberry’s company and dozens of other entrepreneurs come in.

Promises vs. Performance

“We have a limited effect on heavy metals, and we do nothing for salt water,” said Eckelberry. Still, he promises the process will save companies money.

But will it? Garage-tinkering entrepreneurs may inform drillers of their breakthroughs and “I listen to every one,” said one drilling company environmental officer last year.

But operators say performance rarely matches promise. “The vendors believe they have the solution, but when the solution is taken to the field, oil and gas operators say it always ends up being not as fast, not as cheap, not as robust as they really need,” says Russ Walker, a professor of environmental sciences at Colorado Mesa State University in Grand Junction.

WPX Energy uses a tiered approach to water treatment, currently drilling in the Piceance Basin and servicing 4,000 wells in Garfield and Rio Blanco counties. The company, which won the water management and drilling innovation award from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, needs almost no water from outside sources. Instead, it cleans produced water sufficient for use in fracking.

Wells produce 20,000 to 30,000 barrels daily, or 1.2 million gallons that WPX treats. The produced water tends to be high in hydrocarbons and solids such as sediment. The Piceance also has salt in the range of 11,000 to 19,000 parts per million. That compares with the 35,000 ppm of ocean water and depending on the geologic formation, can be even more brackish.

The company recycles water with what Tyler Bittner, WPX engineering team leader, describes as “pretty sophisticated treatment facilities.” All water emerging from the well bore, both flowback and produced water, is treated. Coagulants and polymer are used to alter the polarity of the solution and remove solids. Bacteria are introduced at another stage to digest hydrocarbons. That still leaves salt; however that’s not considered a bad thing if the water is to be used again for fracking. In fact, because of the element’s presence, a very low level of chemical additives is needed for fracking.

In this way, WPX avoids the need to draw water from the Colorado River or other sources for fracking. The company has water-sharing agreements with smaller operators in the Piceance as well, so they can use the water treated by Williams for their fracking operations.

“Being a larger operator and operating lots and lots of wells makes it more economical to invest in this large infrastructure, simply because of the volume,” says Bittner.

Bottom line

WPX still ends up with a surplus of water, which it pumps into two special injection wells. The injected water has been treated but still has high salt content, making it unsuitable for irrigation and other purposes.

As for the trucks, they’re mostly gone. In 2007, at the peak of the drilling boom in the Piceance, WPX – then called Williams Energy – had 300 truck trips daily in the field. The company invested in pipes linking the disparate wells and the two treatment facilities. This came at significant cost but reduced truck travel 95 percent and water-handling costs by 60 percent.

In the Wattenberg field north of Denver and other basins, the water story is different. In such places, more fresh water is drawn for drilling operations and alternative treatments are required. That’s why there’s still plenty of space for inventors. No matter how big or small the drilling company, they like to save money – and water costs money.