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Fracked wells in West Texas don’t just produce petroleum. Much more than anything else, they spit up salty, mucky water.
Typically, companies have discarded that fluid, hundreds of millions of gallons per day, by injecting it back underground, occasionally causing small earthquakes. But as water becomes more scarce, they’re beginning to reconsider.
For now, hydraulic fracturing in arid West Texas uses large amounts of fresh aquifer water to crack open subterranean shales, unleashing a mixture of oil, gas and fossil brine 10 times as salty as the sea.
Increasingly, frackers are starting to reuse that brine, easing their burden on aquifers.
“We’ve just month by month seen extraordinary growth in the volumes we are managing,” said Matthew Gabriel, CEO of XRI Holdings, which recycles oilfield wastewater in the Permian Basin, the nation’s top oil-producing region.
This month, XRI announced a 230-mile expansion to its existing 450-mile Permian pipeline network. Unlike other Permian pipelines, these carry water from oilfields to treatment plants and back, linking the major oil producers’ batteries of tanks. XRI, based in Houston, is also adding three more treatment plants to its existing 30.
Fracking doesn’t require particularly clean water and the treatment to prepare it is pretty simple, Gabriel said. It’s the pipeline network that makes it economical, providing the equivalent of oilfield plumbing to replace the laborious process of trucking in water and trucking out waste.
“You open a valve and you can have all the water you need,” Gabriel said. “I think we’re going to see enormous advances around this concept in the coming years.”
XRI currently manages 1 million barrels of wastewater per day and recycles 800,000 — a small portion of the total volume produced by Permian Basin oil fields.
Recently, Texas convened water experts for a state-funded study of recycling that so-called “produced water,” the term for wastewater from oil wells. Released this year, the Texas Produced Water Consortium report estimated Permian Basin wastewater production at approximately 11 million barrels, or 462 million gallons, per day in 2019, the last year of available data. Since then the figure has likely increased in step with soaring Permian oil and gas output.
In response to a survey by the Texas consortium, fracking companies on average said they were already reusing about 30% of their wastewater. Even if they satisfied 100% of their need with recycled water, they would still have millions of barrels of produced water left over every day.
Underground disposal remained a much cheaper option than reuse, it said, but might not be so for long.
“Scarcity conditions,” the 130-page report said, “will eventually make this an economically viable option.”
According to the latest Texas water plan, statewide water supplies will decrease by approximately 18% within 50 years, “primarily due to depletion of aquifers.”
“Without additional supplies … one-quarter of Texas’ population would have less than half of the municipal water supplies they will require in 2070,” the plan said.
"Managed depletion" of aquifers in West Texas
Fears hit especially hard in the state’s western desert and plains, where fracking is booming. Almost 80% of this vast region’s documented water demand is met by a complex collection of aquifers — colossal, subterranean formations that filled up over millions of years.
“We’re just planning to deplete it. It’s not like we’re conserving it. We’re just making the crash landing slow and somewhat tolerable,” said Jeff Bennett, a hydrogeologist in the West Texas town of Alpine who worked for 15 years for the National Park Service nearby.
Planners called it “managed depletion” — the intentional use of the resource to its end.
Such a fate awaits the Ogallala Aquifer, the nation’s largest underground body of water, which swoops into West Texas from the north, and for which the Texas Water Development Board calls “managed depletion” its “management strategy.”
Models suggest people are drawing from the Ogallala at 6.5 times its recharge rate, according to Robert Mace, executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos.
“It’s like a savings account. Your paycheck is $1,000 per month and you’re spending $6,500 per month,” he said. “You came in with some money from grandpa and that balance is just going down.”
The figures come from complex models informed by partial, self-reported water use records collected by a patchwork of groundwater districts. Where no districts exist, there are no permits or limits.
Atop the Pecos Valley Aquifer, which underlies much of the fracking heartland, five adjacent counties lack groundwater districts. In one of them, Winkler County, the TWDB expects aquifer levels to fall by up to 161 feet between 2010 and 2070.
“Nobody is managing it,” Mace said. “You pump whatever you want, you do whatever you want.”
He said models expect the Pecos Valley Aquifer to support demands through 2070, but not indefinitely.
“How did you go broke?” Mace said, paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
Of 883 active water wells registered with the TWDB on the Pecos Valley Aquifer, 237 are for livestock, 209 for irrigation and 131 for public supply.
Another 146 are for industrial use. These wells may serve a variety of processes, from power generation to chemical refining. Many provide water for the fracking process, registered to owners including BP, Sinclair Oil & Gas, ExxonMobil and Gulf Oil Company.
Demand for fracking water has skyrocketed
It’s impossible to know exactly how many water wells are used for fracking or how much they pump because the Texas Water Code exempts oil and gas producers from reporting and permitting requirements.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated freshwater consumption for fracking in the Permian Basin of Texas grew by 2,400% between 2010 and 2019, to 72 billion gallons, approximately one-and-a-half times the amount of water used by the City of Austin that same year.
Fracking uses water — about 16 million gallons per well per year in the Permian — to break open underground shales that hold oil and gas, but mostly super-salty water, buried remnants of ancient oceans.
Freshwater goes down the well and more than twice its volume of brine comes back up, mixed with the hydrocarbons.
The Texas consortium report estimated that Permian wells produced 3.93 billion barrels (about 165 billion gallons) of fracking wastewater in 2019, a year when the whole basin (including parts of New Mexico) produced 1.4 billion barrels of oil.
Some of the water is reused in fracking, but the large majority is pumped underground and discarded. Planners have considered treating it to irrigate crops instead, which California does with wastewater that is much less salty and doesn’t include fracking fluids. But for now, that remains a high-tech ambition with the much dirtier Permian water.
"We're not even fully sure what's in it"
David Shifflett, 74, farms hay and pecans in Reeves County, where records from the Texas Railroad Commission — which oversees the oil and gas industry — show 557 disposal wells permitted in the last 10 years, including 44 in the last year.
On the roads near Shifflett’s home, a fleet of tanker trucks steadily ferries wastewater to the wells. The high-pressure injections have caused earthquakes, damaging Shifflet’s irrigation system. He supports the oil producers, he said, but he wants them to stop pumping waste underground.
“We have looked at getting that water and recycling it,” Shifflett said. “I’m very interested in doing that, but at present it’s just too expensive.”
Every spring and summer, he pumps 1,000 gallons per minute for two weeks per month onto 140 acres of pecan trees. And he pumps 10 days each month onto 150 acres of hay year-round.
Shifflett owns 11 wells. The freshwater beneath his land belongs to him by right. To irrigate, he pays only for construction, pumps and pipes. Adding high-tech treatment and transport from oilfields would multiply his costs many times over. The economics of groundwater are much better, for now.
“It’s going to be energy-intensive and expensive to treat this water,” said Dan Mueller, a senior manager at the Environmental Defense Fund and a member of the Texas Produced Water Consortium. “We’re not even fully sure what’s in it.”
Frackers mix into the water proprietary solutions with scores of known and unknown chemicals which still need to be identified before they can be dealt with, he said. Then treatment technologies will need to be developed and tested for those specific toxins.
For now, the consortium found, studies and pilot projects are needed before Permian produced water is proven safe for even nonedible crops like cotton. Making it cost-effective is a whole other challenge. Reuse as drinking water remains mostly out of the question.
“If you can use it for fracturing wells, then that’s the way to do it,” said Mueller, a civil engineer. “It’s the option of minimal treatment as opposed to very heavy treatment.”
Pipelines reduce cost of water reuse
Unlike farmers, oil producers can reuse their dirty effluent without intensive purification or health concerns over toxic constituents. The industry has identified the benefits of doing so.
“Not only does produced water recycle and reuse offset the need for fresh water for fracturing operations, treated produced water works better than fresh water,” read a 2019 white paper from the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. “Reuse is likely to increase as the midstream industry matures and injection capacity is unable to keep pace with production.”
Today, injection capacity, the amount of well space permitted for fluid disposal, continues to grow, although the rate is slowing. In 13 counties of the Permian Basin, records from the Texas Railroad Commission show 6,462 injection wells permitted in the last 10 years, including 344 in the last year.
The Texas consortium found underground disposal was the cheapest option for dealing with Permian produced water. It noted that costs fell 75% where pipeline infrastructure replaced truck transport.
Companies like XRI are trying to make the same change for treated reuse.“The market is so quickly changing,” he said. “We see quite frankly significant cost savings available to the customer with recycling.”
It took time for the pipe network to link up enough wastewater producers and reusers, he said. Now, customers can send off waste and draw new water from a system on site, no trucks involved.
In the end, the future of produced water reuse will depend on economics.
“It’s going to come down to the cost-benefit analysis,” said Perry Fowler, executive director of the Texas Water Infrastructure Network. “You have to reframe this discussion with regard to ensuring there are adequate water resources.”
“I would much rather, personally, see water being reused than going to injection wells,” he said.
Texas’ upcoming legislative session could yield action. Fowler suggested the state’s severance tax, which is paid by the oil sector, could be tapped to subsidize treatment costs and incentivize reuse.
Alex Ortiz, water resource specialist for the Sierra Club in Austin, said the state could mandate permits for water wells used in fracking, setting freshwater consumption limits designed to force reuse. But he’s not expecting it.
“It’s Texas. There’s going to be a carrot, not a stick,” Ortiz said.
For Ira Yates, the fourth-generation beneficiary of an 8,000-acre family oil lease in the West Texas town of Iraan, the future of the Permian Basin includes large-scale produced water reuse whether or not the Legislature opts to act.
“When people begin to see there is economic value in that dirty water, people are going to start claiming it,” said Yates, 71, a member of the Produced Water Society who now lives in Austin. “Today it’s a liability but it will end up being an asset.”
Despite the obvious water problems in West Texas, he said, there are few local voices advancing systemic sustainability. The rural region’s brightest students typically flee at the first chance they get, Yates said; those who remain end up too tied up making paychecks and supporting families to fight for reform.
He thinks authorities have two options: put money into produced water reuse now or wait until scarcity drives water prices high enough to attract private enterprise.
“We don’t have time for the free market to handle that challenge,” Yates said. “If we can land a rocket on a platform in the middle of the ocean, we can clean up water. It’s just a matter of cost and whether we’re willing to do it.”
Disclosure: The Environmental Defense Fund, Exxon Mobil Corporation and the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.